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Rethinking Church in the 21st Century

As Fuller reimagines who we need to be in this season of change, the idea of “rethinking church for the 21st century” has been a key theme. It is critical we get this right, as any degrees and learning resources we offer—as well as the institutional structures needed to develop, deliver, and support them—must be largely driven by the church and her priorities. To do this well requires that we do a much better job listening to God and to diverse local, national, and global voices and partners—both within and outside the boundaries traditionally used to define the church. We asked a few such voices to address some questions about the church, its challenges, and its opportunities.

In what ways is the church of today falling short of the Evangel—the good news of God’s love and justice in Jesus Christ?

John Witvliet: The list of failings seems overwhelmingly large: failures related to racism, classism, ableism, and creation care; failures related to truth-telling and accountability; failures related to how we love God and our neighbor; failures related to how we preach and teach the Bible and pray for the world God loves. And when attempting to focus my answer to this question, I can’t help but notice the temptation to confess the sins of others with more care than to confess my own. Perhaps at the root of a lot of this is a failure to actually repent rather than merely talk about repentance.

Alexia Salvatierra: Early in the 20th century, the church divided the body from the soul, with the fundamentalists focusing on the state of people’s souls and the social gospel focusing on the state of their bodies. When you divide a body from a soul, the person in question dies; by the miracle of grace, the body of Christ has not died, but it has been walking wounded and its witness has been severely weakened. Healing started in the 1970s, evident at the Lausanne Conference. However, there have been serious flare-ups of the essential illness, most recently in the church’s widespread mirroring and echoing of societal divisions, as if being the disciples of Jesus was irrelevant. The earliest church shocked the world with its embrace of all comers across ethno-racial, gender, and class divisions, recognizing the authority and power of the Holy Spirit coming through people who had been on the margins and at the bottom of society. This embrace was integral—sharing not only leadership and power but also their goods and possessions. What if we were known for that today? Maybe we would not be losing more than a million young people a year from organized faith.

Antipas Harris: The church is falling short of the Evangel in at least three ways. The first is that a myopic vision of “church” has limited the vision of the gospel to personalized and ecclesiastical dynamics. Emphasis on Jesus only as “personal savior” has blinded the church to the richness of the gospel in social dimensions. The early church only understood the gospel socially. Personal salvation was the equipping for social ministry. This is evident in Acts 3, when Peter and John met a socially outcast man with a physical and economic impediment. This came just after the chapter on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The sequence of events implies that the birth of the church was not for merely personal or ecclesial purposes but rather to empower believers to attend to the social as well as spiritual needs in the world. Secondly, the church is falling short in its uncritical alliances and allegiances to party politics. Party politics have taken the driver’s seat on what’s important and what’s not. The gospel is prophetic and sets the moral agenda. But too much of the church is giving up its moral conscience for political expediency—and perhaps for financial reasons. Thirdly, the church is falling short of the Evangel because, for far too long, the church, as an institution, has existed for itself. The church must become far more outwardly concerned about bearing witness to Christ’s mission in the community. By advancing God’s work, I am not speaking of acts of kindness like giving food and having a clothes closet. I am speaking of the prophetic work of pursuing social transformation of policies and immoral structures that created the problems in the first place. That is the root-it-up, tear-it-down, and build-it-up-again prophetic call—the politics of Jesus—that turned over tables in oppressive religious structures, upset the social equilibrium, and positioned much of the early church to contend with the empire.

Michelle Ami Reyes: On one end of the spectrum, the church is failing to show the social dimensions of the gospel, namely that Christ is redeeming all things, and as such we as Christians should care about all things. James 1:27 says that we are to look after the widows and the orphans, a reference to the most destitute and vulnerable. By extension we are to care for all who are destitute and vulnerable. This is the very definition of social righteousness. But one segment of the church has completely neglected social righteousness and argued it is not core to Christianity. That’s a problem because time and again, in Scripture, God commands God’s people to be righteous. On the other end of the spectrum, we see a segment of the church not calling for personal righteousness. They are ignoring that Christ came to die for their sins, and they are not calling people to repentance. Their emphasis on social righteousness has caused them to lose sight of God’s grace and the need for us to be justified through Christ. The gospel encompasses both personal and social dimensions, and the church needs to regain this robust vision.

