The Church Is About to Change
We don’t even have the vocabulary to describe it, but it is coming fast.
[Note: This post was originally released as a three-part series, but is now combined.]
We are called to do what has never been done before. We don’t even have a vocabulary or common set of terms to describe it. Sooner or later, I am sure we will look back with the confidence that only the future brings, but we move along through the fog of faith for now.
We are on a sure historical footing to know what it means to be the church, but we walk in a fog of new forms and structures rolling in. They look like a return to the organic, decentralized forms of the early New Testament church. But they are uniquely shaped by globalism—characterized by interconnected relationships defined by technology that realigns every aspect of our lives from how we communicate to how we build and maintain friendships, buy and sell goods and services, and how we shape culture.
Advancements in technology brought these changes. The sudden arrival of COVID accelerated them.
A short time ago, we did not talk about holding church meetings by Zoom. After a quarantine year, we now do church online or in hybrid form, partly online and partly in-person. COVID and technology have redefined what it means to belong to a congregation.
No one yet knows how many people will return to traditional Sunday morning church at the building, but it seems apparent as Dorothy once said, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The post-COVID landscape looks surprisingly as surreal as OZ.
WHAT WE ARE NOT
Wisdom of Old “Soles” is suited for these times, but yet I find myself explaining the ministry more by what it is not than what it is. Maybe that is a start. It is not a website. Neither is it “hybrid church,” electronic church, nor an internet ministry. It is a ministry with real flesh and blood people geared primarily toward Gen-Z (b. 1995-2012), but not exclusively. Neither is it a youth ministry, though it focuses on Gen-Z leader-believers.
It is a manifestation of new forms and structures of the church. These are most definitely “New Testament” forms and structures but particularly suited to globalized, interconnected, time-and-space-shifted relationships.
It’s a new thing.
Television was once a new communication medium. No one knew how to use it. That took time. So what did the pioneers do at first? They took a camera, pointed it at a stage, and televised Vaudeville acts or Broadway productions. As time went by, television became a more powerful medium, giving rise to nature shows, dramas, sitcoms, variety shows, movies, soap operas, and game shows. And that was only the beginning. Every technological change brought new ways of using television.
So it is with the church’s new forms and structures in a globalized world. We have not yet found our groove, so-to-speak. But we are starting to understand what we are not. We are not hybrid church. We are not an internet ministry. And we are not a fad that will come and go. What is coming is something new and New Testament at the same time.
WHAT WE ARE
So what then characterizes Wisdom of Old “Soles” that makes it so hard to explain? Let’s start by saying it’s a return to the basics. It’s a ministry among flesh and blood people following Jesus by His Word and through His Spirit. It is decentralized—Jesus, people, His Word, His Spirit.
It is light on programs, buildings, assets, schedules, and traditions, but not on Bible and certainly not on theology. It is rich in relationships, deep in the Word, empowered by the Spirit, and passionately in love with Jesus. I guess you could say it is disciple-making without the bells and whistles added since the Fourth Century.
There is nothing new in that—good. But that is not the critical point. Instead, what characterizes this coming movement in which Wisdom of Old “Soles” stands, is not simply a return to the basics but in an interconnected way conducive to the 21st Century that leverages the realignment of relationships caused by new technologies.
Like what? The internet shifts relationships in time and space. We can access one another when we can. “Live” no longer means “instantaneous.” It means “whenever” we respond to the next text or email or whenever we hear the next podcast or comment on the next post. Until then, relationships sit in a sort of digital stasis, waiting for us to check-in. Twenty years ago, this paragraph would have been hard to understand. Anyone who uses text or email, or phone messages now understands the power of “frozen time” through technology. Each one of those tools—texts, emails, phone messages—freezes time differently.
The catch is that disembodied relationships are not entirely “real” any more than 5,000 friends on Facebook are real friends. God gave us bodies and made us social. To some extent, we can relate to one another online, but despite the ubiquitous emojis or ALL CAP SHOUTS, there are no technological substitutes for the sense of touch or the smell of spring.
