Does the Future Have a Church?

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Political [or denominational] loyalties can never be as deep or as broad as the bond that unites believers in Christ.
MARK NOLL, The American Revolution

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is facing mighty challenges these days, even as our own young congregation is thriving. The disturbing, declining trends stand in juxtaposition to our own growth and vibrancy. For example, did you know that denominationally, we lose about 180,000 members a year, and between 2004 and 2005, we had a net loss of fifty-nine congregations? Because of a steady, forty-five-year decline, the Presbyterian Church is now just about half the size it was from the year I was born.

There are a number of reasons for these trends, and in fact, most denominations are singing some arrangement of the “Mainline Blues” these days. We are seeing more congregations close their doors because they have become too small to sustain their ministry, and we’re seeing more churches protest denominational decisions by cutting off their financial support or by making plans to altogether sever their ties to the larger body. Additionally, numerous “renewal organizations” are attempting to reform the mission and systems of the church. In short, denominational health, relevance, and loyalty are at an all-time low.

As you are probably aware, one of the interdenominational hot potato issues that we’re dealing with across the country involves discussion and dissension around the place of homosexual persons in the church, particularly in positions of leadership. Typically, it is this issue which gets cited or blamed as churches consider whether to stick with their respective denominations. It’s consuming an enormous, inordinate even, amount of energy and has become something of a line in the sand that threatens to divide the church.

From my perspective, if we’re talking about making relationship-ending decisions based on biblical morality, I can think of a lot of other deal-breaking issues besides sexual orientation that would top the list. There is, it seems to me, a disproportionate amount of energy preoccupying the church these days around issues of sexuality while all around us, people are, quite literally, dying. These are days that have some people anxiously asking, “Does the church have a future?” Personally, I think that’s the wrong question. The more important question is, “Does the future have a church?”

“Does the church have a future?” Personally, I think that’s the wrong question. The more important question is, “Does the future have a church?”

The analogy that comes to mind is the relationship between a church’s building and that church’s ministry. One way to think about a church building is like a museum: It is there to hold and preserve great traditions, art, truth, and memories. They are containers of archives, artifacts, and various records. In this scenario, people relate to the buildings by honoring, respecting, and taking care of them. As buildings age, a great deal of time and money can be spent maintaining and restoring them.

Another way to understand a church building is as an outpost for mission. Its purpose is to provide facilities for doing the work of God. The physical space of a church is merely an instrument for worship, education, fellowship, evangelism, and discipleship to help people assume and live out their baptismal identity—a distinctively missional, or “sent out” identity. The purpose is to serve people and glorify God, not to become servants to structures.

At Colbert, we tend to lean more toward the “mission outpost” rather than the “museum” end of the continuum. As a stewardship issue, it’s certainly important for us to care for our facilities, but it’s even more important for us to use them to fulfill our mission. I don’t expect this to happen in my lifetime, but at the point at which the buildings no longer serve the mission, they should either be sold or razed.

Denominations have the same function: They are institutional containers, providing structures and systems to assist congregations in doing mission. And when they no longer serve that function, they need to either adapt or disappear. There is nothing inherently valuable about either a building or a denomination when its form fails to serve its function.

It always makes me uneasy when I hear people say, “I love the Presbyterian Church,” a sentiment which strikes me as edging dangerously close to idolatry. Anytime a structure, whether it’s a building or an organization, displaces our primary allegiance to Christ, we run the risk of living vicariously through another entity and depersonalizing our faith in Jesus.

Anytime a structure, whether it’s a building or an organization, displaces our primary allegiance to Christ, we run the risk of living vicariously through another entity and depersonalizing our faith in Jesus.

Personally, and for what it’s worth, I can’t even muster a modicum of anxiety about the future of the church because I know the church has a future, one which is held firmly in God’s hands. My guess is that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is going to look significantly different a generation from now, if it exists at all, because sometimes denominations need to be remodeled, other times they need to be demolished. But whatever happens, whatever institutional evolution or deconstruction that takes place in the years ahead, I am confident that there will be a way for us to maintain faith in our Lord and sustain faithfulness to the mission to which he has called us.

That the Presbyterian Church, as we now know it, has a future is highly questionable. That the future has a church, inasmuch as it is God’s primary vessel for exhibiting the Kingdom of God, is indisputable. There are plenty of things worth losing sleep over. The church of the future isn’t one of them.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Eric


Eric Peterson
Eric Peterson

You’ve been reading from Letters to a Young Congregation with Eric Peterson, author of this title and Letters to a Young PastorLetters to a Young Pastor features a series of letters from Eugene Peterson, bestselling author and translator of The Message Bible, to Eric (his son) in which he reflects on pastoral ministry. Eric, in turn, writes a series of letters to his congregation, which are compiled in Letters to a Young Congregation. Follow the links to engage further or to read the first chapters for free.

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