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Has The Church A Future?

 

This paper appeared as an article entitled “Has The Church A Future?”
in Horizons (Toronto, The Salvation Army, November, 1997).

 WILL THE 21ST CENTURY BE AN AGE OF CHRISTIAN REVIVAL?

 

I think so. Mainline liberal Christianity is declining rapidly. Having joined itself naively to the spirit of one era, it found itself bereft in the next. Theological liberalism assumed the world’s self-understanding to be true, and therefore adopted it as the starting point and controlling principle of Christian reflection. Eventually theological liberalism came to be seen for what it was: the world talking to itself about itself, albeit while deploying a Christian vocabulary. As a result the liberal churches have spent untold resources and energies mirroring what the world already knew — and often what it had tried, found wanting, and left behind as it moved on to other aspects of its ideational orbit.

The Christian revival will stand out starkly against the aforementioned in several respects.

* There will be a recovery of classical Christian foundations. The Incarnation, for instance, will be cherished anew as the underpinning of Christian faith and life. (The Word becoming flesh is qualitatively distinct from the Word becoming words.) In the same way the doctrine of the Trinity — who God is is known by what God does on our behalf and what God effects within us — will be honoured again as the matrix within which Christian existence and activity unfold, in accordance with the eternal being and creative activity of God.

* There will be a recovery of the meaning, burden and privilege of discipleship, as discipleship reflects afresh biblical convictions concerning service and sacrifice. Christian discipleship will be much more intentional, self-renouncing and self-forgetful. As Christians become an even smaller minority there will be added to them only those who are serious about imitatio Christi in a recalcitrant world. The church will consist of those who both identify and identify with the victimized, the marginalized, the voiceless, the defenceless — and more widely, with the creation’s frustration and self-contradiction. Sustained by the triumph of Jesus Christ over the powers of death, such discipleship will eschew any notion or display of triumphalism, knowing that the resurrected Lord still suffers (according to apostolic testimony), and being reminded every day that the society of the 21st century permits it no opportunity for triumphalism in any case.

* In light of the hunger for the transcendent, the mood and style of Christian worship will be increasingly charismatic. While it is impossible to be over-cerebral, it is certainly possible to be one-sidedly cerebral. This latter imbalance, rendering the church lop-sided for too long, will be redressed as community-life and personal devotion are re-equilibrated: head and heart, understanding and effusiveness, doctrine and dancing, ardour and affection. The worship, self-understanding, and service of the Christian community will be formed and informed, moved and driven by the “ballast” of the Catholic and Anglican tradition, the “sails” of Pentecostal exuberance, and the careful “charting” of Reformation conviction.

* As denominations disappear (they were often centuries-old imports from European political squabbles in any case), church-bureaucracies will collapse. A nineteenth century church leader (William Booth) was not without insight when he spoke of bureaucracy as “mediocrity in purple.” The autonomous church-community will see readily that mediocrity is an impediment, while purple is mediocrity’s face-saving disguise. Autonomous churches will be in touch with their constituency and their service-opportunities in ways that bureaucracies neither apprehended nor assisted.

Throughout history there have been fresh incursions of the Spirit of God and, called forth by such incursions, new manifestations of the people of God. While the 21st century will not see a replication of 19th and 20th churchmanship, it may indeed see a manifestation of the people of God in their unity, uniqueness (holiness), and catholicity — thanks to a fresh appropriation of the prophetic/apostolic testimony to the One whose victory means that his continuing vulnerability remains effective within a world that he refuses to abandon.

 

Victor Shepherd
September 1997