Everywhere we turn these days, people are talking about the church of the future — indeed, whether the church as we have known it in America even has a future. That is a valid concern and the fault is not God’s but ours. G.K. Chesterton nailed the problem squarely. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting,” he wrote. “It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Christian thinkers through the centuries have attempted to visualize this “ideal” church. Many thinkers today envision the ideal in terms of what they call the “missional church.” The church with a future, they tell us, will be missional in concept (how it sees itself) and in purpose (how it sees its task). I believe that much of the missional church ideal is from God and that it has been his plan from the beginning. If I am right about that, the vision is true but not new. But what does a missional church look like anyway? And why does the church not look like that now? Let’s consider the second question first.
From Constantine in the 4th century until the Reformation in the 16th, Catholic Christianity dominated Western life and culture. For most of the next 500 years, Protestant Christianity exercised a prevailing influence over the public mind and heart throughout Europe, England and the United States. Yet in England or Western Europe today, where for centuries almost everyone considered themselves to be “Christian,” perhaps only 5-10 percent regularly attend weekly worship. Most of the 90-95% who do not attend view the church as an irrelevant relic from an earlier time. Although the U.S. is still far more religious than our neighbors across the Atlantic, this country is rapidly speeding in the same direction they have already gone. Scholars already describe our era as “post-Christian,” one of many results of a new philosophical and cultural reality which they label as “postmodern.”
The decline of cultural Christianity is not altogether bad. Since its beginning, the “Christendom” that once ruled victorious over Western society often resembled the world’s kingdoms more than it did the kingdom of God. From the second half of the church’s first century until Constantine legalized Christianity in A.D. 313, Roman authorities had sporadically persecuted the followers of Jesus. In A.D. 380, Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Suddenly Jesus became popular, the institutional church became wealthy and its leaders became powerful. Some would say that at that point the kingdom, power and glory moved from God to man and Christianity has not been the same since. The “victory” of Christianity through the decrees of Constantine and Theodosius might well have done as much harm as good. Just look at some of the results.
For many, formal sacraments became a substitute for personal faith. A bureaucratic church hierarchy gradually replaced widespread gifts of the Holy Spirit. Fine buildings drew attention away from Christian mission to the world. Religious professionals, specially educated and grandly titled, eventually supplanted the ministry of many “ordinary” believers who lacked worldly credentials but who walked with Jesus. The Reformation left much of this unchanged. Luther and Calvin replaced one powerful denomination with others but continued the public establishment and support of state churches, as did most of the American Colonies when they were first founded. With all this support, the church grew in both numbers and dollars. Many people looked at the church’s power and wealth as signs of its success. Others, with eyes more prophetic, looked at these same signs and recognized the marks of spiritual weakness. And the ideal church now being described as “missional” remained untried.