“The Present Future”

A Few Points from…

“The Present Future” by Reggie McNeal

Reggie McNeal worked in various congregations in various leadership roles for twenty years. For the past decade now, he’s been working with thousands of church leaders as something of a counselor, consultant, and coach. From that experience come the thoughts that follow.

McNeal, along with most “world watchers”, notes the significant changes in the world today. People don’t think the same as they used to, and words like modernism and postmodernism come up in this book just like in a thousand others. McNeal’s point is this: When the modern way of thinking arose, most Christians viewed it as a threat. Resistance arose to the new thought patterns and the rise of science. And in the midst of the chaos, seekers of God dug deeper into Him and His Word. The result? Something called the Reformation. Eventually, churches shifted as well, embracing the modern forms of logic and thought. In fact, most churches today are thoroughly modern. The trouble? Much of Western society has moved. Modernists created a view that didn’t need God to run the universe; a lot of churches don’t seem to need God to operate the church either: He doesn’t need to show up to get done what’s getting done. And the culture is not so out to lunch as we might wish to think: The culture simply does not want the powerless God of the modern church.

McNeal’s claim is that the next shape for churches is not yet known but that the forces that are doing the shaping can be observed already. He challenges us as leaders to make certain we are asking the right questions, and he takes a stab at identifying some of the wrong questions that we may be currently wasting our time on. Below is an attempt to capture some of his most thought-provoking points.

The modern church contains steady streams of programs, seminars, methods, and formats. But is it working? Truthfully, much of it simply creates activity that keeps us from facing the harder questions. “Church activity is a poor substitute for genuine spiritual vitality.”

As the church culture crumbles, many churches take on a refuge mentality, a withdrawal of sorts. In such a church, evangelism is no longer about connecting people to Jesus. It mutates into an effort to “church” people: To clean them up so that church people can be more comfortable around them. Sadly, many refuge churches will still believe that they are potent forces of evangelism for Jesus. McNeal’s observation: “Church leaders seem unable to grasp this simple implication of the new world—people outside the church think church is for church people, not for them.”

The point here is NOT to alter the Gospel so that the culture loves it. The point is to be in touch enough with the world that we could actually communicate in a meaningful way the message that never changes: That Jesus changes everything.

The church is in need of a mission fix.

“We need to recapture the mission of the church.” From the very beginning, Yahweh is a missional God. He rescued Israel so that they might join Him in His redemptive mission: They were to declare and display the ways and love of God to all the world. The church has inherited this mission. When Israel failed to join God, He worked in other ways. Any church that becomes more of a religious club than a movement is in the same danger.

“When Jesus came on the scene he entered a world very similar to our own in terms of its spiritual landscape”: Institutional religion was collapsing, no one truly believed in the Greek or Roman gods anymore, materialism was rampant, and religious leaders like the Pharisees had produced a dead religion in search of high moral ground. “Jesus tapped into this widespread sentiment of disillusionment with religion but hunger for God with his teaching about the kingdom of God and how people could become part of it.” That’s where we are today. People are interested and searching for God and personal salvation through him, but increasingly, they are not turning to institutional religion for help. Why? Because they don’t trust religious institutions; they see them as self-serving. And so they search on their own.

These days just might be God-sent: They will force the church to reboot. And any focus other than mission likely won’t survive the rebooting.

(Translation: How do we get them to come to us?)

When “church growth” became hot, it produced an entire industry of products, workshops, and experts. Insights and principles flowed, all promising to create that breakthrough. To be sure, many such efforts were driven by sincere desires to see people come to Christ. However, the lasting results from such efforts seem to be lacking. Is it possible that we missed the mark somehow?

TOUGH QUESTION #2: HOW DO WE TRANSFORM OUR COMMUNITY? (Translation: How do we hit the streets with the Gospel?)
Church activity simply doesn’t attract in many instances. That lack of trust towards institutions today is real, and in many eyes, the church is viewed in that light. McNeal’s thoughts: “The world does not want what the typical North American church has to offer. We can keep trying to get them to want what we have or we can start offering what they need. They need what people always need: God in their lives. This spiritual reality is what makes this such a tough transition. The North American church culture is not spiritual enough to reach our culture. I am talking about a missional spirituality.”

The Pharisees felt the rub when Jesus entered the picture. They were evangelistic in a way that said, “Come and get it because you people out there need to straighten up.” And if one did wish to join, then there were hoops to jump through, a culture to learn, and tastes to acquire before ‘club membership’ could be attained. Ironically, the most religious folks of his day were most uncomfortable with Jesus. Why? Because the Pharisees were monoculturalists. “Monoculturalism does not embrace kingdom growth because it insists that people conform to a cultural standard in order to gain admittance to the religious club.” Congregations functioning with a “club member” mentality subconsciously (or even consciously) assume that only people who are interested in church (the way we do it) are genuinely interested in God.

McNeal also wonders if some churches don’t live in a state of fear of the people “out there”. We may not be afraid of being contaminated like the Pharisees were. McNeal’s guess? “I think we are afraid of not knowing how to engage people in genuine conversation. I think we fear rejection. I think we don’t know what to say. I think we are unsure of what we have to offer to people. I think we are not that enthusiastic about being evangelistic because we feel we don’t have a compelling story. The power of the gospel is lost on church members who can sign off on doctrinal positions but have no story of personal transformation.”

