The Road to the Future
February 26, 2010
John H. Armstrong
The Road to the Future
When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground.
-- C. S. Lewis
In chapter one I suggest that the church is moving through a significant time of transition, what I call “The Road to the Future.” Christians and non-Christians alike have even referred to this period of time as a second Reformation, or a fourth Great Awakening. This could be proven true but there is no way to know quite yet. What we do know is that globalization is a reality that is here to stay.
The Past Can Lead Us to the Future
I believe that the road to the future must run through the past. This is because the church is rooted in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his incarnation is part and parcel of a historical narrative. All Christians are vitally and mystically united with the incarnate Christ by the living power and person of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is not just an event, however, but something that involves each person of the Trinity working in the life of the whole redeemed community. This very real union that all Christians experience results in a story that we are all living out together in the present, a story that is established in both the historical events and traditions of Christianity. The modern story of our union with Christ and one another sometimes confuses us. Some of the historical parts may even embarrass us. If we actually knew our own Christian story well I believe some of our stories would trouble us, or at least they should. Nonetheless as the people of Christian faith this is “our” story if we are people of God. Why? Our faith is not found in my personal religious feelings or yours but rather in the historical and incarnational reality of a confessional, Christ-centered Christianity that happened in history and continues to go forward in history. Thus any kind of Christianity that refuses to come to grips with the past is not truly Christian. Instead it is a hyper-spiritual, oddly mystical, religion that borders, at times, on outright heresy. There is far more Gnosticism at work in some churches than most people realize. This hyper-spiritual approach cannot lead us to a better future. What is needed is a new kind of understanding, and thus a new kind of living, of our shared story.
The Scripture Is God’s Supreme Witness to Christ
The working premise of this book is that the Scripture bears supreme witness to the living Christ, who is the final revelation of God. Scripture is not about rules and life principles but about God. He is the supreme actor in the story. Thus a church that is rooted in the Great Tradition of historical, flesh-and-blood Christianity cannot on its own pick texts from the Bible, without listening to the living catholic church formed by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. The Christian church is flawed, sometimes deeply and profoundly so. But, we are still Christ’s church in the world.
All evidence indicates that the church in our day is coming together in a new expression of both diversity and unity. This is a time of worldwide transition. This is happening through the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst, reminding us that the church, though not always good, remains holy because it is the creation of God the Holy Spirit. Within this new expression of the supernatural reality of the church, a growing emphasis on mission and ecumenism is being powerfully joined together in the practice of ministries, missions and churches. My purpose in writing Your Church Is Too Small is to help you begin to recognize this connection and embrace the outcomes which such a vision will bring.
The American Mega-Shift Idea Has Gone Bad
I believe the church in the West will undergo significant shifts in the coming decades. These shifts will not be small. They will quite likely result in a response that will be inclined to radically rethink everything about the “way we do church” in the West. The likely outcome of this could be an even more confused understanding of the Christian faith. This could lead many to believe that virtually everything about the church must be rethought and restructured, as if structures were the important thing about the church. There are scores of books that already take this approach, arguing intensely about the modern and the post-modern condition in which we now live. Some readers might even see the title on the cover of this book and wonder: “Is this another book on how to grow a bigger and more culturally relevant church?” The answer is a resounding no.
I believe that much of the rethinking that is going on is confused because it does not understand the church in historical and biblical terms. It seeks for an ideal while it denies the human reality. What I advocate in this book is sometimes called critical-realism. This kind of thinking will involve a positive acceptance of the past that is carefully linked to a hopeful view about what God will do before the end of this present age. This critical-realism is also rooted in study of the scripture, the story of the historical church, the foundation laid down by the earliest Christian leaders, the early ecumenical creeds, and the rise of various movements of the Holy Spirit to renew the church throughout the past 2,000 years. This critical-realism will also hold before us the priority of the kingdom of God and the commitment of Christ to complete the work that he began with his disciples and now carries on through his church, all of it.