What are one or two major challenges confronting the church, and what are some of the promising responses you have seen that we can build on?

Alexia Salvatierra: The core challenge is to find the right wineskins to embody the strong wine of the gospel in this historic moment. In our research, we found that young Latinxs (millennials and Gen Z) want churches to be community centers, in which people are free to be their authentic selves and to dialogue about controversial questions—wrestling with the Word of God, caring for each other’s needs (and the needs of their neighbors), utilizing and valuing the gifts and contributions of each person, meeting God mystically in deeply emotional and expressive worship, doing the hard work of reconciliation when we sin against each other, standing for justice for the poor and marginalized. Sounds like the book of Acts, right? However, there are aspects of modern society that seriously impede the implementation of that vision, even if everyone wants it. We are mobile, busy, connected and disconnected by screens, with crazily different narratives that we rely on to explain reality. We have a global imagination, but we have little capacity to impact the globalization that affects our local lives and communities. If we are low-income, we are working multiple jobs just to keep a roof over the heads of our families and food on the table—and God help us if we get sick. Where is the timeless time necessary to meet those goals? What does authentic Christian community look like in this world?

John Witvliet: Racism is surely a central challenge. It is inspiring to see and to follow women and men of color who are leading initiatives driven by an all-nations-and-cultures vision of the coming kingdom, and to notice pockets of renewed resolve and chastened leadership in some contexts not yet known for their vision of diversity and inclusion.

In worship, it is remarkably heartening to see young pastors, musicians, and artists apprenticing themselves to the psalms and to the basics of patristic trinitarian sacramental theology, and then shaping faithful, indigenous public worship practices in a host of local cultural contexts.

Michelle Ami Reyes: One major challenge today is the rampant polarization of the church. The church has taken its cues from the broader political discussions and adopted a polarizing attitude, such that if you disagree with me, you’re either heretical or a bigot. We are hypercritical of folks who think and vote differently from us and are often willing to label them as non-Christian. Historically, the Black and Brown church has modeled humility to partner with others and to not write off those who are different for the sake of shared goals. We saw this in the civil rights movement, among other milestones in US history. Right now, we’re seeing some Christians and Christian leaders modeling, teaching, and encouraging the church how to avoid this polarization, such as Esau McCauley, Thabiti Anyabwile, Robert Chao Romero, Tish Warren, Rondell Trevino, Justin Giboney, and others.

Antipas Harris: A major challenge confronting the church is a generation that claims to be spiritual but is either uninterested in Christianity or unwilling to join a local church. According to Pew, the combination of millennials and Gen Z are more spiritual than previous generations. Previous religiously oriented generations subscribed to religious guidelines and dogma about God and godly living. This generation tends to understand God within a framework of invisible institutions. Visible institutions are churches, synagogues, and mosques. Invisible institutions are more relational than physical. They include neighborhoods, sports, music, dance, etc. Consequently, this generation does not draw lines between secular and sacred like previous generations. God is involved in all of life and affirms all of human existence. The challenge for the church is to adjust to bearing witness in a social framework that is not consistent with its rather anachronistic approaches and understandings of God and God-related things.

What are exciting ways in which the church of today is innovating for the sake of the gospel in the 2020s?

