The Kingdom of God and the Future of the Church

Rev. Dr. Dale Woods"The Kingdom of God and the Future of the Church" was the focus of recent discussions among leaders and followers within The Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC). Dr. Dale Woods of Presbyterian College was the keynote speaker at the 2011 Annual General Meeting of The Renewal Fellowship, held at St. Andrew's, Etobicoke ON in March. Dr. Woods warned us that the Christian community may present itself in radically different forms than those familiar to us. He highlighted three trends that help us reflect on the future: Global, Emergent, and Missional.

The Global Church: Dr Woods pointed out that while we see a decline in the church attendance/interest/growth in western nations, the church has strong growth in Korea, China, Africa, and Latin America. In a study of churches in South America, Donald Miller highlighted these keys to church growth:

  • visionary leadership with a humble expectation that God will act through His people;
  • passionate devotion to God through a deep spiritual life;
  • vision for transforming people in the world; and,
  • a spirit of expectancy.

Their focus of leadership is to train the people to do the work of ministry. Academic qualifications take second place to spiritual experience and a passion for Scripture. Growing churches need creativity, imagination, and faithfulness.

The Emergent Church is a new way of "being church" and of practicing Christianity. Supporters of the Emergent Church believe that the old model can't last, and no-one knows what the new one will look like — hence "Emergent" or "Emerging" Church. They compare the present church to pay phones — there are still some in use, but fewer and fewer people are using them. The new way, emergents argue, will not emphasize denominational distinctives but will embrace a more generous orthodoxy. The gospel today has become encrusted like a volcano — the crust that prevents the flow is dogma, bureaucracy, institutionalism, individualism, and consumerism. The Emergent Church looks for new ways for the gospel to break through. The church of the future will not be identified with a building, but will operate as an open source network more than a bureaucracy. It will need to be more open to the work of the Holy Spirit rather than dependent on methodologies and formulas.

The Missional Church distinguishes itself from the attractional church which seeks to draw people into church. The Missional Church says we need to listen to the culture. Supporters of the Missional Church say this is the church God wants for the world. The Missional Church emphasizes God at the centre of all activity. Two key questions are asked: "What is God doing in the world?" and "What does God want to do in His world?" Pastoral parishes ask, "How can we save the church?" But Missional churches ask, "How can we save the world?"

This is about spiritual and theological realities with profound consequences. Leonard Sweet argues that the future church will be EPIC: Experiential, Participatory, Image-oriented, and Connected. Leadership will need to be apostolic. Followers will need to have a deep sense of call by God.

Following Dr. Woods' presentation, three PCC leaders offered their views on a panel moderated by Calvin Brown, Executive Director, The Renewal Fellowship within the PCC.

The Panel members were Charles Fensham of Knox College, Jeremy Bellsmith, pastor of Burns Presbyterian Church (Ashburn ON), and Rick Fee, General Secretary of the Life and Mission Agency. Fensham began by saying that the future of the church is in the hands of God but in a secondary way — how we respond to God — we can also say the future depends on us. He quoted numerous times in the history of the church when renewal was necessary and God raised up strong new leaders. When we think of renewal we think also of the past. This affects theological colleges looking to train ministers for the future by reminding them that renewal comes through profoundly committed leaders — not just intellectually trained but people whose daily lives are shaped by their devotion and commitment to the mission of God. Fensham asserted that his heart is with the Missional Church. Where will we be in thirty years?

Jeremy Bellsmith, a new pastor, began by saying that in thirty years he would be retiring! He affirmed his desire to see the church become all she can be. He said, "I'm a dreamer. Dreams are a form of prayer to get us moving." He wants the church to be a people united in a common desire, to be a church deeply connected with God, with each other, and with their communities. We are called to diversity if we are to connect with our communities. Each congregation recognizes a mission calling unique to their setting. This may mean new worship forms and a new understanding of mission. This is the emphasis of the Emergent Church. As pastors, we need to "do" Ephesians 4 — train the people to do mission and think theologically in their lives. All of this happens in congregations. Jesus Christ and the mission He came to the world for is worth living for!

Rick Fee led with the quotation: "The church is the only institution that exists for the sake of serving its non-members." He noted that if we place an emphasis on the institution and the maintenance of that institution, we may be misleading ourselves and missing the mark. The issue is not decreasing membership and lack of people in the pews, it is our failure to recognize how our society has changed in seismic ways. Society has gone through major secularization and we have not yet learned how to be church in this society. Fee believes that we will learn, but we need to learn to speak the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a radically new culture. The work of the national church is to try to get resources to people in congregations struggling to comprehend what they should be doing, who feel they are caught in a hurricane, hiding in the basement as the hurricane is threatening to lift their house off the foundation. The national church tracks and reports on the progress of the hurricane. Congregations need help to get outside themselves to become engaged in society around them. Fee asserted his view that a Presbyterian renaissance will demand that we dig deep into the very core of our religion, re-experience it in the content of full modernity, and assume that nothing is too sacred to be questioned, reinterpreted, or modified. We need to be an open and collaborative church that depends on all its members — not just the leaders — to discern our faith. We need to grow up. We do find emptiness, but it's an emptiness that holds open the possibility for the divine to emerge. That is what the national office seeks to do — to engage all of us in working for that nothingness to determine where the PCC will be in thirty years' time.

The Renewal Day was challenging and hopeful — an important beginning in helping the church understand itself and focus on some questions that need addressing.

Calvin Brown, Retired Executive Director
The Renewal Fellowship