In her book The Great Emergence, the late author and theologian Phyllis Tickle identifies a pattern by which Christianity undergoes a massive upheaval every 500 years. Phyllis envisioned an emergent church movement resulting from this new reformation. We now know that is not the case. Still, some of her warnings hold true to what the church is currently experiencing. Phyllis went on to say that with time the church closes into itself, creating a hard shell difficult to penetrate. In other words, the church becomes encrusted. The work of the Spirit is to break through the outer shell to reveal a new beautiful flower blossoming within.
We are a little over 500 years since the last reformation. Could it be that God is again at work through the power of his Spirit, breaking through our outer shell to reveal a new work to be done? If this is the case, then what is this new work?
In conversations with pastors, theologians and lay leaders, I have sensed a deep concern for the state of the church in North America, aggravated by several factors including (but not limited by):
- pollical uncertainty and tensions south of the border
- increased secularization of Canadian society
- the ambiguous language presented in Bill C-4
- a stagnant mission
- a lukewarm approach to faith.
The Covid-19 outbreak forced churches to move services online. When they could return, limitations on capacity and vaccine mandates caused uncertainty and uneasiness. Data collected by Ed Stetzer would indicate that as much as one-third of attendees will not return to an in-person service. At the same time, another group has moved attendance elsewhere, creating what he calls “the Great Sort.”
Leaders are also experiencing a spiritual awakening: a sense that God is saying something to his Church that requires our attention. Here are six movements I am observing from my interactions with pastors:
We are moving from program to mission. Most churches have well-structured, self-perpetuating programs. This large machinery focuses the church on the effectiveness of programs (primarily evaluated by attendance). What if we considered our programs within the mission of the Church? Is it possible that a mission-effective church is leaner and less preoccupied with filling program vacancies?
A church focused on spiritual depth over presentation: If we are honest with ourselves, most of the energy gets funnelled towards the Sunday morning worship service experience. Light, sound, action, repeat—parts of our well choreographed and highly predictable service. Shorter sermons, more secular music and references, a lighter, less challenging biblical overview are now familiar to the Sunday service model. What about transformation? What about spiritual depth? What challenges us to be more like Christ? How are we experiencing God in our Gatherings?
A move from large to small: The grand cathedrals of Europe now sit mostly empty. Could that be the reality for North America in the next few decades? Pastors across many denominations are beginning to explore the micro-church concept. This movement calls the Church to redeploy its energy towards forming home-based churches. The idea isn’t new and is gaining traction. New resources are in place to train churches and leaders looking to move in this direction.
A move from compartmentalized to integrated: Many Christians see an individual’s church persona separate from their home or work persona. A more profound emphasis on discipleship would lead us to a more integrated life, where we would be effective witnesses at church, home and play.
It’s not what we know but what we must learn. For a good part of a century, the North American Church has initiated global mission. We have been teachers to the world on the behaviours of the Church. This behaviour can lead us to think that we know it all. As mission stagnates in North America, we see growth and revival in the Church in other parts of the world. Should we adopt a new posture of listening and learning? Can we stop teaching and become students of the global Church? This new posture will reignite our passion for God and his mission?
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:22) What are you hearing?