From time to time I write an article on what my travels across the U.S. are teaching me. It has been awhile since I have shared my observations, so I thought I would pass on a few of the major trends I am seeing that I think will change the shape of things to come over the next couple of decades. Keep in mind that I am not including things I have written about before.
Mainline Christianity continues to flourish abroad and languish in the U.S. As a result, the U.S. is now definitely one of the major new mission fields in the eyes of the world. Although this may not sound new to you, consider the emergence of The Anglican Mission in America (AMIA). The Anglican Church throughout the world, and especially in Asia and Africa, is sponsoring and supporting financially the start up of Anglican churches in the U.S. They are doing this because of what they consider to be the malaise in which the Episcopal Church in the U.S. finds itself. This is an excerpt from their home page.
“For generations the United States and other nations in the ‘west’ sent missionaries, armed with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the far reaches of the globe. But the light that was once America has dimmed, as we find ourselves in a deep state of spiritual need and hunger, searching for true meaning and significance.”
Now whether you agree or not, something has radically changed in the eyes of our brothers and sisters around the world. They see the American Church at best adrift, and at worst, apostate. Could it be that the same could be happening to all U.S. denominations? However you answer the question, the fact remains that Protestantism in the U.S. is in a free fall. We are now one of the largest mission fields in the world.
What does this trend mean to church leaders in the U.S? We must think and act like missionaries. We must learn how to function as if in a foreign land where we have to learn new languages and new cultures. Almost everything with a European flavor or background is best eliminated.
Denominations are becoming a paradox not as easily put into a box as five years ago. A huge divergence is happening within them. On the one hand, many segments of every denomination I have seen are virtually dead with literally no hope of survival short of a resurrection, and we all know those do not happen every day. I expect to see these segments continue to dry up, fragment, fall apart, and drift even further away from their historic roots. A clear corollary is emerging – the farther a denomination moves from its historic roots, the faster it comes unraveled, and the more it contributes to the beginning of new associations and networks of churches and even new denominations. It does so by driving off some of its most talented people. If the trend continues, we will also begin to see some of the more thriving congregations leave their denominations due to what they consider to be apostasy. We will also see more and more pastors leave denominational structures for more permission giving environments.
On the other hand, I am seeing some significant stirring in various parts of just about every major denomination. Some leaders are simply saying “enough is enough” and are moving ahead, with or without the blessing of their denomination. More and more young Southern Baptist leaders are starting churches without Sunday School for adults. In its place they are developing small group systems that actually multiply. An example of this trend is Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi, Texas – a seven year old church plant with 3,500 in worship, with small groups as the primary ministry focus.
More and more evangelical Episcopal churches are looking for ways around liberal Bishops ( I won’t mention any names). One way to do this is by developing multiple sites so the church can control the appointment of the priest instead of the Bishop.
More and more United Methodist congregations have figured out how to work around the ill-fated short pastoral tenure syndrome and establish long-term effective pastorates.
More and more of the healthy segments of several denominations are networking with the healthy segments in other denominations in pursuit of a common kingdom mission that transcends their denominational differences. A marvelous example of this is the recent merger of the Angelus Temple in Los Angelos (International Church of the Foursquare Gospel) with the Dream Center (Assembly of God) under the leadership of Matthew Barnett. Two different denominations with one common mission.
What does this mean for denominational leaders? They had better wake up and begin to learn how to support these stirrings at the local and regional levels or they will continue to see their numbers evaporate.
A new breed of leader is emerging – Apostolic, charismatic, team based, “Kingdom Multipliers.” The leadership of these pastors reaches far beyond one local congregation and is augmented, supported, and implemented by a team with similar DNA. These leaders do not see their role to be pastoring or growing a church – their primary goal is to multiply the Kingdom. In pursuit of this goal, they are focusing on church planting, multiple sites, and farm systems to raise up future “Kingdom Multipliers” who can advance the Kingdom of God rather than just pastor churches.
This vision of this new breed of leaders is so big that they know the only way to achieve it is through teams. For those who have eyes to see, one of the myths of team based ministry that is clearly being dispelled is that team based ministries eliminate the need for strong leaders. No team rises above the leadership of its primary leaders.
An example of a “Kingdom Multiplier” is Bob Roberts at Northwoods Church in Keller, Texas. Over the past decade, Roberts has been instrumental in planting and assisting dozens of church plants in the U.S. and abroad through his “Glocal Net.” His passion for local and global church planting and training church planters is becoming legendary.
What does this mean to pastors of churches? It beckons most pastors to pray for a bigger vision than just being the pastor of a church. Jesus did not say “Go pastor a church.” Instead he said, “Go make disciples of all people groups.” The goal of Christianity was never merely taking care of congregations, but advancing the Kingdom of God throughout all of the world.
The Return of the Supernatural
At the very time mainline protestants have allowed Modernity to convince them to replace the supernatural with the rational, the world now is gravitating toward those churches that believe in miracles and allow room for the supernatural. I expect to see the decline of all forms of “rationalist religion” escalate.
What does this mean to church leaders? Two things. First, we must learn how to cope with spiritual warfare. Pastors in dying churches need to realize that turning a dying church around is more of a spiritual issue than they realized. Some of the reasons churches are dying has to do with evil deeds by evil people masquerading as Christians. Second, we must rediscover the power of prayer.
The Rise of the Local Church Seminary
I expect to see the decline in seminary enrollment in traditional seminaries escalate and by 2025 be replaced by the local church form of seminary. Already, many churches, like New Hope Christian Fellowship in Oahu, are developing their own, in-house seminary or Bible college. This form of seminary is much closer to that of the kind of training missionaries received in the first century – on-the-job training. Effective pastors need to learn a trade, not just become theologians. Praxis is more important than the pure cognitive learning of the classroom. This form of seminary is conducted more on the job than in the classroom. The training is done within the context of actual ministry rather than the sterility of the classroom.
What does this mean for those involved in seminary training? Attach your hopes to a thriving congregation rather than the sterile classroom and help students learn a trade through on-the-job training.
The Common Denominator
What is the common denominator in all of this? The farther any branch of Christianity moves from their historic roots, the faster they decline. Shouldn’t we be learning something from this six decade long descent into obsolescence? Christianity is not a liberal faith. When we try to make it so, we are simply complying with Modernities’ warped view of God. God simply will not honor a watered down verson of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
More Than A Guess
I think the litmus test for a faithful church in the near future will be how many churches has it planted? I feel this way because the more the first three centuries of Christianity dominate our thought, the more we will measure church life by what the church did during that time period. During that time period, church planting was the primary form of ministry. I’m convinced it will be again.
I wrote about this trend in my book Beyond The Box in which I list church planting among the five trends reshaping Christianity for at least the next three decades.
So, what are you waiting for? Read the signs of the times and jump on the wave before it inundates you.