The Virtual Extension to Faith Forward Forum | Jan 22-24, 2007

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Future of Faith – For A Changing Church In Uncertain Times:

By Eddie Gibbs [bio for event]

The Bible emphasizes time and time again that the life of one who follows Christ is a life of faith. It was so from the day in which Jesus called His first disciples to follow Him. Then He gave no indication where He was heading and there were no assurances. Yet they followed without question because they knew they would be with Him. Faith ever flows from the relationship believers have with their Lord as apprentices in the school of discipleship.

Such risk-taking faith can degenerate into complacency when life becomes too predictable and comfortable. Alternatively, it becomes a narrow religious category, by which we place our trust in Christ for eternity, while living day-by-day with a rationalistic, calculating, self-assured mindset. However, as we move from the false assurances of modernity into the increasingly precarious and chaotic world of the twenty-first century, it is imperative that we learn, again, to live the life of faith one day at a time. But we can only do this so long as we keep the Big Picture in mind. And the story of the redemption of humankind and God’s unfolding plan for the universe as recorded in Scripture provides that Big Picture.

We need a faith perspective as we review the trends of the church throughout the Western world. For the past four decades we have witnessed the serious and relentless decline of church membership and attendance in all of the traditional denominations. In Europe, some of these historic and once influential churches have declared their own demise as they project their statistical trends into the next twenty years. It is all too easy to succumb to a gloom and doom mindset, which becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yet, there are a growing number of congregations within these declining denominations that are exceptions to the overall trend. And their numerical growth is not entirely due to members transferring from other churches. They are providing a hopeful sign of what “church” should and can be like, to a generation that has abandoned the church through boredom or disillusionment. Leadership that is inspired by a faith-generated vision characterizes these churches.

We are seeing “fresh expressions” of church both in Europe and North America that have woken up to the fact that they are facing a missional challenge on their own door-steps as never before. They see the church not just as an inspiring place to which to invite the seeker, but as a place where the disciples themselves become seekers – seeking out the people with whom they come into contact to introduce them to Jesus, in whom alone can be found peace, wholeness and fulfillment. As they see lives transformed by the gospel, which is the power of God to salvation, their own faith is strengthened and renewed.

Faith is also required to see the hand of God at work in a troubled and disaster-prone world. The Bible does not provide us with off-the-shelf answers to our personal tragedies or to the horrendous scenes that we see on our TV screens from Darfur or Iraq for which humans are responsible, or of floods, fires and earthquakes, which we refer to as natural disasters. We often do not know what God is up to, but God’s people caught up in those tragedies discover that God is with them, and that faith triumphs in the midst of suffering. And we in the cushioned West need to learn the hard lessons of faith, because we are neither remote nor immune from acts of violence and devastation.

Faith cannot be narrowly defined in terms of assurance of the individual’s eternal security, though we must never lose sight of that central gospel truth. It must be related to the whole of life. This is especially the case as we face an unpredictable future. Social scientists describe the times through which we are moving as characterized by chaotic change. We can no longer make long-range plans and steer them to fulfillment by a step-by-step strategic goal achievement. Institutions across the board, whether political, business, educational, military, or religious are finding that you cannot plan for an uncertain future. Yes, they need a guiding vision and strategic thinking, but their planning has to be on the basis of possible alternative scenarios playing out, and when the completely unanticipated occurs, just-in-time planning. Competence is no longer enough, but must be combined with faith that is constantly re-defining reality in the light of God’s Big Picture. Faith, biblically defined is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

For the past five years I have been meeting with a large number of younger leaders – under 35s who have given me insight into the future of faith. They are risk-takers who are passionate for God and prepared to give whatever it takes to demonstrate the relevance and power of the gospel to the generations most alienated from the institutional church. But the future does not lie exclusively with these young leaders. There are also older leaders who are engaging with the profound changes taking place in our culture. They are reaching beyond their denominational structures and sub-cultures to create ground level combined mission task forces. In the midst of cultural turmoil there will be much confusion and not a few casualties. The key to the future of faith is not just in the hands of the younger leaders, but with older Christians who are committed to ministries of intercession and mentoring. Many under 35s did not have a good relationship with their preoccupied parents, but they love their grandparents!

Perhaps the challenge of faith is strongest for the Boomer generation, who may be tempted to rely upon the financial and institutional securities they have built up around them. In middle age there is a strong tendency to “circle the wagons.” I am reminded of the old saying; “Once, by faith, I set my goal further than the eye can see. Now I am near to my goal. I have moved it nearer me.” But with the uncertainties of the twenty-first century God is removing the goalposts!

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