By P.J. Oswald
As a card-carrying computer geek, I’m fascinated by the newest trends in technology. One of the biggest battles is between tech giants Google, Apple, and Microsoft, where each company feels an acute pressure to innovate. They must each convince us that their latest device is “future proof,” ready to meet every conceivable need and want for the rest of time. Well, at least until next year’s model arrives.
Future proofing? It is the process of anticipating what is to come, so you can minimize the possibility of failure, and maximize the potential for success.
Jesus encouraged Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church he was building (Mt 16:18). And yet it is difficult to characterize the North American church as “prevailing” in light of skyrocketing number of North Americans checking the “no religious affiliation” box. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves and the Lord how we can future proof our churches.
Here are few of my own answers to that question:
Focus on what is truly transcendent
In my city of Sacramento, the local “Coalition of Reason” gathers for meals, humanist and scientific teachings, giving money to like-minded causes, and volunteering time to serve needy folks in the city. That sounds to me like many church communities, only with a humanist twist.
So what makes the family of Christ any different? It’s the gospel: the great news that the God of the universe thinks that we prodigal kids are worth His affection, forgiveness, and even the sacrifice of His son, Jesus. This grace is astounding and nonsensical, and given regardless of our inability to make up for the damages we’ve caused. There is nothing like the gospel outside of the Church, and so our lives and church gatherings should then orbit around the unique power of the gospel.
Trim away layers of subculture that can hide the gospel
Many of the Church’s traditions are wonderful and meaningful . . . and often nonessential to the faith. Singing classic hymns may flood you with gratitude. However those same hymns may feel foreign and stodgy enough to your unchurched friend, so she bolts before she’s listened to a sermon. The well-dressed church community may suit up in their Sunday best out of reverence, but that unspoken dress code may unintentionally exclude those without the means to wear a tie, or take a shower. My point is not that these practices are bad, but that we should understand our surrounding community, and reduce the behavioral hoops for unchurched friends to jump through before they can begin following Jesus. If “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18), let’s not add to the challenges that face newcomers in experiencing that transforming word.
Build church communities on safe ground
Overemphasis on the church service as the core of church life has caused a preoccupation with buildings where those services can be conducted. In this way, church can become a weekend destination rather than a way of life. By finding ways to gather in our homes, pubs, parks, apartment complexes and “third places,” we show our neighbors that church is living as a family of Christ each day of the week. And by gathering in the neutral territory of our neighborhoods, our unchurched friends have less geographical distance to travel to join in.
Do the kind of good for which no one can fault you
“…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16)
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes a natural means of evangelism. The way that Jesus transforms our lives results in a new kind of behavior, and greater love for our Lord and neighbors. This includes “good works” that evidence real love and legitimate transformation, rather than earning salvation or self-worth: Co-signing on a friend’s loan, helping an unemployed friend develop interviewing skills, clothing and feeding a homeless fellow, adopting a refugee family that is new to your town (and country). The love we show by serving others is not for the sake of stroking our ego, or checking a “service” box off the list, but to worship the Lord and bring others to experience Him as they witness our transformed action. Even if those outside the Church don’t care for its theology, they can marvel at the ways we’ve served them.
I’d suggest then that future proofing the Church may not be so much about innovation, but about missiology that is built on love and knowledge of our Lord and our neighbors. It’s nothing new, but something timeless and true.
How can you contextualize this philosophy to fit your neighborhood?
How can your church remove obstacles on your neighbors’ travels into the arms of God?
P.J. Oswald is Director of Enrollment Management and Marketing at his alma mater, Western Seminary, where he also serves as an adjunct faculty member from time to time. He is an elder at the Mustard Seed Community, a home-based church family in the Sacramento, CA area that aims to “know God, live His mission, and transform our community”.