[The following post is from the Editor’s Foreword in the Mar-Apr 2010 issue of Net Results, North America’s most experienced church growth and evangelism magazine.]

The role of the church is changing, whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready for it or not, and whether we believe it or not. Back in the day, the church was the center of community life. I’m not old enough to remember that, but some readers might be. Back in my younger days, the church was a respected institution that had significant impact on society, but I’ve watched that respect and influence crumble around us. Today, by and large, the church is a cultural non-entity, and for most North Americans, the church is little more than a safe haven for yesterday’s yesterday.

Today, the worship service is still the central focus of the church. More of our time and effort is spent creating and developing meaningful content for the weekend service than on any other single task. And though most churches strive to create meaningful, participatory worship services, the actual experience tends to be more of a presentation to a passive audience.

Today’s teaching model for our worship services is a longstanding practice, and has been the primary role of the church since the Enlightenment. Tomorrow’s church will have to bridge the widening gap between “knowing” the truth (cognitive assent) and “practicing” the truth (behavioral modification). However, as Einstein pointed out, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In other words, continued preaching about how Christians need to behave isn’t going to close the gap between what we know and what we do.

Over the years, I’ve seen several solutions for helping believers become practicing disciples of Jesus batted about. Ultimately the answer will have to be more holistic than particular. The role of the church itself has to change from being a repository of doctrine to being a people and place that nurtures faith. The church must become an incubator of faith. 

Take a quick tour with me as we visit a weekend service in tomorrow’s church – in a faith incubator.

Stepping inside the church of tomorrow is like stepping into the presence of royalty on a good day. The spirit hovering in the worship center can only be described as a mixture of peace and excitement, kindness and warmth. Even the most sensitive empath is hard pressed to sense conflict in the air. Clearly, the congregation takes accountability and reconciliation seriously and disagreements are handled both agreeably and immediately.

As we look around, we notice that, like almost any church we’ve ever visited, there are numerous conversations going on here and there. However, on closer examination we watch a number of floating members who move from one person to another having conversations – some brief, some protracted. No one is overlooked by these hosts and kind words of welcome with genuine interest and concern are expressed. Perhaps what is most astounding is that during this informal gathering time, we witness people pausing to pray for one another in the midst of conversations. A hand on a shoulder; bowed heads; hushed pleas and quiet thanksgivings.

The worship service is significant in its interactivity. Throughout the service there is an instructional air, as if in a classroom. But it’s a different kind of classroom than those we have grown accustomed to in a church service. Instead, the teachings begin with the premise that all are striving to attain and maintain the most basic tenets of the faith. Nothing is presumed. Little is taught that can’t be directly applied. No lofty theologies that can’t be reflected in life-giving deeds and words that support and encourage. Interspersed within the teachings are opportunities for conversation and questions and even pushback. Indeed, it’s clear that there are guests who are exploring Christianity and are wresting with deism, syncretism, and pluralism, and their doubts, skepticisms, and even the occasional cynical expressions are taken in stride – as if this is not only expected, but welcomed as part of a process.

Question: What do you think tomorrow’s church should look like? What elements of common modern church services should remain, and what elements should be done away with? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.