I’m no prophet. I don’t spend much time worrying about the end of the world or fretting over apocalyptic calendars. But I do think about the future, and sometimes I venture a calculated guess about what might be lurking over the horizon. Here is my guess: The Christian church, as we have known it, will die. How? Well, if we Christians refuse to engage the world around us, it will be an excruciating, lingering death as we retreat to our church sanctuaries that will become nothing more than spiritual hospice wards, waiting for the inevitable.
Or death might come in holy cultural crusade, waging our wars with those who think differently than us, until the ground beneath all our feet is scorched, so that no one can live in this world. Or, it might be death by suffocation as the church is absorbed by the broader culture, losing its unique word and witness, becoming just another menu item in spirituality’s cafeteria line.
Or, the way forward may be a free giving of ourselves over to structural and institutional death – laying down our life – that the church will be resurrected and reborn. Jesus said it like this: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Christianity’s future will depend largely on our ability to let go of the life we have had. This is a place we have been before.
My friend Rob Nash makes the point that the Catholic Church was never stronger than in the late 1400s, to early 1500s, dominating all ofEurope. As the sixteenth century dawned, there were only two branches of the church. No one had ever held a “praise and worship” service or a Sunday school class. Nor had they ever heard the word “denomination.” Church didn’t necessarily happen at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning and seven o’clock on Sunday night. Communion was a weekly if not daily affair; pastors and preachers never married; and the first Protestant missionary would not be born for another two centuries. Imagine that you were given the opportunity to travel back in time to Rome, Italy in the year 1510, and hold a private audience with Pope Julius II.
You encourage him to make much needed reforms in the church so that Christianity will not be splintered into hundreds of denominations. In your appeal, you describe to Pope Julius the church of the future. You tell him about a monk in Germany named Martin Luther, and his partners in Reformation – Zwingli, Calvin, and Melanchthon. You talk about the new churches and denominations that will be formed over the next hundreds of years – the Lutheran church in Germany, the Reformed church in Switzerland, Anabaptist churches in Holland, the Church of England, good God – the Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational nomads that are coming.
You try to describe the various theologies that will emerge and the different kinds of worship styles. You talk of religious freedom and the novel concept of separation of church and state. The pope laughs at you, and pays you no attention. How can you blame him? No one in 1510 could ever have imagined that such vast change was about to shake the medieval church to its very foundations. We may be living in just such a time again. So here is the question reframed: Will we view this collapse of Christianity as a catastrophe, something to mourn, something to fight about, or instead see it as a narrow doorway into the future?
There comes a time in the life of a caterpillar when it wraps itself in a cocoon. It is a time of death. The caterpillar dies, in order to be transformed into a butterfly. We don’t need any more caterpillars. We need butterflies. We need churches and communities of faith with the courage to reject long-held assumptions and business as usual, letting it all go and letting it die, that something breathtakingly beautiful can be reborn.