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What is the Future of the Church?

This past Wednesday night, Biola University held an event titled “The Future of the Church.” The event brought together four theologians from differing wings of Christendom to engage in both predictive and normative dialogue on, you guessed it, the future of the Church. The four speakers included Pentecostal Simon Chan of Singapore, Anglican Ephraim Radner, Catholic Thomas Rausch, and Evangelical Free Fred Sanders. In what follows in this article is something of a truncated transcript of the event, outlining the speakers’ responses to the question, “What is the Future of the Church?” (Please note that sometimes the quotations of the speakers are paraphrases and not exact statements)

Simon Chan

Chan, a Pentecostal systematic theologian at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, brought a unique perspective as to the future of the Church in the Global South. Most denominations in the Global South are thriving, Chan noted, and many have cut off their links with their parent bodies. The reason, he argued, is due to Christianity’s “deep spiritual affinity with primal religiosity.”1 This spiritual affinity results in a right emphasis on the centrality of the gospel and the primacy of the Church’s mission in word and deed.

The flourishing and growing charismatic Christianity of the Global South is thus very diverse, with the potential for a “dark side” of bizarre rituals, trends of churches rapidly splitting from each other, and the difficulty of being able to tell the difference between a “market driven life and a purpose driven life.” Global charismatic Christianity is at a crossroads, needing sound theological leadership in the midst of an over-realized eschatology and a highly spiritualized approach to ecumenism Chan calls a “docetic ecclesiology.” There is much hope, however, for global charismatic Christianity has brought life in the Holy Spirit not only to its own people, but also to other ecclesial bodies such as Catholics.

Ephraim Radner

Radner, an Anglican historical theologian at the Toronto School of Theology, gave a primarily biblical-theological approach to the question. “The future of the Church,” Radner’s emphasizes, “is to become something none of us has any sense of concretely in this point in time.” 1 John 3:2, he argues, applies both to individuals and to the Church as a whole:

“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

To speak of the future of the Church to Radner, is to speak of “something disappearing” and a “contested becoming.” Radner’s position is beholden to a strong eschatological purification of the Church, for the eschatological future is of the Church “becoming changed into the bride of Christ.” Radner’s position seems very controversial to Catholics, Orthodox, and some Anglicans (though probably agreeable to many Evangelicals) who view their institutions as the true, historical, and lasting Church of the apostles. Below are a few of the most controversial statements of Radner:

“There is a church, but we do not know what/where it is. However, we know with certainty we are bound to this place of which we are ignorant.”

“The future of the Church has no obvious relationship to the churches of today. It lies in the uncertain path of the church enduring.”

“If we were to evaluate our churches today according to such future, I am certain everything about what we do today as churches would change profoundly.”

Thomas Rausch

Rausch, a Roman Catholic theologian at Loyola Marymount University, proclaimed that his response to the question is an “ecumenical perspective.” Rausch begins by noting the astonishing historical truth that today there are 43,000 denominations globally; in 1900, there were 1,600. This is unacceptable to Rausch for “Christian unity from a Roman Catholic perspective means a communion of churches sharing a common heritage and sharing in visible union with one another.”

Rausch is a large proponent of the World Council of Churches which emphasizes: (1) Each local church ought to be in union with other local churches, (2) The nature of the Church is missional, for it proclaims the gospel, celebrates the sacraments, and celebrates newness of life in Christ, and (3) The Church is a Eucharistic community.

There are two trends that raise important challenges to the worldwide Church. First, 61% of the world’s Christians are in the Global South. 628 million of the world’s Christians are Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Independent Charismatics. These communities care less for doctrinal precision and ecclesiology, emphasizing instead the healing of mind, body, soul, spirit, and society. Amongst these churches, many of them are anti-ecumenical. Second, the growth of the “nones” in the West. Rausch claims, “If anything that should move our separated churches together, it should be the increasing number of the ‘nones.’”

