The face of the Church in our generation is changing. New styles of worship are emerging, a new sense of community is growing, and a new focus on justice is taking center stage. With so much transition and upheaval, charting a clear course can be difficult. For guidance, RELEVANT asked seven core leaders of faith their take on the future of Christianity.
What trends in church and worship styles do you see? Are they positive or negative?
Mark Driscoll: I’ll be happy when we have more than just prom songs to Jesus sung by some effeminate guy on an acoustic guitar offered as mainstream worship music. Right now most worship music is still coming from the top down through such things as Christian radio and record labels. But the trend today in a lot of churches is writing your own music to reflect your culture and community, and I pray this trend of music from the bottom up continues.
This story originally ran in issue 24 of RELEVANT.
Frederica Mathewes-Green: As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I’m glad to see communities digging into the treasures of the ancient church, particularly in terms of seeking beauty. The less we try to make worship like an evening in the family room, the more we make it something directed beyond our familiar experience—bringing us to the God of beauty, awe and mystery—the better. My personal hunch is that this is more attractive to seekers, too. The negative, I think, is a consumerist attitude, in which worship leaders shop for the elements they find most appealing, rather than joining the ancient community and seeking to understand something beyond their limited experience. Consumerism feels like “being true to myself” or “choosing what rings true to me,” but it’s actually isolated, lonely, myopic and culture-bound.
Rob Bell: I believe that the old polarities are fading. More and more people understand that traditional and contemporary are simply irrelevant ways to talk about things. What changed the world in times past? Let’s look at that. Let’s look at historic movements. Let’s look at periods of great transition. Handel’s Messiah is an unbelievable piece of music. I wouldn’t think to call Handel a Christian composer. He’s a composer.
Erwin McManus: What do we mean by worship styles? Why do we still equate singing and even what we are doing on Sunday with the whole of worship? There is something powerful about singing to God as an act of worship, but it is time to reframe our perspective and our language to genuinely encompass all of life
What is a negative tendency of this generation as it relates to the faith?
Mark Driscoll: This generation can be a whiny bunch of idealists getting together in small groups to complain about megachurches and the religious right rather than doing something.
Lauren Winner: Our failure to tithe. I hear all the time: “I just can’t afford to give right now.” I hear that from my middle-class American peers. I wonder, if we “can’t afford” to give now, why not? And if we “can’t afford” to give now, when will we be able to afford to give? I know of nothing that will transform someone’s spiritual life more abruptly than beginning to tithe. If we want to learn about dependence on God, tithe. If we want to have our treasure in heaven, tithe. If we want to have any hope of having solidarity with the poor, tithe.
Efrem Smith: I’m very concerned about the continual influence of consumerism Christianity and a Christianity that is very self-centered. Even in some of the social justice initiatives that I see, I wonder at times if it’s really about social change and kingdom advancement or if it’s about the sense of accomplishment and adventure one gets from the experience. Christian television (even with its good side) seems to push consumerism, capitalism and individualism. It’s not that these traits are so sinful as much as it limits the Gospel message and keeps us from kingdom community and reconciliation.
What positive tendency do you see in this generation?
Mark Driscoll: I see a resurging interest in culture and viewing the United States as a mission field, which are very encouraging trends and desperately needed.
Lauren Winner: I look around me and see people willing to name and sit with doubt. I see people taking seriously our charge to steward the earth. I see people questioning culturally specific gender roles that have been, in an earlier generation, presented as holy writ. I see people who sense that the Gospel is not a call to compartmentalization, but a call to love that encompasses all of our life. I am privileged to visit a lot of Christian colleges. I always leave completely encouraged about the future of the Church. The faculty I meet are so committed to their work. The students always ask such keen questions and are clearly seeking after faithfulness. If you want to be encouraged, go hang out at a Christian college for a few days.
Efrem Smith: I’m so excited to see this generation dealing with the historic divide in terms of race as well as the social gospel church versus the evangelical church. I believe this generation is less tolerant of the kinds of division across race, class and place that generations before them have become comfortable with. I believe this generation wants something beyond the homogenous church.
Erwin McManus: I think we are all trying to figure out what it means to be the Church as opposed to just doing church.
What do you see as the greatest challenge for young Christians in the next 10 years?
Rick Warren: The greatest challenge young Christians will face in the next 10 years will be leading the Church through a new reformation that is being swept in through the Spirit of God. The first reformation was about what we believe, but this new reformation will be about behavior. It will be about the Church—individually and congregationally—becoming more than just hearers of the Word: they will become doers of the Word. We will begin to consistently and continually act upon what we believe.
