The last few months there’s been a proliferation of articles and podcasts focused on what the “future of the North American church” will be. This is a natural thing, I suppose. As leaders start thinking and planning for a life on the other side of a global pandemic (or at least that was the hope), we all start to take stock of what we’ve learned, where there are gaps and what we should do differently as we move into the future.
I mean, we even produced an ebook a little while ago called, 10 Church Predictions for the Next 10 Years.
But what’s emerged out of these more recent “think pieces” is a number of tactics for how the church can alter its’ course and reach people as we move into the future. It’s not my intention to point fingers, name names or start any kind of online bickering. But you don’t have get online for very long before these things start to pop up. You can find them.
Here’s what’s concerning:
These tactics don’t seem to wrestle with the fundamental issue at work in the North American church. They seem to propose that we use the same kind of operating system, but just do it slightly differently (and more digitally). But I’d argue that until we alter aspects of the operating system, the shift in tactics won’t really matter, because we’ll have the same problem on our hands…we just might have more of that same problem!
Specifically, I’m speaking to the widespread discipleship crisis we are facing.
If we can at least acknowledge there might be a problem, I think our next step is to do what Jesus said to do: Follow the fruit. And I think we’re largely seeing two kinds of fruit:
- There’s rotten fruit.
Take two minutes online and you’ll find your favorite social media platform on fire, littered with comments from “Christians” whose lives don’t seem to much resemble the character of Christ. We look every bit like people who have not been brought from death to life.
- There’s seedless fruit.
There are Christians whose lives are genuinely being transformed. Their lives are full of the fruit of the Spirit and man oh man, it would be a good thing if there were 100 more of them running around. But they aren’t reproducing more disciples. We need those people to go and make more disciples in their every day comings and goings!
It can feel sexy to talk about the “future of the church,” but at least to me, this feels a bit like a red herring…a distraction, to a certain degree. We need to really stare this problem in the face and own it. There’s a famous saying that goes something like this: “The best predictor of the future is the past.” What our past is showing is that even with new tactics, we’re only going to spread the crisis if we don’t address the fundamental operating system problems.
Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it’s getting. For us, broadly speaking, it means that our operating system as the church is perfectly set up to get rotten fruit and seedless fruit. (Which doesn’t mean we never get healthy fruit with orchard potential. We do! But the question is this: What are we most likely to get?)
I was once in a room with a small group of leader and we were having a discussion with Dallas Willard, just a few years before he passed away. He is one of the Christian thinkers and writers that’s had more influence on me than almost anyone. In that discussion, he said this: “Every church needs to be able to answer two questions: 1) What’s our plan for making disciples? 2) Does our plan work.”
Some churches have a plan. Some have imported someone else’s plan. But very few have a plan that’s working. (For more on this, we wrote an article on the 6 different discipleship strategies that churches use and the fatal flaw for each.)
Now it’s not like this is the first time in church history this has happened. Of course not! There is always hope, and it’s the responsibility of each generation to hold onto the gospel, and the fruit of the gospel, with fresh vigor and conviction. Last week, I was able to share about our Disciple Making Innovation Lab at the Exponential Ventures Future Church Initiative. What was so encouraging about this time was seeing how many of those pioneers were thinking through this operating system problem and addressing the discipleship crisis. So yes, there is hope!
I believe have an opportunity to really take stock of where things are at and make a wise, biblical, Spirit-led course correct. But this this isn’t something that can happen en masse. It needs to happen leader by leader, church by church.