Next year, if God will allow it, I am going to be writing a long series of blogs entitled “First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church.” In that series, we will explore how Paul’s letter, written to a troubled church in a far-away time and place, might help us as we think about our own future as God’s people. The point will not be to resolve all of the critical issues surrounding this enigmatic letter; that would take an entire library of dissertations to achieve, and even then the issues could not be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Rather, it is to simply make some observations about how Paul addressed this church located in a cosmopolitan center of economic, religious, and civic activity and to ask ourselves what it might mean for the North American church in the twenty-first century.
Today, however, I want us to begin thinking about the future of Christ’s body by asking ourselves what issues we will face in the next century of our lives and our work together. We know some of the issues that caused conflict in the past (the role of the sacraments, slavery, worship style, etc.), and we know the issues that are causing conflict in the present (homosexuality, the role of women, etc.). But what are some of the issues that could cause conflict in the future? And even if they do not divide us, what are the issues that will keep our theologians, denominational leaders, pastors, and other important thinkers up at night?
Below are a few of my suggestions. This is by no means an exhaustive list. It is simply the list that I came up with as I thought about what I see in the church.
- Marijuana and Church Unity – It seems to me that the legalization of medical marijuana poses little to no threat to the church’s long-term health. The legalization of recreational marijuana, however, is another story. The recreational use of cannabis threatens to divide the church along racial and generational lines, just as the use of alcohol divided the church in past generations along socio-economic and cultural lines. And since, unlike alcohol, there are no clear biblical prooftexts on marijuana, it will be even more difficult to resolve these conflicts.
- Christianity and the Liberal Democratic Experiment – Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the values of Christianity, and especially those of its English Protestant manifestation, were seen to be good soil for the germination and growth of liberal democracy. It can hardly be doubted that liberal democracy has benefited many, but as postmodernism works steadily to unleash liberal democracy from its Christian moorings, it is also becoming inherent that this way of organizing political life also has its downsides. Indeed, many are using the values of liberal democracy against the faith that, at least in part, gave it life. The question for the twenty-first century church is, does liberal democracy still serve the interests of the gospel, and, if not, what system should we work towards as a replacement for it?
- Involvement of Traditional Christians (and Others) in Mainstream Culture – Related to the question of Christianity’s role vis-a-vis liberal democracy is another question. Can Christians who are serious about their faith continue to be full participants in a society that seems to be determined to undermine the values of that faith? Indeed, this is a question faced by many Muslims, and other faith traditions may have to grapple with it, as well. What if a Christian (or Muslim) psychologist wants to help a person overcome their same-sex attraction using the tools of psychology? What if a Christian social worker believes that same-sex families are not the best place for children to grow up? What if a Christian physician is unwilling to perform abortions? Will these professionals lose their licenses, or even go to jail, because they refuse to go along with the pseudo-scientific ideologies that dominate their fields? And, if so, how will we as the church handle that? Will we persecute them, too, because they have brought trouble upon us? Will we continue to engage in the work to which we feel called, even if we have to do so without government sanction? Will we stand up for our brothers and sisters who live according to their principles, articulating cogent arguments in their defense and committing ourselves to suffer with them?
- Congregational Leadership – A particular problem for Baptists, and for others who believe in the value of congregational leadership, is how to encourage busy, stressed-out young people to invest time and effort in their church’s decision-making functions. Church business is often messy and sometimes ugly. It is where we see what our brothers and sisters are really like, and we often don’t like what we see. It only makes sense that many Christian traditions reserve this work for those who are especially called to discharge it. But Baptists believe that taking responsibility for one’s own church is a necessary step on the journey to Christian maturity. We will need to work hard if this way of thinking about and living out church is to survive in the twenty-first century. We will have to be intentional about giving people in Generation X, the Millennial Generation, and Generation Z opportunities to lead, and we will have to persuade them that such opportunities are worth the hardships and inconveniences that they bring.
- The Changing Center of Church Life – It used to be taken for granted that the church’s worship service was the center of its corporate life. Now, the specific part of the worship service that was most treasured might vary from denomination to denomination. For Roman Catholics, the sacraments were key. For Baptists, it was the preaching of Scripture. For some Pentecostals, it was the singing of praise or the expression of spiritual gifts. In the future, however, there is no guarantee that any part of the worship service, or the worship service as a whole, will be the center of church life. In part, this is due to the fact that so many different musical styles and views on liturgy can be found in the church. More fundamentally, however, the act of worship has less cultural currency than it once did. Imagine how ridiculous it must seem to someone who has no acquaintance with Christianity that people gather together, sing songs to a guy who has been dead for two thousand years, and hear someone lecture of documents that may be three thousand years old or more. The very act of worship creates cultural barriers between those inside and those outside the church, and if those outsiders ever come to believe in Christ, they invariably bring their culture of non-worship into the church. For my part, I am convinced that worship is an indispensable part of Christian identity, and so I am committed to indoctrinating new believers into the culture of worship. Nevertheless, it is not at all clear to me that all Christians will take this approach, and even those that do may have to make some radical concessions on what worship looks like if they are to remain culturally intelligible to their neighbors and new converts.
These are just some of the issues that Christians will face in the next eighty years. I invite you to think about the list that I have compiled—and to suggest any others that you think should be added. Most importantly, I invite you to submit yourself to our God and to listen to His voice as you think about and live into the future that He has for us.