Michelle Ami Reyes: We can contextualize best to our context. We are seeing more Christians of color going back to their neighborhoods and communities, rising up as local leaders, and caring for their communities in ways that a non-local couldn’t. This is the story of Hope Community Church, the minority-led multicultural congregation that my husband, Aaron, and I planted in Austin in 2014. Aaron grew up in the area and lived in government housing with his single mom, and he felt God’s calling to plant a church there. Since 2014, we have been growing organically, not attractionally, and we’re growing primarily through relational, not financial, capital. Trust and street credibility mean more in our community than $100,000 in the bank. Local pastors of color understand this. This is also the origin of The Crete Collective (TCC), a church-planting network that exists to establish gospel-driven churches in distressed and neglected Black and Brown communities. TCC helps pastors go back to the neighborhoods they grew up in—the ones they know best—instead of waiting and expecting other denominations and networks to make inroads. I hope to see more Christians of color planting churches in their hometowns, making inroads into their own communities, and in particular rethinking how to do ministry within the urban Black and Brown context.

Antipas Harris: Three ways that churches are innovating include utilizing technology, creating additional streams of income, and working in partnerships. COVID-19 created a reality check. If the church is to serve this present age and the age to come, it must participate more efficiently with the evolving technological age. There are several innovative approaches that churches are engaging in, such as “e-church membership,” Zoom small groups, and online church membership orientations. E-church membership has extended the local church to the world. I often speak with pastors of small churches who comment on new members from other parts of the globe. Suddenly, the local church has an opportunity to be global without taking a flight! Also, churches are discovering new ways to fund ministry. While tithes and offerings remain the norm, more and more churches are creating for-profit organizations to create revenue streams to help fund costly ministry efforts. Lastly, churches are learning the power of partnerships. For too long, churches and denominations have operated as silos. There is more innovation around working together for a common cause.

John Witvliet: In our work at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we’ve met hundreds of remarkable “traditioned innovators”—chaplains, songwriters, ushers, preachers, youth and children’s ministry leaders, educators, public theologians, church administrators, and more. In fact, the sheer number of faithful people leading with disciplined creativity in unsung roles humbles and inspires us. Their innovations include everything from more accessible websites, more pastorally oriented sermons, more scripturally robust songs, more candid and constructive conversations about socioeconomic class and race, stronger accountability structures for leaders of all kinds, new learning about cultural intelligence, renewed disciplines of Sabbath-shaped retreats, deeper engagement with the wisdom of historical practices, new approaches to hospitality and generosity in giving, and more. While news headlines about church life so often disturb us, we are continually renewed in hope by countless examples of creative local leaders we meet who may never be interviewed by a journalist.

Alexia Salvatierra: With my colleague Rev. Brandon Wrencher, I am just completing a book on the Base Christian Community Movement and the Hush Harbors, and the insights from those grassroots expressions of vibrant Christian communities for the 21st century. In writing that book, we are thinking about all the small and medium-sized POC-led Christian communities that we know personally, who are being the church with energy, power, and beauty at this historic moment—truly Christ-centered, intergenerational, integrating body and soul. In California, La Fuente Ministries in Pasadena, Ebenezer Church in San Diego, La Iglesia Bautista de Maywood, la Primera Iglesia Cristiana de Whittier, REACH in Long Beach, the Los Angeles branch of New Song, and the base Christian community network of Dolores Mission, Los Angeles; in North Carolina, the Good Neighbor Movement in Greensboro and Mission House in Salisbury/Spencer; and multiple churches in the Lutheran Church of El Salvador—just to mention a few. These churches face the same challenges, but they “do not weary of doing good.” They carry out integral mission, making disciples of the living Christ, sharing life together and working for the shalom of their communities.

Written By

Ted Cosse is Fuller’s chief operating officer, dean of the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy, and executive director of Fuller Psychological and Family Services.

Alexia Salvatierra is academic dean for Centro Latino and assistant professor of mission and global transformation at Fuller; she is also an ordained Lutheran pastor.

Antipas L. Harris is adjunct associate professor of preaching at Fuller, president-dean of Jakes Divinity School, and associate pastor at The Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of worship, theology, and congregational and ministry studies at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary.

Michelle Ami Reyes is the vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative (AACC) as well as a church planter, author, speaker, and activist in Austin, Texas.

