The Starving, Dying, Western Church
This generation has had it with the Sunday box church model. You know what I mean, the get up and go to a big box with a few hundred people in it, get ignored by everyone except the greeters, sing some songs, hear a message then leave model (bonus points if you join a small group!). Frankly, we just don’t care.
Why not? Because it all feels phony. We don’t experience God, we don’t get any of our actual needs met, and there is no authentic sense of belonging or family. Not to mention, we tend to like people who aren’t just white, straight Christians, and we know that they aren’t welcome in most of the churches in America.
So we leave.
We walk away from our roots, and we often walk away from the traditional church structure all together. We want a better world, and a church that is filled with what it promises. Can you blame us? This is part of why churches are dying, and if you still have a home church, your’s might die soon too. (read more on that here)
But this isn’t just Millennials. Divorcees, single moms and dads, pretty much anyone who doesn’t fit the church norms is experiencing the same struggle, and leaving. Plus, the “sinners” are no longer attracted to our box churches either, so churches can’t even rely on new converts to save them anymore.
Leaving to Where?
The problem is that we don’t want to leave, and we have nowhere to go. We all sense this need for movement towards a better way, but that better way is so hard to find that most of us just end up wandering, finding community wherever we can and secretly hoping that one day, maybe, we might find somewhere we belong again.
We’ve become a generation lost in migration.
Most pastors, denominations, religious organizations, just don’t get this. Like the Egyptians in Exodus the church is being bombarded with signs, but mostly just keeps defending it’s beliefs and holding onto it’s religious system as those it claims to protect die off by the thousands.
Old Wineskin, New Wineskin
When Jesus was here, he talked about how new wine can’t be poured into old wineskins, because the old skins would burst. We put old wine in old wineskins, and new wine in new wineskins.
Everything that is old was once new, and all that is new will soon become old. The church has evolved over the years, especially since the Jesus Movement. That movement marked a shift in how the systems work. It helped create new wineskins for new wine to be poured into, and the church thrived for a few more generations.
Here’s the thing though: Those new models from the 60s and 70s aren’t so new anymore. The “new wineskins” of the 80s and 90s are now old, and they are bursting every time the Migrating Generation touches them. It’s time for something new to contain the new wine God is pouring out.
Digitally Distilled Spirit
Those of us born in the 90’s on forward live in a digital, profoundly interconnected world. We were raised connected to endless information and limitless relational possibilities. We meet our romantic interests through dating apps and we use google to find a church. We follow our favorite speakers on social media and listen to podcasts more than pastors.
We live in a “new wineskin” world with old wineskin churches, but the Spirit is about to revolutionize the entire system.
God is leading his Church into the Age of Distilled Spirit (totally just made that term up. Clever, right?).
In John, Jesus uses the metaphor of making new wine to announce that he is bringing the world into a new age; a new system of being human, relating to God, and relating to each other. His new wine announced that the old religious system needed to change to house what God was doing next. In the same way, distilled spirits are the perfect metaphor for what God is doing with His Church on the earth today.
We keep saying churches are dying, but really they aren’t; they’re evaporating.
When distilling alcohol, you let the water evaporate out until what remains is a concentrated, purified substance. It’s like wine but twice as potent, and it will never go bad. It’s hearty, stable, pure, powerful. It is easily transportable and in many ways more valuable. It even has the potency to stamp out infections.
Many churches are mostly boxes filled with traditions. They are like watered down wine, carrying a hint of the spirit, but not enough to stay alive as they are. So their congregation evaporates. Eventually, the church itself is lost in the wind. However, the Spirit remains. The essence that was good and born of God in that place is not lost. It moves, and pools somewhere new with more of itself.
Every denomination, every church, every expression of the Christian faith carries some mix of the Spirit. As Jesus explains, even those that seem to us to be too outside our norms or not a part of our group are often in fact His people and doing His work (John 10:16, Mark 9:39). Jesus never loses what he has given life to, and he never abandons those in his fold (Hebrews 13:5, Luke 15). Even if a denomination completely evaporates, the parts of His Kingdom that God brought to the earth through that denomination are not lost; they are simply distilled and moved, adding potency to another part of His Church.