I believe your generation will be the one to complete this great reformation. It will be your unique calling and God-sized task. There is no doubt in my mind that you are the Reformation Generation. Leading the way in this great cause won’t be easy, but that’s the challenge before us, as my generation mentors and supports your generation to serve out God’s purposes in your lifetime.
Mark Driscoll: There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left. Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up. I fear some are becoming more cultural than Christian, and without a big Jesus who has authority and hates sin as revealed in the Bible, we will have less and less Christians, and more and more confused, spiritually self-righteous blogger critics of Christianity.
Frederica Mathewes-Green: I am afraid that every Christian is going to be increasingly challenged by violent Islam in ways that will be harder and harder to tacitly ignore. Ironically, much of what Islam hates about America are things that Christians ought to likewise resist: gluttonous consumption, recreational shopping, celebrity culture, trashing of the environment, the trivializing of sex, the sexualizing of children, the killing of unborn children, artificializing women’s bodies, depriving boys and men of a coherent and worthy identity, jingoism, any belief that being “American” takes precedence over membership in the body of Christ. If we are going to face the threat of death for what we believe (as Christians have been doing for 1,300 years in Africa, Asia and the Middle East), let it truly be for what we believe, and not for Angelina Jolie, the “4th Meal” and extra cupholders.
Rob Bell: The unbelievable amassing of wealth and consumer goods that we have at our fingertips in American culture. Our greatest challenge will be to learn how to move this into blessings for others, or we will continue to be more selfish and indifferent to the cries of the world. These insane amounts of goods that are at our service are not doing good things to our souls.
Lauren Winner: I suspect the next 10 years will be years of turmoil and hardship the globe over, and with that will come a surge in a certain kind of American patriotism. Therefore, American Christians will be challenged to remember where our true fealty lies. I’m not saying there’s no place for patriotism. But Christians are people whose first allegiance cannot be to a nation-state, not to any nation-state. Increased geopolitical tension may tempt us to forget that.
Erwin McManus: We know intuitively that getting bigger and bigger isn’t working. One trend I see is the rejection of growth for self-discovery and the pursuit of authentic community. So we keep whittling our spiritual community to a smaller and smaller and more exclusive inner circle. The problem is if the diagnoses are wrong, so will be the cure. We are moving from large and self-indulgent to small and self-indulgent. The problem isn’t size but value systems. If we keep asking the wrong questions, we are just going to get better wrong answers. The solution to lack of community isn’t to give up on the community.
How should Christians be involved in the political system?
Rob Bell: At our church we bring out the fact that the Gospel is obviously political, yet we are aggressively nonpartisan. We are interested in being a voice for those who have no voice. Too often the party line becomes, “If you’re a Christian, then of course you’re voting like us,” and that’s crazy. As the people of God, our postures should be aggressively nonpartisan and always veering toward the oppressed and the marginalized and those who have no voice, as opposed to the endless self-preservation and protection. In our city they’re shutting down community pools because they say there isn’t funding for it. So there are all these kids, especially in the urban center of Grand Rapids, who won’t be able to swim in the summer. We think that would piss Jesus off. For us it’s not right that on one side of town they’re building pools and on the other side of town they’re shutting them down. That’s an injustice. We think Jesus is about pools.
Lauren Winner: I have arguments with dear friends who didn’t vote in 2004 because they were so disgusted with all the options. I understood their disgust, but I was totally undone by their choice not to vote. My feeling is, we don’t have the luxury of not voting. American policy has a major impact on the whole world, and most of the world can’t vote in our elections. Those of us who can vote have, in my view, an obligation. I myself am an active Democrat. I don’t think the Democratic Party is perfect, and I don’t agree with every detail of the party platform, but the fact that a political party is not perfect does not exempt me from participating. This is, of course, larger than a question of just voting or participating in partisan politics. It is really a question of Christians participating in the civic sphere. Participating in the public sphere might mean using, and supporting, public libraries whose budgets are being slashed across the country. It might mean bringing Christian traditions of just war or pacifism to bear on American militarism. It might mean volunteering in your neighborhood public school, whether or not you have kids who go there. It might mean being committed to live in one place for a long time, for it is only when we live with some stability in one place that we have the opportunity to reckon with the long-term consequences of our individual and civic choices.
Efrem Smith: We should be involved in politics in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He never sold out to the Democrats or Republicans. He ticked them both off as he served as a prophetic voice. We must speak truth to power and advocate for the poor, the outcast, the sick and the unborn. The Church ought to be transforming government, not the other way around. I’m concerned as an evangelical that my church has traded in being prophetic for power and privilege.
