The Church in the 21 Century: How Did We Get Here?

Blind Man Walking

I was walking behind a man a few days ago who was lost in his phone. As we walked together  – it seemed that we might share a mutual destination. I can not say for sure what he was doing on his phone but I do know it had his full attention. He incessantly pecked and swiped on as he moved through crowds of people.

People started to notice, however, or were forced to, as he stumbled and bumped into others. Some brushed it off but some got angry and I heard a few murmurs from some of the collateral damage. He quickly responded with, “Sorry” or “My bad”, hardly ever looking up at the people he was addressing.

Heads Up

Suddenly, without any notice, he stopped dead in his tracks. His head shot up and he looked around – his eyes darting back and forth trying to get a bearing on this foreign place he was in. I stopped, watching him, wondering what prompted his quick and sudden arrest and what might happen next. Luckily, I was close enough to hear the next his few words.

“What? Where…how did I get here?”

Just then his phone rang. I caught the beginning of the conversation as he walked away; something about getting, “turned around” and that he would be, “a little late” today. I lost him not too long after that.

Eyes Up

I am not sure what stopped him so quickly and jarred his intense focus. It could have been something on the phone perhaps or maybe a strange smell, or interesting sound. Maybe he just had a feeling that something was “off”.

Either way, he noticed quickly that he was off track and needed to make some quick adjustments. In fact, he had not noticed how far he had gone until his head was up and he looked around. Whatever he was doing on the phone I am sure was important to him; it distracted him long enough to not notice. He was distracted, lost, falsely confident, and dangerous to others around him. He was moving forward though and I guess some forward progress is better than stagnation, no? (No.)

I have been talking with a lot of church pastors and Christians lately and realized something – a lot of them have suddenly started lifting their heads up. What prompted them is as mysterious as the man on his phone though some can pinpoint the exact reason. Slightly dazed and confused, they are looking around for some sort of resemblance of something familiar. As they scan the foreign landscape, they mutter…

“What? Where…how did we get here?”

Church Wake-Up Call

See, their churches are struggling. Finances are tighter than they may have ever been before. They are letting staff go and cutting programs, initiatives, services. Their buildings are too big and bills too large. People are leaving either to goto other churches or just to never step foot in a church again.

Something happened while all our heads were down working on our “stuff”. We got busy planning, creating, meeting, and vision casting and we assumed we were heading in the right direction. We never stopped to lift our heads up and look around. As we worked on our “stuff” the world changed around us. The questions being asked changed. The respect that the church once had faded. The cultural pressures for people to attend church were gone. The moral position the church had in society dissipated. The world changed and we missed it.

Changes Are Here

We looked up and saw a different world around us and we weren’t sure what to do with it. Some just figured if we backtracked to where we were before and what we did previously, that would get us back on track. Some thought that we just had to find a newer and fresher way to do what we used to do to reach a new audience. Maybe Make it more attractive and more “relevant”.

Some of the braver ones though were willing to acknowledge what had happened, course correct, and start moving forward – heads up. These were the ones who could admit we had lost our way. No excuses. They were ostracized by those who were looking to the past for answers as “deserters” and “influenced by the world”.

What they didn’t see was the trail of thousands of years of church history pushing them forward into newer representations of the church for today. They didn’t see the trail of people around them who had been hurt and broken because of our neglect. Neither did they see the people who were asking new questions and desperately needing answers. They couldn’t see it of course because their heads were already back down trying to figure out newer-older “stuff” to do.

The church is past-informed but future-looking. It's movement focused and not program loaded. It's people aimed not numbers driven. Click to Tweet

Now, those with their heads up have no desire to disconnect from the past but to learn from it. To see how the church responded to a new world with the message of the Gospel. The church is past-informed but future-looking. It’s movement focused and not program loaded. It’s people aimed not numbers driven.

So, the question then every church, pastor, and Christian have to ask is both personal and corporate – “Where are we and how did we get here?”. And when that is understood then we can ask, “Who are we and where do we go from here?”

Greg Smith

Blogging about faith, life, church, and everything in between.

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