A wonderful concept that re-arose in the Reformation Age was the “priesthood of all believers”. In its truest sense, the concept is wonderful. McNeal’s fear is that it’s been twisted. God has called and gifted every believer for service; that part is right. But many churches have interpreted it almost solely for their own use. “This myopic vision has resulted in ministry being defined largely in church terms and lay people often being viewed as functionary resources to get church work done. Ministers have waged an enduring campaign to convince the laity to support church efforts with energy, prayer, time, talent, and money.”

One example is the rise in an emphasis on discovering our spiritual gifts. Generally, these are geared towards helping church members find their “ministry fit”. But nearly every conceivable “gift” and “opportunity” is tied back to a church responsibility. “Many church members have come to see spiritual gift inventories as a recruiting tool for the church and its staff to use in ‘mining’ church members’ talent to fill church jobs.” Somehow that seems too small.

“Laypeople see the disconnect in the ‘every member a minister’ strategy. They are voting by not lending their time, energy, and money to ministry ‘vision’ that has the church as the primary beneficiary or recipient. Church has become increasingly irrelevant to their workday and home lives. Church ministry to them is an add-on activity to an already crowded life. They wonder why God can’t use them where he has already embedded them—in their homes, workplaces, schools, and communities. We have failed to call people out to their true potential as God’s priests in the world.”

For those of us raised in the “church bubble”, we may discover that our vision has been shrunk down to the size of our church. The move towards more of a kingdom view will demand stretching: God is indeed active outside our walls; perhaps in even more profound ways than inside the walls!

A missional way of thinking will demand us to re-assess our ways of relating to others (both Christians and non-Christians), our view of culture, our language, our worship habits, our “experiences” with God, and much more. Anything less can lead to a segmented approach; faith is “separated from other parts of life (business, family,…). This is why we go to ‘church’ to do our spiritual activity. This is why we don’t do spiritual formation at home—that’s what the church is for. After all, spiritual ‘education’ should be left to the professionals who have the training and credentials for it. The end result is parents unable to talk to their kids about God, church members who take their teenagers to church (believing that this activity inoculates them against the influence of a pagan culture) but don’t talk about life implications of faith, couples who are embarrassed to pray together—the list goes on and on.”

The God-interest that does exist in our culture can then catch us off-guard. Some of us don’t know how to simply talk about God; we only know our brand of religion—and those aren’t the same things. We can be so eager to correct or lead someone towards what we know that we’re terrible at actually engaging others and truly listening to them. “We look at people as ‘prospects’ for membership rather than as spiritual beings with the same quest for God.”

Too many churches have become groups of people who are studying God as though they are taking a course at school or attending a business seminar. The head is the primary aim, and conversion is more attached to church life than to God himself. “We have made following Jesus all about being a good church member; we are training people to be good club members, all the while wondering why our influence in the world is waning.”

McNeal talks at length about a recommitment to spiritual formation, a process of movements and exercises that would lead one forward on the path towards greater union with Christ. “Imagine helping people see how God can get into the life they already have instead of asking them to give up their life for the church.”

There is no question that the Bible must play a central role in this process, but mere “education” is insufficient. “We have believed that if people get enough Bible information it will automatically transform their lives. Wrong! The devil knows more Bible than most church members in North America and can sign off on our doctrinal statements, but this knowledge has not transformed him.” The goal must be higher than education, as most of us already know.

Typical approaches to the future involve prediction and planning. A better and more biblical approach to the future involves prayer and preparation. Throughout the Bible, God wants his people to pray for and prepare for his involvement. “I am not against planning. I am just suggesting that there is a dimension beyond planning that is critical for us to understand. We can settle for our imagination, our plans, and our dreams. In fact, I think the North American church has done just that. We have the best churches people can plan and build. But we are desperate for God to show up and to do something that only he can get credit for.”

Spiritual preparation has the goal of readying God’s people to join his redemptive mission in the world. McNeal highlights a popular concept in this chapter: Vision.

McNeal recalls when “vision” became the buzzword twenty-something years ago. Then, he was shocked at how visionless most church leaders were and how misunderstood the term was. He says those two things have not changed in the past decades; we simply use the word more today. One key thought here is this: “Vision is discovered, not invented.” A committee entrusted with “vision-casting” through brainstorming, debate, and voting is not an adequate method of birthing a vision. “God is the one with the vision. It is our job to discover what he has in mind; we are not to invent something that He will get excited about.”

There’s a few highlights of Reggie McNeal’s thoughts as they filtered through this one reader’s mind. Take them for what they’re worth.


6 thoughts on ““The Present Future”

  1. Ok, I’ll be honest, I didn’t read the WHOLE thing (it’s time for bed!) but a good chunk of it. Sounds good.

    It’s quite horrible of you to have a new blog for almost a month without letting anybody know. Great to see it up though. I look forward to what’s to come. That’s right, the expectations are waaaay, way up there. How are your pole-vaulting skills?

  2. hey jason,
    i’m glad to see that your back with some thoughts!

    man, i loved this post. it put into words many thoughts that were rumbling around in my head, but i wasn’t smart enough to articulate. but that’s pretty smart, hey? using a word like articulate? beat that one jason.

  3. J – some really good stuff there, some that parallels my recent thinking and experience very closely. I would be interested in your reflections on how these things can be acted upon in your context.
    I had heard a few people say good things about this book, but doubt that I would have taken the time to read it – thanks for summarizing, I look forward to the next one!

  4. Hey Dave, your comment got flagged as spam. Yep, that’s right–as junk. That’s not exactly a self-esteem builder, eh? As for pole-vaulting… I cannot think of any good response. I just can’t.

  5. J- I have had 6 spam comments on my blog so far – all were from Dave, but his last few have sneaked through for whatever reason… I’m not sure what this all says about what the guy.


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