How can a Christian fulfill a passion for social justice as a middle-class American?
Rick Warren: The Bible teaches that pursuing social justice isn’t an option for a follower of Jesus. We must care about what God cares about most—and that is bringing lost souls home to Him. But our ministry is to the whole person, not just his spiritual emptiness. Clearly, God cares about His creations—the billions of people He’s placed on this planet who now suffer at the hands of injustice, not only spiritual emptiness but also egocentric leadership, poverty, disease and inadequate education. You may not be able to personally make a difference for everyone, but you can make a difference for someone. You don’t have to travel far from a middle-class neighborhood to find and fight social injustice. In fact, you don’t even have to leave your neighborhood because, in this day and age, you can engage the sin of injustice no matter where you are. But here’s the other fact to consider: God created the Church so we would work collectively. In other words, you were never meant to take on social injustice alone. By joining your efforts with others in your congregation or small group, you’ll be surprised at all God can do!
Frederica Mathewes-Green: I am cautious about the self-label “I have a passion for social justice.” I think it gets in the way. It subtly feeds narcissism, judgmentalism and a temptation to excuse failings because, hey, I’m “passionate.” It also insinuates a belief that there are “us” and “the people we’re helping” as if that is two different categories. After the 2004 election I heard a pollster say, “We Democrats used to be the party of the poor. Now we’re the party that identifies with the poor.” That’s worth meditating on. I’d say, choose a cause that is deliberately uncool, just to be on the safe side.
Lauren Winner: In my town, there are many Christians who have said, “I can’t fulfill my Christian passion for social justice and be a middle-class American, so I’m forgoing the latter”—that is, in order to be in solidarity with the poor, they live below the poverty line. They are living the preferential option for the poor. The danger is that I see them and think, “Well, if I’m not willing to live below the poverty line, I just shouldn’t bother with social justice or solidarity for the poor at all.” I have to work against that temptation, which I think comes from Satan. Maybe one day I will live below the poverty line. At the moment, I don’t, and I am no less called to solidarity with the poor and to social justice than my brothers and sisters who do. Typically, middle-class Americans satisfy their desire to be social justice by devoting occasional Saturdays to some service project or writing a check to a good cause. Volunteering and writing checks are great, but they may not sufficiently impinge on our lives. What if we asked how our daily routine affects the poor? How shopping at stores with cheap prices but lousy labor policies, for example, contributes to the oppression of our neighbors? How each out-of-season piece of fruit we eat, shipped to us from around the globe at great environmental cost, furthers the disparity between our “footprint” and that of someone in the developing world? I find the opposite of quietism in the Jewish text Ethics of the Fathers, which says, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but nor are you exempt from beginning it.”
Where and how do you feel Christians can have the most impact on culture?
Mark Driscoll: Christians need to get upstream to have the influence to change what culture is made of. What I mean by that is, culture is like a river, and most Christians are a downstream bunch who tend to complain about the junk that flows down to them on TV, in movies, in politics. To change things, we need to stop just fishing junk out of the river of culture and get upstream where all the junk is being thrown in and sent downstream to the masses. The key is to get wise Christians upstream running record labels, TV stations, businesses and other places to be a force for good, like Joseph and Daniel.
Lauren Winner: Before Christians can think about having an impact on culture, we need to recognize that cultural artifacts suffuse our daily lives. The architecture of our neighborhoods, for example, is part of culture. The width of sidewalks and the presence (or lack thereof) of front porches are cultural artifacts, and they teach us to be and do a certain way. Our kids’ after-school schedules are cultural artifacts. Those after-school schedules simultaneously bespeak our values and teach us what to value.
Efrem Smith: By serving the least and the lost and not abandoning our inner cities. Inner-city subcultures such as hip-hop are having a major influence in the world. The Church can have a major impact by influencing the influencers at a grassroots level as well as having a more biblical and holistic agenda of justice. For too long we’ve allowed the two major political parties to divide the Church and limit our kingdom impact.
Erwin McManus: We are presently in a cultural tide pool: music, fashion, art, film, church. Culture is in an imitative frenzy. Imitation is good as long as it moves us to emulation, which should move us to innovation, which is where we begin to express and experience our uniqueness. It is time to risk and create the future. This is where we can have the greatest impact on culture. We can choose to create a compelling future. There is never simply one future being created. There are always competing futures at play. The ones that are most powerful and compelling become magnetic and create a force of human momentum. That’s how movements start. Someone decides there needs to be a tear in human history. The past as we have known it needs to come to a close, and a new future must be created. And isn’t this the ultimate calling of the Church: To create the future?
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