That means the internet can augment our physical relations but cannot replace them. That also means that ministry must be ultimately rooted in the here and now among real-life flesh and blood people who can extend their relationships through the internet but not wholly slip the ephemeral bonds of earth into cyberspace. There is danger in that. We are not made that way.
Wisdom of Old “Soles,” like the television analogy, is looking for a new way of using technology to augment ministry among people in community, not replace it. That’s a critical point. We want to enrich the contacts, better the training, improve the prayer, accelerate the learning, provide the teaching, but not create the biggest website while being firmly connected to local ministry.
Success is not a matter of how many visits or clicks. It is a matter of changed lives—making disciples. Technology is a tool, not the goal. We must harness it to augment what God is doing within a local community of disciples as they make other communities of disciples who follow Jesus.
We call these communities of disciples—“Clusters.” Others call them “congregations.” One way or the other, we are talking about the fully-functioning church in its most basic form, not simply a Bible study or small group.
The problem is that there does not yet exist a vocabulary for these new forms and structures. We know the word “church.” We know what “technology” and “internet” represent. But we do not yet know what “leveraged local ministry” looks like.
Presently there is much talk about “hybrid church,” which is, again, not our aim. “Hybrid church” is a growing phenomenon because of the 2020 COVID pandemic that shut down or restricted Christians from gathering in buildings on Sundays. Remarkably, congregations implemented solutions for off-campus gatherings faster than the government could produce a COVID vaccine. Almost overnight, megachurches and country churches went online.
No one yet knows how many people will return to the building when the COVID restrictions cease. Had it only been a few weeks, most people would probably have returned. But after a year, old habits are gone, and new habits replace them. Some discovered that they could worship Jesus at home or with other families in small gatherings. Others surfed around the internet and feasted on sermons from any of the ten thousand pastors who provide weekly offerings and gigabytes of stored teachings.
Sadly, others simply disappeared either from in-person or online church participation.
Some became comfortable with online church—or maybe they became too comfortable with its convenience. It’s hard to compete with a Sunday morning routine where you can wake up late, grab a cup of coffee, watch a service in your pajamas, not fight with the kids to get them ready, and then spend the rest of the afternoon in leisure activities. The internet brings a new level of convenience even to church. I am not advocating for that, just stating what we all know.
So if “hybrid church” is as unrealistic as “hybrid school,” then in what ways can or should the internet augment a healthy church? We might not have a label to describe it any more than early television could distinguish sitcom from police drama. Still, we can see some of the factors necessary for these new forms and structures to be healthy, not simply new or reactionary. Technology must serve and nurture these beneficial characteristics.
PRINCIPLES BENEATH FORMS AND STRUCTURES
We must consider each of these points as the Lord brings new forms and structures to His church. But keep in mind, it is not a new “church.” So, it might be best to say that these are “New Testament” forms and structures that are also uniquely fitted to 21st-century relationships that have become realigned by globalism. When the technology changed (the microchip leading to the internet), our relationships changed (globalism), leading to an interconnected world (globalization).
Here are some ministry principles undergirding healthy forms and structures:
- All ministry is local in origin.
- Disciple-making communities follow Jesus by His Word and through His Spirit (to the glory of God).
- A healthy church is where disciples make disciples, leaders train leaders, and disciple-making communities birth disciple-making communities.
- The essential characteristics of disciple-making communities (congregations or “Clusters”) include: it identifies itself as a congregation, spiritual gifts function, biblical leadership emerges.
- These disciple-making communities are networks of networks interconnected organically and often principally through their leaders.
TECHNOLOGY THAT AUGMENTS NOT REPLACES
Technology then must augment, not replace, physical ministry. Though beyond the scope of this article, solid biblical anthropology informs us that God made us with bodies integral to what it means to be human. They are not disposable after thoughts nor Platonic shadows of our true selves. We have bodies, and part of that means we relate to one another in community, more than with our minds and certainly more than by our mouse clicks.
If the last year of COVID quarantine has taught us anything, we cannot teach our children by placing them in front of computer screens beaming content into their impressionable brains. They do not, and cannot, learn that way. We discovered what should have been obvious—they need school. Why? Because they are real people with real bodies, requiring real community, not a mere cyber experience.
