Facing the questions that will shape the church in the 21st century
by Brad Duncan
I suppose that I was born to question. I was taught as a child that questioning things was a healthy way to learn, and that discovering for myself what I think or believe about something was the right way to grow in understanding. When studying the Bible, Christians strongly believe that due to the active, alive presence of God in the world -- we call this aspect of God the Holy Spirit -- that truth in the Bible is made more real through God’s help. Understanding the Bible is an active process of discovery. But we only discover things when we question them. Like a good investigator we have to look into the challenging questions and consider the alternatives, find key points of truths that will help answer the questions, and come up with our own way of putting the pieces together. Since theology and many concepts in the Bible are abstract philosophical topics with many details not spelled out for us, being a Christian is a process of discovery.
I’m also qualified to question. We all are! With an active mind and a healthy spirit that seeks God, we are all qualified to approach the Bible and God with difficult questions. It is a part of our spirituality that must be nurtured. The alternative, questioning nothing, means that we stay at a surface level of understanding God. The deeper truths are not so evident but require time and personal growth.
With this approach to discovery by questioning, I have often questioned everything about going to church, being in the church, and how my local church fits into the broader church -- the one that Jesus described when he told Peter:
I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.
[Matthew 16:18, Common English Bible, CEB].
What is the church and how do I sign up?
Is my local church the thing that Jesus is talking about? Is my denomination? Are the non-denominational evangelical churches in the United States? Are all the local churches everywhere, whether Protestant, Catholic or otherwise? What about Christians everywhere, whether in a local church or not? Is this the church? Just by following Jesus am I already part of it? What about all of God’s children? Are they part of the church in a broader sense, in that God is working in the world and it affects us all? Yes - in a sense all Christians everywhere and throughout history are the church that Jesus built, and yes every local church group is a small branch of the larger tree, and yes every Christian is a leaf on that tree, and every human is a child of God and whether they prefer to associate with the church or not, they are a part of it in some way. So the Christian perspective is that the church is me, the church is humanity, and the church is our attempt as humans to follow God in this world.
Naturally this line of questioning made me think about things like the purpose, vision and mission of the church. Each local church group has a founding vision statement and mission statement, where they have considered their purpose and how they will be organized. This is where it gets interesting. There are also often a constitution and other legal documents that describe the local church, as required for any non-profit institution. It may be independent or may be part of an organized denomination, in which case the denomination is also organized with documents like this. The local church and denomination will have a statement of faith, a statement of core values, etc., which defines that group and differentiates it from the others as needed. All of these documents help identify how the church group fits into the church that Jesus built. How they interpret their role in their community, and how they want to “Sign up” to be a part of what God is doing in the world. So, I should naturally be able to look at these statements, listen to what the local churches are saying, and decide which one I want to belong to. That’s how I too “Sign up” to be a part of what God is doing, right?
That might work. But it creates many questions for me as I seek to understand my place, and the place of the local church in the bigger picture. I’ve participated or spectated in churches all of my life, but I’ve also questioned them. When the preacher talks about “our mission” I’ve paid special attention and done my own research. As I wrote above, we are all qualified to question, and it’s advisable to do so when we are talking about fulfilling God’s calling on our lives.
I decided to write a book -- a series of questions and answers. And I'll share it in this blog.
These questions and answers are my life’s work! It is the result of gathering my thoughts around our foundational questions as the church, and trying to put together the pieces, especially the ones that never made sense to me.
There are four main threads to my questioning.
First is the thread of mission and purpose. What was the church created for? What was Jesus trying to do when he started it by teaching disciples and launching them on this mission? What is God’s bigger plan according to the Bible? What are my own vision statement and mission statement for the church?
A second thread is about beliefs. What are the right things to believe about God, Jesus and the Bible? There are many different interpretations of right and wrong out there, many different versions of statements of faith, many different theologies. What is my statement of faith? What is my statement of core beliefs?
Third, what are we supposed to be doing? That is, what are the right actions, behaviors, and organized activities that I should be doing and that the church should be doing? As Jesus often taught, following his teachings leads to a transformation of both heart and action, so what are the right actions? How do I follow Jesus in this world?
Fourth, how are we supposed to treat other people? As a Christian and as the church, the first three questions already indicate how we should act toward others, but more specifically, how should we treat people that we know and those we don’t know. Are we doing it right? What about all the injustice and wrong treatment of others that we see around us, not just in the world around us but also in Christian circles -- how can I, how can the church, change this and be a force for treating people the right way, with love, kindness and compassion?
Mission — Beliefs — Actions — Love:
Four angles to question
To answer these questions on any meaningful level as it relates to following Jesus and understanding God, I have to go back to the source -- The Bible, and particularly the New Testament. I decided to start a large writing project that is both an exploration of these questions and a Bible study -- a walk through the entire New Testament -- a search for answers and a process of discovery.
For each question I pose, I describe first what Jesus taught, and how he would likely answer the question, based on his teachings, parables, his life and his public ministry. Then, I discuss in some detail my own answer and what it looks like today to put into practice the teachings of Jesus in the 21st century. What does it mean to follow Jesus, if we answer these key questions the way that Jesus would? What if we started church all over again, what would we do to follow Jesus the best way? How would we be organized, what would be our core beliefs, our mission statement, etc. With an open mind and a bright future ahead of us, what should the church look like as it continues in the 21st century and into the next one? If Jesus would call us to change what we are currently doing, how do his teachings guide us on how to change? How would we change in response to those teachings today?
Finally for each question I go back to the source and walk through books of the Bible to build a foundation of key concepts that help to answer the question. If you take a look at the overview table below, you will see the topics that I am covering with these key questions, and which books of the Bible I am using as source material in addition to looking at the teachings of Jesus for each question (subject to change of course). In my search for answers I cover the entire New Testament. This writing project can be used as a Bible study guide that explores these key questions.
Finally, I want to encourage you:
Questions are good things, and you are qualified to question.
The process of discovery by seeking the answers to your questions will lead to a deeper understanding of who you are, who God is, and how you fit into the world. I hope that you can explore some of these ideas with me and continue with your own questions. It is my life’s work, and it is work that will never be done!
Overview Table - Facing the questions that will shape the church in the 21st century
Book(s) of the Bible (TBD)
How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?
How can the church change the world through its actions?
What are the right things to believe about God, and how should our beliefs shape the church as the kingdom of God?
What is the message of the church to the 21st century world?
Will the church respond to homosexuality with grace or judgment in the 21st century? What is our stance on acceptance of differences, equality and social justice?
What kind of actions and practices please God as individuals and in the church?
Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians
How do we develop spiritual growth in individuals and the community as a whole?
1 Thess. to Jude
How does God want us to use our time and money in the kingdom?
1 Thess. to Jude
How can the kingdom of God be organized in today’s society?
What is the mission of the church in the 21st century?
How do we build the kingdom of God for the long haul, and what is our responsibility for the world around us?