Dr Brian Harris; Vose Principal

Towards a 21st Century Church: Four Assumptions to Challenge

Now that we are almost a fifth of the way through the twenty first century, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the church can no longer act as though it is still the twentieth century. People give various reasons for why significant change is needed – some of the more common contenders being that we now live in post-Christendom (and the church therefore no longer operates from a platform of privilege, nor can it assume that people have a basic understanding of the Christian faith); or that the postmodern turn in society has rendered everything relative, making the truth claims of the church seem arrogant and improbable; or that the churches loss of moral credibility makes her task in the world nigh impossible; or… well, you can add in the difficulty you have heard.

At heart, most of us know that the church is a long way from what she should be. The most oft quoted sentiment from my book The Big Picture is “I often have a sinking feeling that if Jesus were to revisit this planet, he would feel a need to birth something fairly different from the church as it currently exists. As I read the Gospels, I do not sense that the Jesus portrayed in its pages would sit calmly through the average church service and give a beaming affirmation at the end, ‘This is exactly what I had in mind.’” (Pg.xv). That is hard to dispute.

In his recently published (2019) and most excellent book Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World, Gil Rendle sets about challenging some assumptions about what will be required to lead the church in a changing world, and makes many astute comments. Though I am only loosely following his structure, I do want to acknowledge that his insights have helped shaped mine. Here is one telling quote from the book:

“…leaders are always asked to produce change – to make things different in their systems so that others will find a better future. But if asked for change, leaders will not be rewarded for the change produced, only for how well they keep things the same – following the known ways and the established rules so they don’t make people feel uncomfortable.” (Pg.12).

There’s a bit of an ouch in that – primarily because it is so often true.

What are four assumptions we might need to question as we rise to the challenges (and hopefulness) of the 21st century?

1) Don’t assume we need renewal, when we actually need transformation. Many of us remember a day when the church was larger and more influential. We think of programs that were effective and meaningful – and we wonder how we can get back there. We accept that some changes will be needed, but assume that they are essentially minor. We long for renewal. When you go through a process of renewal, you essentially hold on to the old structures, giving them a bit of a makeover, refreshing them for changing tastes and preferences, but in the end you are essentially renewing the old – allowing old patterns to determine the shape of new ones. The operating assumption is that the old way of doing things was essentially valid, and that with a bit of a facelift all will be well again. But often more radical change is needed – not renewal, but transformation. When things are transformed, they are simply not the same again. It is a different order of change. It is deep and profound change. It allows no sacred cows – all can be looked at and evaluated. No, it doesn’t mean that we are saying that everything from a previous era was misguided and inappropriate, but it does mean that we totally accept that the 1960’s are long gone and will not be coming back again…

Some things that have changed for the foreseeable future? The church operating from a position of power and privilege. The church being instinctively trusted. Denominations being viewed as valid. The Bible being assumed to be an ethical text. The churches voice in the public square being welcomed. And there are many more.

The implication of this? When planning for your churches future, ask: Are we looking for renewal – or are we willing to undergo a process of transformation. The latter is far, far, far more difficult, but in the longer term, is the one more likely to produce a dividend.

2) Don’t assume we are facing a problem, when we are actually dealing with a condition. By definition, problems are solvable, while conditions are things we learn to live with. If you break a leg, you have a problem – one which can usually be solved by the leg being appropriately set, time passing and a bit of help from the physiotherapist. If you have diabetes, you do not have a problem – you have a condition. It needs to be managed, and the type of diabetes you have will determine which management plan will be most effective. However, at this stage in history, you are not looking for a solution. The condition is not going to go away. With good management it might feel as though it has gone away – but violate the plan, and it will quickly remind you that it is still there.