Rethinking the Nature of the Church
In this book I am going to ask you to rethink the nature of the church, not its performance. Many American Christians talk a great deal about the mega-shifts of our time thus they make the performance of the church the supreme thing to consider. But multitudes of American pragmatists have made the church a proverbial wax nose shaped by whoever has written the newest book or taught the best seminar on trends and techniques. The approach is to take endless polls, do fresh ministry/gift inventories and plan new vision statements and strategies for outreach. We are right to be weary of this, as it saps our souls dry after several go rounds. I am the product of this continual evangelical shifting of emphasis from one new thing to the next.
One evangelical theologian, who shares my deeply unsettled feelings about all of this, states this problem quite strikingly.
We intrude into what is not our business when, in our earnest pursuit of success in the church, which we think we can manufacture, we confuse its performance with its nature . . . the church is not our creation. It is not our business. We are not called upon to manage it. It is not there for us to advance our careers in it. It is not there for our own success. It is not a business. The church, in fact, was never our idea in the first place. No, it is not the church we need to rethink.
Rather, it is our thoughts about the church that need to be rethought. . . . The church, after all, is not under our management but under God’s sovereign care, and what he sees as health is very often rather different from what we imagine its health to be.
The church, let us remember, is called “the church of God” (Gal. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:9). Churches are “the churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16) because they are his, bought by his precious blood. . . . We need to ask ourselves how well or how badly, we are realizing our life in Christ in the church, how far and well churches stand as the outposts of the kingdom of God in our particular culture.
But do not misunderstand me. I am not pessimistic about the long range direction of the church for one primary reason—the church belongs to Christ.
What is God Doing in Our Time?
In our time the Spirit seems to be taking us through a transition in which the prayer of Jesus in John 17:20-24, for the unity and glory of his church, is being answered by the Father in fresh new ways. Surprising changes are happening that could signal even greater things to come. While earlier movements for a more visibly, unified church have failed in several important ways, some of the better elements of those twentieth century developments are now finding new expression in the twenty-first century, especially among evangelical Christians and Catholics. This is what truly interests me and will be continually discussed in this book. Where is the church discovering its true oneness and how is this new expression of oneness preparing the world to receive the gospel of the kingdom? Helping people understand all of this prepares them for what God will very likely be doing in the generations to come. This is also in line with what I read in both Ephesians 4 (unity in the Spirit) and Revelation 5 (the church’s final glorification). In all of this we do well to remember that God can accomplish in one day what seems to us will need years, or even centuries, to develop. I ask: “Is anything too hard for the Lord” (Gen. 18:14)? Could it be that we are closer to a movement that will result in a more relationally unified church than we’ve been for centuries? I hope so.
In trying to take the pulse of Christians and churches everywhere—through my reading, listening, traveling and teaching—I get to see something of the heart of God’s people in broad and general ways. In America I believe there is no massive change going on, at least not yet. But there is a gentle stirring among younger Christians, a stirring that is even felt by some in my own “baby-boom” generation.
In real places, where the church is really being the church, there is something happening among people who love Jesus and his kingdom and this appears to be much more than another passing fad. Christians and congregations are starting to experience something that has never before been known in American history, at least not in this way. Catholics and Protestants, more so in America than elsewhere, are learning to interact with one another in open and natural/supernatural ways. They are forming relationships that would not have been possible until the end of the last millennium. (I share stories of this in the book and will add to these on this Web site over the coming months.) Even within Eastern Orthodoxy, a church that very few American Christians know or understand, there are a growing number of people who are developing similar relationship with other Christians, though this is happening on a much smaller scale than those relationships between Catholics and Protestant evangelicals. This means that people in all three of the Great Traditions of the Christian faith are learning to truly love one another and they are finding out what unites them rather than only focusing on what divides them. I maintain that this can only be the work of God’s Spirit.
Whatever can be said about the failed plans for unity among the churches of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries (under the older forms of ecumenism), it cannot be said that this recent development is the work of the enemy since it is not his way for us to genuinely love one another in such simple and humble ways. There is no other good explanation for this reality except that believers are discovering together their ancient Christian faith and the work of the divine Trinity. By embracing our common roots we are also reconfirming that there is only “one body and one Spirit . . . [and] one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of us all, who is over all, and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).