As Fuller reimagines who we need to be in this season of change, the idea of “rethinking church for the 21st century” has been a key theme. It is critical we get this right, as any degrees and learning resources we offer—as well as the institutional structures needed to develop, deliver, and support them—must be largely driven by the church and her priorities. To do this well requires that we do a much better job listening to God and to diverse local, national, and global voices and partners—both within and outside the boundaries traditionally used to define the church. We asked a few such voices to address some questions about the church, its challenges, and its opportunities.

In what ways is the church of today falling short of the Evangel—the good news of God’s love and justice in Jesus Christ?

John Witvliet: The list of failings seems overwhelmingly large: failures related to racism, classism, ableism, and creation care; failures related to truth-telling and accountability; failures related to how we love God and our neighbor; failures related to how we preach and teach the Bible and pray for the world God loves. And when attempting to focus my answer to this question, I can’t help but notice the temptation to confess the sins of others with more care than to confess my own. Perhaps at the root of a lot of this is a failure to actually repent rather than merely talk about repentance.

Alexia Salvatierra: Early in the 20th century, the church divided the body from the soul, with the fundamentalists focusing on the state of people’s souls and the social gospel focusing on the state of their bodies. When you divide a body from a soul, the person in question dies; by the miracle of grace, the body of Christ has not died, but it has been walking wounded and its witness has been severely weakened. Healing started in the 1970s, evident at the Lausanne Conference. However, there have been serious flare-ups of the essential illness, most recently in the church’s widespread mirroring and echoing of societal divisions, as if being the disciples of Jesus was irrelevant. The earliest church shocked the world with its embrace of all comers across ethno-racial, gender, and class divisions, recognizing the authority and power of the Holy Spirit coming through people who had been on the margins and at the bottom of society. This embrace was integral—sharing not only leadership and power but also their goods and possessions. What if we were known for that today? Maybe we would not be losing more than a million young people a year from organized faith.

Antipas Harris: The church is falling short of the Evangel in at least three ways. The first is that a myopic vision of “church” has limited the vision of the gospel to personalized and ecclesiastical dynamics. Emphasis on Jesus only as “personal savior” has blinded the church to the richness of the gospel in social dimensions. The early church only understood the gospel socially. Personal salvation was the equipping for social ministry. This is evident in Acts 3, when Peter and John met a socially outcast man with a physical and economic impediment. This came just after the chapter on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The sequence of events implies that the birth of the church was not for merely personal or ecclesial purposes but rather to empower believers to attend to the social as well as spiritual needs in the world. Secondly, the church is falling short in its uncritical alliances and allegiances to party politics. Party politics have taken the driver’s seat on what’s important and what’s not. The gospel is prophetic and sets the moral agenda. But too much of the church is giving up its moral conscience for political expediency—and perhaps for financial reasons. Thirdly, the church is falling short of the Evangel because, for far too long, the church, as an institution, has existed for itself. The church must become far more outwardly concerned about bearing witness to Christ’s mission in the community. By advancing God’s work, I am not speaking of acts of kindness like giving food and having a clothes closet. I am speaking of the prophetic work of pursuing social transformation of policies and immoral structures that created the problems in the first place. That is the root-it-up, tear-it-down, and build-it-up-again prophetic call—the politics of Jesus—that turned over tables in oppressive religious structures, upset the social equilibrium, and positioned much of the early church to contend with the empire.

Michelle Ami Reyes: On one end of the spectrum, the church is failing to show the social dimensions of the gospel, namely that Christ is redeeming all things, and as such we as Christians should care about all things. James 1:27 says that we are to look after the widows and the orphans, a reference to the most destitute and vulnerable. By extension we are to care for all who are destitute and vulnerable. This is the very definition of social righteousness. But one segment of the church has completely neglected social righteousness and argued it is not core to Christianity. That’s a problem because time and again, in Scripture, God commands God’s people to be righteous. On the other end of the spectrum, we see a segment of the church not calling for personal righteousness. They are ignoring that Christ came to die for their sins, and they are not calling people to repentance. Their emphasis on social righteousness has caused them to lose sight of God’s grace and the need for us to be justified through Christ. The gospel encompasses both personal and social dimensions, and the church needs to regain this robust vision.

