I spent this morning with a colleague working on the contours of a potential Doctor of Ministry program for Maryland pastors, and among other things, we discussed the future of pastoral ministry. For a few semesters, I've had the honor of teaching Pastoral Theology at a local seminary,and one of the units we cover relates to the task of leadership in emerging culture. As an introduction to this unit, I give the students a description of what the world will look like in the not-too-distant future. We look at shifts that are coming in the area of population, family dynamics, medicine, sexuality, environmental concerns, technology and religion, and then discuss how these shifts should affect the way we lead churches to make disciples in the future.
Once during this presentation, I had a young man come up to me after class and say "wow! I'm not sure I'm ready for this!"
How about you? Are you ready for ministry in the 21st century? What follows are nine scenarios that WILL take place in most churches within the next 20 years. It is likely that many of these have already taken place, and if pastors are going to lead well, and in a way that honors Jesus, they need to be ready for how to minister among the following:
Scenario One: A pastor is called to a church with the expectation that he will "help us reach the young families." Problem is, everyone in the church is over the age of 60, and more than 50% of the community within 10 minutes of the church is also in that age range.
By 2030, it is estimated that more than half of the U.S. population will be over the age of 50. This "graying" of America is presently going almost completely unnoticed by most churches, who tend to go after the prized "young families with children" category. Yet 80% of those over 50 live in a multi-housing situation ("55 and older" apartments, duplex communities, retirement and assisted living communities), and 98% of all multi-housing residents are without a relationship to Jesus. Are you keeping pace with the generational shifts that are taking place around your church, and how your church should respond to those shifts? In the future, if you really want to penetrate your community, chances are you won't be reaching that many "young people." Are you thinking through how this affects programming, staffing, facility usage?
Scenario Two: Multiple families visit the church who do not speak English, politely nod and smile, and never return.
By 2025, Hispanics will outnumber African Americans by 3 to 2, and will comprise approximately 40% of the U.S. population. Over a decade ago, Oscar Romo noted that America, "hardly the 'melting pot' described by history texts, has become a land marked more by diversity than homogeneity." In no area is this fact more clear than in the area of language. A guest speaker at our Association's annual meeting three years ago told me that he walked into one of our malls, ate lunch, and walked back to his car, and never during that time heard anyone speaking English. I responded by saying "welcome to central Maryland!" And this dynamic is eventually coming to nearly every part of the United States!
Is there an unreached pocket of people in your area for whom language is a barrier. God doesn't intend for linguistics to be a stumbling block to the cross. Are you capable of helping raise up ministries to help people from other nations who speak other languages to more easily assimilate? Conversely, are you willing to greet them in their own language and make them feel welcome?
Scenario Three: A married homosexual couple with three adopted children visit your church.
This is one of those issues when if you are a pastor, you need to go ahead and check all your political arguments at the door. What we believe society should or shouldn't do in this situation is of absolutely no consequence, because they are doing it anyway! The fact is that homosexual marriage is, well, a fact. Its true here in Maryland, in six other states, and is likely to be true nationwide in a very short time. Truth is, we live in a nation and culture in which our understanding of marriage has been devolving for decades.
Now that this is a reality, how will we minister to the parents and their children? How should our children's departments be equipped to minister to the kids? How are you equipping other couples in your church to interact with and minister to these precious souls? How can you uphold clear Biblical standards in love? How will you help these parents and their children navigate what it means to follow Jesus, and what implications that decision may have on family dynamics? Are you ready to admit that you don't even have all the answers to these questions, and walk slowly and in love with those who seek your counsel?
Scenario Four: A young person who has visited your church for a while repents of her sin and receives Jesus as Lord and Savior. As you prepare for her baptism, you discover through her testimony that she was born male, but had gender-reassignment surgery a few years ago.
Scripture has no category for an "androgynous Christian." There are Christian men, and Christian women, and the discipleship models spelled out for us in the New Testament tend to be described in conjunction with one's gender. Sometimes the church argues forcefully over the appropriate "role" of men and women in the life of the church. But regardless of what you believe on that issue, we can agree on this: The reason the argument is sometimes so intense is that we all recognize that gender identity matters!
Therefore, in a situation like this, you have someone created in God's image and likeness who has become a follower of Jesus, and how must now be discipled in accordance with her/his gender identity. Are you prepared for the Biblical, moral, psychological and bioethics questions that will necessarily be part of that conversation?