He ends with a series of penetrating questions that reveal Rausch’s commitment to the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church:

“Is the church [just] any community of disciples gathered in the spirit? Or, is there a Christological foundation expressed in common structures, ritual, faith and mission? Is it possible that some Christian communities might not fully realize what it means to be a part of the Church, but should find a home within a larger church? Is living in visible communion with other churches important for the ecclesial reality of a Christian community? Is Christian unity a value for your church? Will tomorrow’s church be a global communion of Churches sharing a common faith, life, and mission? Or, will it be an infinite number of separate communities ever more divided in faith and life?”

Fred Sanders

Sanders, an Evangelical systematic theologian at Biola University, represented a broadly evangelical perspective toward the question (though he was quick to say that he does not represent all evangelicals). Sanders, if I can say this, is evangelical through and through; he is low church (“by choice” he says), congregationalist in ecclesiology, though he argues for Evangelicalism as a movement founded on the gospel, not an ecclesiology.2

Sanders, I believe, winsomely and humorously argues for the dispositions and key emphases of Evangelicalism. Sanders speaks fondly of his fellow Evangelicals whose central concern is, “Do you know Jesus? Have you met him?” Not “Do you go to Church?” Or, “Do you self-identify as a Christian when the pollsters come around?” But, “Do you really know Jesus? Have you been born again?”

Sanders concludes with a statement that I believe concords with the broad Evangelical disposition towards Church Unity, “I’m not envisioning a future in which I budge on any of the key principles [of my wing of evangelicalism]. But I do wanna picture a future in which the unity of the Church is visible to the world around us and is held deeply and felt deeply in our own hearts.”

Table Discussion

In the ensuing table talk after the opening statements, there were a few key threads of the conversation that continued to pop up. These threads, I believe, bring new avenues of thought to the conversations here at Conciliar Post. Too often here we reduce Church Unity to institutional/ecclesiological unity, a reduction that, though important, is in no way unity in its entirety.

(1) Church unity is not reducible to institutional unity.

-Sanders: “In the Roman Catholic church, you have a strong commitment to institutional unity, but deep divisions internally. There’s the Methodist story, the Anglican story. We all have the same [story].”

(2) A purely spiritual/invisible understanding of Church Unity stunts the transformative power of the Church in the world.

-Rausch: “If we so spiritualize our understanding of the Church, then we lose out on the calling of the church to be transformative of the world. It can become so individualistic.”

(3) The visibility of Church unity is not synonymous with ecclesial structures.

-Radner: “Ecclesial structures are sometimes used to mean visibility. I think bodies are the issue. It has to do with praying together, with space, with voice, with [where we give our] money.”

-Chan: “Where we express our commonalities as sinful together in fellowship, is where our unity is most visible. We need to constantly look at life situations where unity is applied differently.”

(4) The future of the Church is deeply uncertain particularly as a result of globalization.

-Radner: “We are in such a global transition socially that we haven’t a clue as to where this is going. Would anybody think it’s worth to make a prediction where Pentecostalism will be 25 years from now? I don’t think we know what unity will look like right now. There is so much turmoil as to what Christianity is becoming. Does anybody have any idea of what Christianity will become in the Middle East? Could anybody have predicted [the driving out of Christians from the Middle East]? What makes us think that’s not gonna happen anywhere else?”

Peter Leithart

Biblical scholar and theologian Peter Leithart3 provided the closing statement to the conversation. Leithart agrees with the centrality of the Evangelical question of Sanders, “do you know Jesus?” This question, he argues, is the genius of Evangelicalism, for it protests against any kind of nominal Christianity. However, the follow up to the question cannot be one that disregards Church unity, for the knowledge of Jesus must mean fighting for a unified future for the Church. Leithart concludes, “Is the Jesus that you know:

(1) A New Adam that has a bride?
(2) One who has given his life, breaking down barriers between Jews and Gentiles, transgressing boundaries?
(3) The one who said “do this,” and meant “do this together”?
(4) The one who prayed that all his disciples would be one?”

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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