City transformation movements are springing up all across America. In recent weeks I have heard of several major cities where churches are beginning to experience relational oneness in mission in ways previously un-imaginable. In my own area (Chicago) several such groups have sprung up since I finished writing this book in the summer of 2009. Churches that once thrived on a competitive spirit, drawing new members primarily from other area churches, are now saying, “Enough is enough!” They are praying and talking about how they can work as one community of churches to accomplish the mission of Christ in our area. I have prayed for this for forty years and only now am I seeing it happen before my very eyes.
Even the leaders of some of the largest churches of my region have been meeting in private for prayer and conversation for several years. These kinds of developments encourage me a great deal. This is a small thing in the big picture, or so it seems to us, but it is growing. I want to fan this new thing into a flame. And I want this book to be a catalyst for this movement of the Spirit for unity in Christ’s mission.
While I was writing my book, and doing final edits last summer, several other authors, unknown to me at the time, were writing or publishing similar books with similar vision. This again demonstrates that something is happening and no man can take credit for it. God is on the move, bringing people who love him together in the mission of his son Jesus Christ.
Why I Wrote This Book
I believe, especially in a North American context of our growing post-Christendom, that every day many Christians are discovering that they share a deep common faith that is much greater than their denominational differences. Whether we call this “mere Christianity” (C.S. Lewis) or “Deep Church” (Jim Belcher) it points to a common faith that is both historical and biblical. It does not pit the Bible against Christian tradition but seeks to find the roots of the living Christian tradition in the classical, historical expressions of Christian faith in all of its various communities of genuine faith. This faith has become deeper and more powerful than most of us could understand was even possible while we were busy indulging in the cultural luxury of opposing each other. Many are now learning to drink deeply from each other’s traditions, in a whole new way. This must lead us to a rejection of the various kinds of fundamentalism and schism that have driven Christians apart for far too long. (Fundamentalism and schism are found in all expressions of the church, not just in conservative Protestantism.) In this book I will relate parts of my own story, and more importantly the overarching big story, to this movement of the Spirit. I have been in the middle of this “big story” for several decades now, especially since 1995. I am convinced that what I have seen is real, not ephemeral or irrelevant.
Finally, please do not allow the title of this book to confuse you. I freely admit that I borrowed the idea for it from J. B. Phillip’s classic title: Your God Is Too Small. (I have always loved that title!) By saying that your (and my) church is too small I am not referring to its physical size or to the number of people who attend your church. And I am not talking about belonging to the largest church in the world, the Roman Catholic Church, though it will become abundantly clear that I am not an anti-Catholic in any sense. Indeed, you will draw a very different conclusion if you follow my thoughts carefully. My prayer is that Christians from all three of the Great Traditions will find fresh water and spiritual life in this book. What I am referring to in my title is our very human penchant for placing our small limitations on Christ’s great worldwide catholic church, limits that equate Christ’s one church with our own small views and personal spiritual realities. In doing this we have fostered a flawed image, and thus a very flawed human understanding, of the church. This image shrivels our hearts and minds and serves to hinder the great mission that Jesus gave to us. All of this results in what I mean by a “small church” mindset. And this way of thinking is prevalent in churches of all sizes, types and expressions. Please understand then that the “small church” I am referring to in my title is a mindset in believers that hinders the work of the Holy Spirit in mission and is contrary to the prayer of Jesus and the spirit of the entire New Testament.
My desire is to bring as many people as possible to my “big view” of the church. I believe this view will ultimately see Jesus Christ as the only head of the church, regardless of the various understandings of church governance employed today. Further, my hope is for you to adopt this “big” view of the church since it is clearly God’s purpose to show the world Christ’s life-changing grace through us, his redeemed people. As believers in Christ we are one with God and share in his divine nature, his eternal purpose and his infinite love. This communion with him, this sharing in his nature, is the real and eternal basis for our communion with one another.
A church marked by this “big view” will be one that is marked by a growing spirituality, a deepening faith and the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit. And it will be a church empowered by the joy that is our collective strength. This church—this living, vibrant and visible community of real people—will include all who know the Lord Jesus Christ in faith, hope and love.
 David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 222-23.