Scenario Five: More and more people, it seems, are asking you to perform funeral ceremonies for their pets. You have noticed over time that the grieving process for a family losing a pet, as well as the elements of the funeral itself (pictures, memorials, poems, etc.) indicate a much greater value on animals than in the past.
We are already witnessing attitudes in our culture that betray a gravitation towards increased "equalizing" of animals and humans, and too many in the church have bought into this idea. Are you prepared to lovingly confront the false idea that "all dogs go to heaven," and re-assert the essential distinction between human beings, who are created in God's own image and likeness, and pets, who are not? Are you ready for the backlash that is likely to come from supposed "mature" Christians for simply asserting the Biblical truth that their pet doesn't possess an eternal soul? Are you ready to point your people to the serious theological implications of believing otherwise? (Did Jesus really die for a DOG? Seriously?!)
Scenario Six: Because of growth, your church starts a "video venue," and begins live-streaming worship and sermons via the internet. You notice that you have a growing "online" audience, many of whom log in every Sunday, and who financially support the ministry. Through connections with these people on social media you discover that, although they may live hundreds or even thousands of miles away, they consider your church their "church home."
Today's advanced and inexpensive technology means that churches are asking questions that would never have been considered even 20 years ago, and one of the biggest questions today has to do with the legitimacy of the so-called "internet church." In the future, how will your church ensure that the Biblical principles and practices commensurate with a covenant community are observed in this environment?
Are you ready for the conversations church leadership must have in the future related to how everything from church discipline to fellowship can be achieved in this context? The most obvious pitfall of social media is that our society has never been more exposed to each other, and simultaneously, never been more alone. How can the church be truly "counter-cultural" in this environment? At what point should we say "no" to certain forms of technology because they threaten sound ecclesiology?
Scenario Seven: You discover through casual conversation that a yoga class has been started by leaders in the church, that participants freely greet one another with "namaste," and that Christian meditation has been confused with the emptying of the mind that is endorsed in many Hindu communities.
Over the past decade, there has been a huge increase in ancient pagan practices, much like those that occurred in the days of the Old Testament. The digital age, among other things, presents opportunities for the "blending" of faiths that was unheard of even two decades ago. In what ways should you be prepared to bifurcate for your people between what can, and cannot, be part of the life of someone who follows Jesus according to Scripture? Are you equipped to help your people understand the difference between "form" and "meaning" when it comes to practices, so that they can separate the truly harmless from the "seemingly harmless," the latter of which has deep roots in ancient paganism?
Scenario Eight: You receive a call from a mainline church in town. The size of their congregation has dropped to less than 20 members. They are fearful for their future, and they ask for your help. It is simply a statistical fact that theological liberalism kills churches. As such, expect the mainline protestant churches in your town to continue slowly bleeding to death. Yet, the people in those dying churches need someone to love them by ministering to their needs and reminding them of what their faith once stood for. Are you prepared to raise up leaders who can utilize those facilities to start a second campus for your church, or start a new church altogether? Are you now able to be friends with these people, and love them through their struggles while holding firmly to your faith?
Scenario Nine: Parents come to you for counseling regarding their son, who has been diagnosed with multiple "generic" disorders, but doctors have been incapable of specifying the problem, and the child has been largely un-treatable by psychiatrists. You suspect the presence of demonic activity.
I truly believe that we will see a sharp rise in obvious demonic activity in the west, and I believe it will unfortunately be mis-diagnosed as a solely medical or psychiatric problem. As a result, too many children will grow up expressing the personality of a psychotrophic drug unless wise and godly pastors in the west learn to recognize the presence of demonic activity, lead families past the "exorcism" nonsense of Benny Hinn and the Church of Rome, and confront it head-on with the Gospel.
Scenario Ten: In this "brave new world," God continues to seek worshippers, and Jesus continues to save people from sin, Satan, death, and hell in miraculous ways.
I'm sure some of what I've written above scares some readers. I'm equally certain that some of you are angry, and for various reasons. As lovingly as I can say it, I don't care. What I've described above is a culture that is emerging, and that is filled with people Jesus died to save. And it is in this environment when I hear evangelical Christians having the dumbest arguments!
Where the Mid-Maryland Association is concerned, I want us to be ready for that world so we can be faithful to Jesus. So many of the arguments and "controversies" we have these days are proven in contrast to the realities above to be as ridiculous as they appear to be.
We have some pure, honest, real-world "issues" coming, and we don't have time for the cosmetic ones. Are we prepared to stop pining for the world as we wished it was, and begin preparing to reach the world as we know it will soon be? I hope so.