What are one or two major challenges confronting the church, and what are some of the promising responses you have seen that we can build on?

Alexia Salvatierra: The core challenge is to find the right wineskins to embody the strong wine of the gospel in this historic moment. In our research, we found that young Latinxs (millennials and Gen Z) want churches to be community centers, in which people are free to be their authentic selves and to dialogue about controversial questions—wrestling with the Word of God, caring for each other’s needs (and the needs of their neighbors), utilizing and valuing the gifts and contributions of each person, meeting God mystically in deeply emotional and expressive worship, doing the hard work of reconciliation when we sin against each other, standing for justice for the poor and marginalized. Sounds like the book of Acts, right? However, there are aspects of modern society that seriously impede the implementation of that vision, even if everyone wants it. We are mobile, busy, connected and disconnected by screens, with crazily different narratives that we rely on to explain reality. We have a global imagination, but we have little capacity to impact the globalization that affects our local lives and communities. If we are low-income, we are working multiple jobs just to keep a roof over the heads of our families and food on the table—and God help us if we get sick. Where is the timeless time necessary to meet those goals? What does authentic Christian community look like in this world?

John Witvliet: Racism is surely a central challenge. It is inspiring to see and to follow women and men of color who are leading initiatives driven by an all-nations-and-cultures vision of the coming kingdom, and to notice pockets of renewed resolve and chastened leadership in some contexts not yet known for their vision of diversity and inclusion.

In worship, it is remarkably heartening to see young pastors, musicians, and artists apprenticing themselves to the psalms and to the basics of patristic trinitarian sacramental theology, and then shaping faithful, indigenous public worship practices in a host of local cultural contexts.

Michelle Ami Reyes: One major challenge today is the rampant polarization of the church. The church has taken its cues from the broader political discussions and adopted a polarizing attitude, such that if you disagree with me, you’re either heretical or a bigot. We are hypercritical of folks who think and vote differently from us and are often willing to label them as non-Christian. Historically, the Black and Brown church has modeled humility to partner with others and to not write off those who are different for the sake of shared goals. We saw this in the civil rights movement, among other milestones in US history. Right now, we’re seeing some Christians and Christian leaders modeling, teaching, and encouraging the church how to avoid this polarization, such as Esau McCauley, Thabiti Anyabwile, Robert Chao Romero, Tish Warren, Rondell Trevino, Justin Giboney, and others.

Antipas Harris: A major challenge confronting the church is a generation that claims to be spiritual but is either uninterested in Christianity or unwilling to join a local church. According to Pew, the combination of millennials and Gen Z are more spiritual than previous generations. Previous religiously oriented generations subscribed to religious guidelines and dogma about God and godly living. This generation tends to understand God within a framework of invisible institutions. Visible institutions are churches, synagogues, and mosques. Invisible institutions are more relational than physical. They include neighborhoods, sports, music, dance, etc. Consequently, this generation does not draw lines between secular and sacred like previous generations. God is involved in all of life and affirms all of human existence. The challenge for the church is to adjust to bearing witness in a social framework that is not consistent with its rather anachronistic approaches and understandings of God and God-related things.

What are exciting ways in which the church of today is innovating for the sake of the gospel in the 2020s?