Churches often act as though they are trying to solve problems, instead of living with conditions. You see this at multiple levels. Denominations often started as an attempt to solve a problem (other people are reading the Bible incorrectly, and our denomination will set them straight). But the issues over which Christians divided were not problems – they were conditions. You know what? You can make a credible case for Calvinism – just as you can for Arminianism. Though I am an egalitarian, I accept that when my complementarian friends present an alternate view they do so because this is not a problem to be solved. Depending on which hermeneutical principles we attach the greatest weight to, we arrive at different conclusions. Now that is something we must manage… and we must do so for the sake of the churches mission and witness in the world. Can we discuss and debate our different conclusions? Of course. Can we disparage and belittle those who reach a different conclusion to us? Only if we are managing the condition very poorly.

The examples I chose of conditions to manage has a very twentieth century ring to it. In the twenty first century the examples feel more emotional and as though more is at stake – but in reality it is just because the questions are not as familiar, and we are instinctively more alarmed by questions we have not seriously thought about before. Twenty first century questions are about sexual orientation, same sex marriage, gender, different ways of understanding the atonement, dramatic technological changes, the sacredness of human life, the nature of justice, ecological justice, global connectedness… There are so many and they are going to keep coming thick and fast. We can pretend that they are “problems” with clear and certain answers, and that therefore any dissenting voice is simply wrong, perhaps even worthy of the old H word – heretical. But these questions aren’t going to go away, and we can either furiously disparage those with alternate views, or view them as brothers and sisters who have come to a different conclusion. It is up to us whether we manage this condition creatively or destructively.

3) Don’t assume we know, when it is increasingly clear there is so much we do not know. Rendle notes that the fifteenth and sixteenth century was a period of rapid geographic exploration. He writes:

“For the first time in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mapmakers began to draw maps with intentional empty spaces. It was the first admission that they did not know what was out there… It unleashed the power of ‘we do not know’- the power of ignorance to lead to inquiry.”(P29).

The image of a map with many empty spaces is a useful one as we enter more deeply into the twenty first century. In a time of rapid social change, there is so much we do not know. The temptation will be to bunker down and to face every proposed change with fear and dread, refusing to actively contribute to the building of a better world. Far better to accept that there are many key things we do know – as well as many we do not. We know that God exists. We know that God is just. We know that God is creative. We know that God is loving. We know that God has met us in Jesus Christ. We know that the Spirit continues to guide the Church. We know that the Bible reveals the way that God has interacted with the human race over thousands of years – and that its stories and teaching give us all we need to face the future with confidence and creativity. We know that the Bible is the Spirit’s book. Working out how the Bible’s teaching relates to the new challenges faced will require us to listen, pray, observe, and reflect on the history of the church. It also invites us to creativity, courage and imagination – and we must rise to the invitation. Christians must not exclude themselves from the “table of ideas” by rushing to the ghetto rather than trusting in God’s love and care for the world. Jesus modelled incarnation – and the church must follow His example. We need to go out with some intentionally empty spaces – lest we answer before we have actually heard the questions. As we do so, we need to move out of our own echo chambers – those wonderfully reassuring places where we surround ourselves with people who think just as we do. If our thinking is not being challenged, we must listen to some additional voices, even if they are somewhat shrill and uncomfortable.

4) Don’t assume we are a community of faith if our structures don’t reflect God’s existence. This is a sad but important one. Christians aren’t atheists – but often live as though they are. Likewise churches are communities of faith – but often act as though they have no faith – their programs so tightly worked out and carefully funded that God’s involvement is essentially unnecessary (don’t worry God – we’ve got this. You can have the night off.) Beyond fairly superficial expressions of faith, it often seems as though we don’t expect God to act. We are functional atheists. In the era of Christendom the church had so much power that God’s help and support sometimes seemed optional. As we enter new and uncharted waters, with many intentionally empty spaces, we will need to rely on the goodness and grace of God with far greater intensity and seriousness. We will need to live as though God exists – and as we do, we will discover that God most assuredly is. That has to be a good thing – perhaps even a God thing.


To read more from Dr. Brian Harris, see what he has posted from his blog onto our website.