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“The Church of Tomorrow"
Micah 6:1-8
Anniversary Meditation
Rev Dr Garry van Bruchem June 21, 2009

Thank you for your kind invitation to come back to Deep River for this visit. It’s been a few months now since Paul Evans invited me to come to speak at a service to mark your anniversary. I was very glad to accept the invitation as I have many happy memories of my time in Deep River and am enjoying renewing old acquaintances.

Paul suggested the topic, “The Church of Tomorrow”. Virtually everyone who is involved in church leadership is thinking about the church’s future these days because the reality of it is, the church is in steep numerical decline. Recent studies show mainline church membership declining, current members aging, and current clergy retiring without sufficient replacement. It is clear that the church of tomorrow isn’t going to look like the church of yesterday, or the church of today, but can we predict what it will look like? In what kind of ministry will the church of tomorrow be engaged? How will the followers of Jesus continue the movement he began?

Making predictions about the future is risky, and those who do it are prone to making fools of themselves. One person who took the chance was Kirsopp Lake, a British theologian writing in 1925. He predicted that denominational distinctions that characterize the Christian church would soon become irrelevant. It was a shocking thing to say because ever since the reformation of the 16th century, denominational distinctions had defined the Christian Church. Denominational distinctions will disappear he said, because the Christian church will divide along other lines and those divisions will appear within all the denominations.

Lake saw three branches or divisions. By 1925 the Fundamentalist movement was already well established. It was a defensive reaction to modern biblical scholarship and it said ‘no’ to the modern view of the world. It insisted primarily on taking the bible literally on the things it says about Jesus, his virgin birth, bodily resurrection and on matters of sin and salvation, heaven and hell. Kirsopp Lake said that fundamentalists would make up one of the divisions in the Christian church and they would grow.

A second division was what he called the institutionalists; today we’d call them mainline, middle-of-the-road liberals. These are the loyal people who love their church and want to keep it going. Lake said that as time went on, there would be fewer of them.

The third division was what Lake called the ‘experimentalists’, and they get called by many names today, a common label being ‘progressives’. They’re the people who are striving to interpret traditional Christianity in ways that make sense to people in the modern world, and to address current issues from a Christian perspective. Progressive Christians believe in inter-faith dialogue, in interpreting religious experience in contemporary ways, and they are people who are not so much concerned about what you believe, as what your commitments are.

Kirsopp Lake said that these three distinctions; fundamentalist, institutionalist and experimentalist would run through every denomination. And then, in 1925, he made this further prediction: The fundamentalists will grow to dominate the church and they will absorb the institutionalists. The experimentalists (the progressives) will either become alienated or will be driven out and will therefore shrink and become a minority voice in the church. However, he said, fundamentalism will run its course, become sectarian and go into decline. The future of the Christian religion, he maintained, is therefore with the experimentalists.

Kirsopp Lake made his predications 84 years ago. Looking back it’s amazing how prescient he was. Especially in the U.S. and to a lesser extent in Canada, the fundamentalist mega-churches have been enormously successful in gaining members. However, in the past few years, it appears, the fundamentalist movement has fallen on hard times, at least in the US. This year Christine Wicker published a book called The Decline of the Evangelical Nation in which she shows how the mega church movement is in decline, losing political influence and not attracting the under 35 group. If she’s right, then we may be seeing Kirsopp Lake’s second prediction being fulfilled. Fundamentalism may already be on its way to the margins of Christianity.

So that leaves the experimentalists i.e., the liberals, radicals, or whatever you want to call them – I’m using the term ‘progressives’. The thing that most distinguishes progressive Christians is the way they see their mission. They’re not interested in preserving traditional beliefs as in the creeds. They’re not too concerned about falling into temptation and they’re not too worried about getting into heaven or staying out of hell. And they’re not counting on God to solve human problems. Progressive Christians are primarily concerned about the fate of the human race and about life on earth, and they see their mission as a ministry of engagement. Progressive Christians want to offer the heritage of the Christian tradition, mostly the wisdom of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus, to help inspire people to care about the fate of the human race and about life on earth.

Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel used to tell the story about when God gets up in the morning, God gathers the angels around and asks this simple question; “Where does my creation need mending today?” And then Rabbi Heschel would continue, “Theology consists of worrying about what God worries about when God gets up in the morning.” Progressive Christians see their mission as a ministry of engagement with those in the world who will worry about the things God is worrying about and then to work with them to bring justice and peace and to care for God’s creation.

Most of those writing about the future warn us that the next generation is going to face bigger challenges than any generation before them, things like: global warming, oil depletion, environmental destruction, population expansion, economic instability and on the list goes. Many of Jesus’ followers are seeing that these are the kinds of things God is worrying about now and they are seeing that their mission is to do what they can to bring some justice to those who need it; to express God’s compassion to whomever they can, and to engage with others in our collective walk with God on earth.

So although it’s hard to say what the church of tomorrow will look like, my guess is that we’re in for some of the biggest changes the church has seen since the reformation of the 16th century. In another 30 years national denominations may not exist the way they do today. Well, you’ve already shown that you can do quite nicely without them. And in many places, in another 30 years we may not have individual congregations, each with its own building and a minister trained in theology. There will probably be some cathedral-type churches in the larger centres but in many places Jesus’s followers may be meeting in homes and in rented spaces.

But as hard as it is to predict what shape the church of tomorrow will take, it’s not that hard to imagine that those who follow Jesus will be doing what God does in Rabbi Heschel’s parable. They will get up, look around and see where the world needs mending. Then they will continue the ministry of Jesus, doing what matters, doing what God requires, and seeing where that leads them.

During the time I was with you and since then, Community Church distinguished itself as a congregation that was outward looking and ready to engage with human need. You’ve let God’s spirit inspire and guide you through 63 years of your life together. You can be confident that you will find faithful ways to continue the ministry of Jesus, in tomorrow’s church. Amen.

(Extract prepared by Walter Harrison on behalf of Rev. van Bruchem.)

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Lasted Updated: April, 2017
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