Why would we think the church is any different?
Online church without offline relationship is just as naïve and certainly as destructive. “Hybrid church” is helpful only if rooted in offline relationships. It should augment what takes place primarily face-to-face in community. But if we regard “hybrid church” as a means for convenience, then the church better kill the idea now before we go any further down this destructive path. Just look at your children after their last year in school. Were they home on a computer trying to learn? Case rested. It didn’t work for our kids in school. Why do we think it will work for us with the church? Convenience is not a good answer.
What it means to augment is more challenging to answer because this is terra incognita. We have not been here before as the church, nor as the world. The technology is new, and the implications are unknown. But we know enough that augmenting technology must be rooted in the reality of local ministry. Otherwise, it is just a website.
Augmenting certainly means delivering certain content and teaching, but even that presupposes that teaching is a matter of content transfer. Jesus did not seem to teach His disciples in a classroom. But some of the teachings can happen that way.
Augmenting can also allow for some of the relational time-shifting in the same way that texts, emails, or phone messages keep us in communication with one another despite our individual schedules. But the time-shifted technology must not replace the face-to-face meeting, nor must it become primary (though what “primary” means is yet unknown).
Augmenting also includes the ability to relate to people in different locations and cultures that would not be possible merely in local settings. Still, reaching through the internet to another person three time zones away does not carry the same depth of relationship that sitting down regularly over coffee might bring.
I am not saying that such internet relationships are fake, nor would I put them in the same category as I would put Facebook “friends.” But I would say that those relationships cannot by nature carry the same depth as those with the advantage of being in person. We are not made that way. That’s just biblical fact.
Some would argue this point, but I say look at our children and how they have been affected by their social media relationships. Children do not yet have the biological brain capacity to engage with emotional maturity. Look at how social media ghosting can destroy their lives. Look at how their peers’ trends and thoughts influence them—and I don’t mean simply their flesh and blood school peers, but their online peers whom they may never meet. They have enormous influence.
The data is in that our youth are suffering from alarming rates of depression and sometimes suicide. All fingers are pointing to a major culprit being social media, which means our children are not experiencing healthy relationships solely by being online. When did the concept of children going out to “play” with their friends become redefined to mean going online to “play” video games?
Why do we think that online church relationships would somehow be exempt and would produce healthy Christians?
We have a lot to learn about how technology can augment healthy in-person ministry relationships. As I have said, it’s a new thing. But if we do not lose sight of the fact that all ministry is local, we have a necessary guardrail to travel this new path.
OUTSOURCING, IN-SOURCING, OPEN SOURCING
For too long, the church has been outsourcing its disciple-making and leader training. No wonder many are hard-pressed to define what it means to be a disciple of Jesus or even know if the church is making healthy disciples.
By outsourcing disciple-making, I do not mean we have passed the job off to another company or parachurch ministry. More keenly, I mean that the church, perhaps with good intentions, has created all kinds of programs, resources, curricula, ministries, and institutions to make disciples.
These resources should aid in the disciple-making process. Still, in many ways, they came to replace the hard work it takes for every disciple to make disciples—praying, encouraging, suffering, teaching, mentoring, and growing together in Christ. It is far easier to take a course, recommend a book, or listen to a podcast than it is to enter another’s life and struggles. We have outsourced disciple-making to programs and resources rather than handcrafting them in life.
Rather than outsourcing disciple-making, the church needs to in-source the process. We need to make homegrown disciples within the church community. But that can only happen in relational-rich communities that are small enough where each person can know and be known, love, and be loved. It is why all ministry much be “local,” and in this case, “local” means small. It is also why new forms are networks of networks of interconnected small disciple-making communities.
Jesus clearly said that He is the one who will build His church (Matthew 16:18), and He gave His Holy Spirit to assure that we would function and grow. Building networks of networks of disciple-making communities is the Lord’s job, and He accomplishes that growth through His Spirit and by the gifts of the Spirit.
