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
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
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,
These are the loyal people who love their church and want
to keep it going.
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
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;
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
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
So that leaves the experimentalists i.e., the liberals,
radicals, or whatever you want to call them – I’m using the term
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
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
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
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.
(Extract prepared by Walter Harrison on behalf of Rev. van