The Church of the Future?

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We are living in EPIC times. To connect with postmoderns, the church will become more

Experiential
Participatory
Image-Driven
Communal
Leonard Sweet, Soul Tsunami, 185 ff. (1999).

I have often felt those who call themselves "futurists" struggle with incredible hubris. These folks claim that they can see into the future, and they write to help folks who cannot to "get ahead" of the business/ministry curve. I think most "futurists" are just as reliable as meteorologist's 15 day forecasts.

Yesterday I picked up an old book by a "futurist." As I re-read and pondered Leonard Sweet's book Soul Tsunami, I was impressed with his vision for the future. Writing in 1999 at the turn of the millennium, I think he nailed some important concepts for ministry that have marked the last 10 years. Perhaps it is because he is a church historian writing for the church! (I just love those guys!)

What I find most interesting is Sweet's EPIC prescription for how to reach out to a postmodern and technology driven culture. He claims that people in the past ten years would be experience driven. They would not want to be merely entertained (like the seeker-sensitive baby boomer churches were doing), but they would want to be part of something bigger. These folks would be greatly influenced by the use of images to communicate truth. Most importantly, they would live, breathe, determine truth and viability within community.

If more churches would have understood these ideas and put them into practice, our outreach to this generation would have been more effective.

I am well aware of the argument that the medium of communication can change the message. I took several classes with David Wells, the great herald warning of this truth. I do not think he would wish to claim me as a student, but I learned much from him.

I do not think that changing the medium of communication always means a compromise of the message of the gospel. In fact, I think the message of the gospel resonates well within the framework articulated by Sweet.

What would it take for your church to become more experiential? Perhaps a more engaging worship experience? Does this mean compromise? For so many, they like it the way it has always been, so there is not desire to change. We are all happy, so why cannot new people adjust to us?

To this objection I raise two points. First, do you think worship in heaven does not engage all the senses? I think worship in heaven is more than a mental activity. It engages every part of us (body, strength, heart, mind, and soul) as we are captured by the beauty of the God-head. Should not our worship here be a reflection of that worship?

Second, the church does not exist for itself. It exists to contain a community of believers who are constantly growing by adding new people into the community. This community grows deeper in grace and truth through discipleship, worships together to express praise and thankfulness to the Great God, and serves together to reach out to those not yet believers who God calls to faith.

As I see Sweet's observation, that takes care of EP and C. These marks of the church "work" in our postmodern culture not because they compromise, but because they understand and live out the gospel in community and worship.

What about image-driven? Here is where many could find fault with Sweet. Does not image-driven change the message from text and logic driven messages?

Maybe, but not necessarily.

Unfortunately, what many people know (or think they know) about the Church, the bible, and the gospel they learned from The Simpsons, Family Guy, and the TV news. In other words, our culture is spiritually and biblical illiterate. Like the pre-modern (read Enlightenment) church, images can help convey the gospel. The key is to make sure the gospel is always reinforced and that its message is central to the purpose of the images!

Does this mean that everyone will see these images in the same manner? Of course not. But, this does not change anything. I have been constantly amazed in my life how often my words, when clearly spoken, can be heard and interpreted far differently than I intended. When miscommunication occurs, we must humbly work to communicate again and again. I think the same process can and must be used for image-based communication.

So that takes care of the I in EPIC.

Now, I look in judgment on whether Sweet was correct. I believe fully he did understand our culture and where the church needed to head in the past 10 years. Those churches that followed this advice, have grown not merely from transfer, but in conversions. Those who have not are still looking for the silver bullet that will help them grow.

This post is getting long, so I will end with a question. What will be needed to change in our methods of outreach and ministry in the next 10 years? I don't know. I have some ideas. What do you think? 

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