Why is it that historically the church tends to organize itself in top-down structures that emphasize division rather than unity? History shows that the Lord’s people have treated the church more often as an organization rather than the organism it truly is. Organizations are not people. They do not love. They do not save. They show no faith and have no empathy. Only people can do that, and the people are a spiritual organism. We may organize ourselves as the church, but by nature, we are an organism.
The new forms and structures will emphasize the church’s organic nature across a globally interconnected world of diverse Christians yet one in Christ. That is not an association of top-down organizations but a network of networks of organic disciple-making communities indwelled by the Spirit.
That means that body of Christ will build itself up—organically—in love as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:16). To build such a global church requires open sourcing that allows every person, every part of the body of Christ, to contribute to the building of the church body—locally and throughout the world. We are by nature interconnected through the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; 12:13).
There are many successful open sourcing models in the computer industry where programmers freely contribute to a project. WordPress, for instance, is the largest software blogging platform in the world. It began in 2003 and today commands almost 40% of the global market. Programmers around the world freely contribute code and continue to improve the platform. Each programmer contributes a piece of code that fits within the larger whole to build the blogging platform. It is the classic case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
So it should be with the church. That is the way the Lord designed us. The body of Christ builds itself up. We all have a part. We are not a top-down organization except as we consider Jesus to be the head of the church. All of us are His organic body, each person uniquely fitted and functioning for the greater purpose.
Creating a global network of networks of disciple-making communities is something the Lord does by His Spirit through us all. He has been doing it throughout history as He has been building His church. It is the most extraordinary outsourcing project in the history of the universe.
CHANGE IS COMING
Technology drives change, but most significantly, it drives relational change—the kind that brings about Reformations and Revolutions. Five hundred years ago, the Great Reformation addressed the central doctrinal issues of salvation by faith and the Scripture’s authority. But the Reformation did not happen in a vacuum. Mounting tectonic social, political, cultural, and economic forces were at play. When Luther hammered his Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg church door, he happened to hit a fault line.
More than that, the new technological advancement of the movable-type printing press realigned our relationships by making communication and knowledge more accessible to the masses and ultimately wrestling power away from the priestly or governmental elite. Technological advancement led to changed relationships, which went hand-in-hand with subterranean social forces that changed the world’s direction in the 16th century.
At the beginning of this century, Rex Miller wrote presciently about how technology changes how we communicate, which realigns our relationships, affecting the church (The Millennium Matrix, Jossey-Bass, 2004). That is what happened with the printing press and the Reformation. It is also what happened with broadcast television culture and now with the digital microchip age.
Technological developments, hardware, and software have allowed the internet to realign how we communicate across the globe and consequently how we relate to one another. For the first time since the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), the world speaks the same language. It did not turn out well the first time we all spoke the same language. Evil has been exponentially increasing with the advent of globalization.
The world is becoming more united while growing in evil. The church, which should maintain its unity in the bond of peace, seems more and more segmented or even divided. We have always had divisions of doctrine, personality, and culture. Add sin into the mix, and the disunity increases.
As bad as these sources of division or disunity are, even more consequential is the organizational infrastructure itself on which we construct all these other divisions. In short, we have made the church an organization—or many organizations. Somehow, the organic, relational process of making disciples who live and model Christ together has become a system, culture, and entire framework of theologies, traditions, and essentially ecclesiologies that fight against our inherent Holy Spirit-given unity.
The microchip, modern computers, the smartphone, and of course, the internet are the driving technological changes that realign how we communicate and, therefore, how we relate to one another. And these changes sit on massive tectonic social, political, economic, and cultural pressures of globalization waiting to erupt with Diluvial consequences.
Putting it another way, there is a flood of change coming our way. That’s the bad news. The good news is there is an ecclesiological ark. For the first time since Pentecost, the church will have to address its nature on a global level—one church, one Lord, one faith, one baptism—in New Testament, decentralized and organic forms and structures that are particularly suited to 21st-century realigned and interconnected relationships. And that is a coming Reformation or Revolution that will change not just how we meet and function but also how we train, how we communicate, and how we lead.
The church is about to change. We don’t even have the vocabulary to describe it, but it is coming fast.