Guest commentary by Baron Mullis
Where will the church be in 10 years?
I’ve never been good at prognostication, but I do see a few trends emerging (I think) and have a few examples of wishful thinking that I hope I can back up. My source is the congregation I serve in Atlanta – Morningside Presbyterian Church – and what I see gives me hope. Here’s why:
1. When millennials come to church, they are generally pretty serious about it. I am not a millennial; I’m the tail end of Gen-X, and we retain a little residual guilt if we don’t show up at church from time to time. The millennials are the children of the generation who decided that church was optional for Christians – and so their children really see it as optional. So when they show up, they mean it. They’re serious about worship attendance and they give a percentage of income that should embarrass their wealthier Gen-X counterparts. They also appear to place a strong value on institutions that are trustworthy – meaning the local congregation.
We have myriad ways that we could disappoint this generation (chiefly by proving not to be who they think we are). But, the good news is this: They’re sticky. If they don’t like something in a congregation to which they’ve committed, they don’t tend to walk; instead, they tend to affect change. That’s a force to be reckoned with.
2. Pontification about biblical literacy from pastors is going to remain as meaningless as it ever was. Nobody wants to be excoriated for not knowing the Bible and doing so is not a way to inspire people to church. Most folks do, though, recognize it as the source of revelation and, consequently, are interested in what it has to say to them – even though the majority won’t necessarily go to a Bible study or Sunday school. This means that if we’re going to teach about the Bible, it’s likely going to happen in worship. Preaching and liturgy will reflect this shift. I’m not ready to abandon the inductive sermon – but if we want to be effective teachers, we can’t assume that the Bible stories are well known, which means that they will need to be incorporated to be meaningful. This trend transcends generational definition. I’m as likely to find a 45-year-old who doesn’t know the Bible as a 30-year-old.
I’m also not convinced that we are all going to become expository preachers. I attended a preaching seminar at Wycliffe Hall, likely the most evangelical of the theological houses at Oxford University, because I wanted to see what the British evangelicals were up to (since that seems to be the growing edge of the church in the U.K.). There I listened to a verse-by-verse exposition of the 23rd Psalm that I considered homiletical malpractice – it killed the poetry. So I’m not convinced expository preaching is the answer – Jesus taught by stories after all, and stories are enormously important – but my prediction is, if we don’t want to slide into Gnosticism, the Bible is back.
3. And if the Bible is back, the Bible is going to order what we talk about – which is why I predict that most healthy congregations are going to be done talking about homosexuality, but not done talking about sex. The church has been straining at a gnat for a generation – because culture has been, not because the Bible has more than a scant handful of verses about homosexuality. Culture is now finishing this conversation – and the Supreme Court’s ruling further establishes this. Despite the presence of “Religious Freedom” acts in various legislatures, homosexuality just isn’t that controversial in our broader culture anymore. The congregations whose neighborhoods transition to a higher LGBT population density may still grapple with the issues of acceptance and inclusion, but most congregations’ views will shift by evolution, not seismic change.
Homosexuality just isn’t the issue it was a generation ago – but sex still is. Sex is a topic that’s here to stay. People still want to have it, adolescents are still confused about it and Christian faith (and the Bible) have more than a few things to say about how we live as people together. Congregations are going to have to figure out how to teach about human sexuality faithfully and inclusively.
4. While the church has been straining against the gnat of sexuality, we’ve swallowed the camel of income inequality. That’s what culture is talking about today – who would have predicted a 74-year-old democratic socialist would have a legitimate shot a major party nomination? The church may not be using these words, but in the news “poverty,” “ghettoization” and “racial body-politics” are eating up the headlines, and we’re not on a trend to correct the underlying issues that make this the case. Healthy congregations who read their Bibles and wander over into the minor prophets (or the teachings of Jesus) are going to want a way to engage faith that helps them work for the shalom of the world, even if they don’t use that language. Local congregations that listen to their members’ deep longings to work for wholeness in their communities are going to have mission footprints that dwarf what we’ve settled for in the past.
Social pressure to attend church is gone, but spiritual hunger is not. The need to know that one matters – and matters in an ultimate way – continues. Interestingly, the polls that show the rise of the “nones” also show that somewhere around 70 percent of the population is interested in a serious source of knowledge of God. (And thank God for that. I really do worry that “spiritual but not religious” may be the new Gnosticism.)
I predict that as long as we help folks know God through Jesus Christ and engage the world around them through the lens of that faith, there will remain plenty to be done.
BARON MULLIS is senior pastor of Morningside Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.