In the coming years many churches–even entire denominations–will seem to evaporate from the earth. The Great Distillation will change the landscape of Western Christianity as we know it.
As more and more churches evaporate, but their potency becomes more and more concentrated, beacon points will begin to emerge. Those following more traditional models of church won’t necessarily disappear, but instead will become “thin places” between a part of the Kingdom of Heaven and the earth. They will be easy to recognize, like lighthouses on the dark sea.
God has given each and every church a unique mandate to steward a piece of heaven that reveals His image, and to those that steward this gift well more will be given. The distilled Spirit from those churches that evaporate will flow into their doors, and their potency will increase. They will become like strong towers, safe and sacred places where the weary and thirsty can find drink and rest.
And this won’t be any one denomination or group. Across all Christian denominations, we will find distilled Beacon points, “lighthouses” stewarding what that house was uniquely given by God to share. There will be Baptist Lighthouses, Methodist Lighthouses, Catholic Lighthouses and Charismatic Lighthouses. God is faithful to complete every good work He has started, so we will not be throwing away any of it now.
Some will of course have to man these Lighthouses. They will continue to uphold, steward, and increase what that particular Lighthouse has been given. This won’t be the case for most of us though.
Christians were called from day one to go, to build, and to do. We were never called to hide in buildings on Sunday and to give money so others can go. All of us are called to love and live like Christ.
Rather than a continuation of denominational division and segregated Sunday Boxes, I believe we will see a new wave of organic networks.
Some have referred to this as the house church movement, and that isn’t far from accurate. Much like every other revolution that has happened in history, this Great Distillation will result in a decentralization of power. Communities will form around shared values, but they will not be rigid and religious as we have seen. They won’t all have the same weekly format or organized politics.
They will be loose networks–that meet in homes, parks, warehouses, wherever–built up of empowered equals who pursue the knowledge of God as one body. Churches need “members” and “clergy,” but Jesus has no need for these concepts. The Church of the future will be made up of friends.
We will still have experts and leaders, many of which will exist at these Lighthouses, but our day to day will be lived with a community of equals. We may still meet on Sundays, or Wednesdays, or whenever, but it won’t be about a once a week gathering, because we will stay connected to our networks across life, not just at gathering places. Yet, these lighthouses will provide sources of deep, distilled truth, which we can travel to and drink from. We’ll be both rooted, and pilgrims. Like thousands of ships one small ocean– enjoying the water, exploring one another’s vessels, and following the lighthouses.
Digital Friendly Flags
The reason these networks will be possible, and why they will work with a unity we’ve never seen before, is because they’ll be digitally connected. As each person traverses the ocean of spirituality, they will be able to turn to their digital compass to find direction, and their digital flags will show that they are all under one banner.
Our current system focuses on doctrinal beliefs, but this revolution will refocus us on relational beliefs. Belonging, empathy, compassion, unity, love, trust and hope. These will be the beliefs we die for, and they will bring us together.
Our ability to connect digitally to those different from us, to be in the “same boat” with people living in completely different cultures and continents, will both allow and foster this transition. We will no longer be unified by race, gender, or location, but instead we will be unified by our common citizenship of the Kingdom.
As the old way dies, something far better will be reborn.
If Real Hope Rising had a mission statement, this would be part of it somehow. Things are changing, and they’re meant to. Real Hope Rising is about being part of that. Jesus always chooses to love and to invite into His family; that’s how we do things here too. If this resonates with you, and you would like to have me or another member of this community share in person with a group you are a part of, please don’t hesitate to contact me here.
A book you might consider diving into that deals with the future of the church is The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. I’m not saying it is the gospel truth. In fact there is plenty in it that I don’t resonate with. However, it’s a great place to start, and a tremendous resource for small groups or to read with a friend. There are discussion questions, practical applications, and challenging perspectives. I promise you that if you let it, it will change you. Buy via the link just above, you’ll be supporting Real Hope Rising and all our community seeks to accomplish. ( I am an amazon affiliate. You can read more about that here.)