Michelle Ami Reyes: We can contextualize best to our context. We are seeing more Christians of color going back to their neighborhoods and communities, rising up as local leaders, and caring for their communities in ways that a non-local couldn’t. This is the story of Hope Community Church, the minority-led multicultural congregation that my husband, Aaron, and I planted in Austin in 2014. Aaron grew up in the area and lived in government housing with his single mom, and he felt God’s calling to plant a church there. Since 2014, we have been growing organically, not attractionally, and we’re growing primarily through relational, not financial, capital. Trust and street credibility mean more in our community than $100,000 in the bank. Local pastors of color understand this. This is also the origin of The Crete Collective (TCC), a church-planting network that exists to establish gospel-driven churches in distressed and neglected Black and Brown communities. TCC helps pastors go back to the neighborhoods they grew up in—the ones they know best—instead of waiting and expecting other denominations and networks to make inroads. I hope to see more Christians of color planting churches in their hometowns, making inroads into their own communities, and in particular rethinking how to do ministry within the urban Black and Brown context.

Antipas Harris: Three ways that churches are innovating include utilizing technology, creating additional streams of income, and working in partnerships. COVID-19 created a reality check. If the church is to serve this present age and the age to come, it must participate more efficiently with the evolving technological age. There are several innovative approaches that churches are engaging in, such as “e-church membership,” Zoom small groups, and online church membership orientations. E-church membership has extended the local church to the world. I often speak with pastors of small churches who comment on new members from other parts of the globe. Suddenly, the local church has an opportunity to be global without taking a flight! Also, churches are discovering new ways to fund ministry. While tithes and offerings remain the norm, more and more churches are creating for-profit organizations to create revenue streams to help fund costly ministry efforts. Lastly, churches are learning the power of partnerships. For too long, churches and denominations have operated as silos. There is more innovation around working together for a common cause.

John Witvliet: In our work at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we’ve met hundreds of remarkable “traditioned innovators”—chaplains, songwriters, ushers, preachers, youth and children’s ministry leaders, educators, public theologians, church administrators, and more. In fact, the sheer number of faithful people leading with disciplined creativity in unsung roles humbles and inspires us. Their innovations include everything from more accessible websites, more pastorally oriented sermons, more scripturally robust songs, more candid and constructive conversations about socioeconomic class and race, stronger accountability structures for leaders of all kinds, new learning about cultural intelligence, renewed disciplines of Sabbath-shaped retreats, deeper engagement with the wisdom of historical practices, new approaches to hospitality and generosity in giving, and more. While news headlines about church life so often disturb us, we are continually renewed in hope by countless examples of creative local leaders we meet who may never be interviewed by a journalist.

Alexia Salvatierra: With my colleague Rev. Brandon Wrencher, I am just completing a book on the Base Christian Community Movement and the Hush Harbors, and the insights from those grassroots expressions of vibrant Christian communities for the 21st century. In writing that book, we are thinking about all the small and medium-sized POC-led Christian communities that we know personally, who are being the church with energy, power, and beauty at this historic moment—truly Christ-centered, intergenerational, integrating body and soul. In California, La Fuente Ministries in Pasadena, Ebenezer Church in San Diego, La Iglesia Bautista de Maywood, la Primera Iglesia Cristiana de Whittier, REACH in Long Beach, the Los Angeles branch of New Song, and the base Christian community network of Dolores Mission, Los Angeles; in North Carolina, the Good Neighbor Movement in Greensboro and Mission House in Salisbury/Spencer; and multiple churches in the Lutheran Church of El Salvador—just to mention a few. These churches face the same challenges, but they “do not weary of doing good.” They carry out integral mission, making disciples of the living Christ, sharing life together and working for the shalom of their communities.

Ted Cosse is Fuller’s chief operating officer, dean of the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy, and executive director of Fuller Psychological and Family Services.

Alexia Salvatierra is academic dean for Centro Latino and assistant professor of mission and global transformation at Fuller; she is also an ordained Lutheran pastor.

Antipas L. Harris is adjunct associate professor of preaching at Fuller, president-dean of Jakes Divinity School, and associate pastor at The Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of worship, theology, and congregational and ministry studies at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary.

Michelle Ami Reyes is the vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative (AACC) as well as a church planter, author, speaker, and activist in Austin, Texas.

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