Grace Emerges

Friday, October 14, 2016

Challenges for the church

by Brad Duncan

What are the challenges for the church today?  What forces are driving the church?  How should we respond to these forces and challenges?  This article continues the discussion.

These posts are excerpts from a full-length article and presentation.  For more information or the full documents, please email me at


Let me start by briefly describing the primary forces and factors driving the church today.

The church is at the middle of a myriad of forces. If you think about God’s work and all that God is trying to do in the world to save it and bring healing, God wants the church to be the center of the solution.

People need God, and they need the church. They need the church to organize, mobilize, and exemplify the message and work of God. God works through people. He always has, and he always will as long as we are on this Earth!

On the other hand the church is at a particular place in its history, driven by its own traditions, its own story and expectations of its members. You can also call it inertia – the church is moving in a certain direction for historical reasons, and changing that direction may require a large force to make it move a different direction!

One such force is the power of changing ideas. As society starts to recognize many of the mistakes and inequities in our traditional way of thinking, and as we start to open up to new ways of thinking, the church feels the pressure to tackle these ideas and consider how they should affect the church.

I know very well that everyone has their own perspective on various social issues, and I am not assuming everyone agrees with me on controversial questions. However, I think we can all see that society is changing, trying to do a better job of bringing the concept that All People are Created Equal into reality. Where our old laws and societal structures created systematic inequity, we are working to fix that. We as a country are trying to bring better opportunities for ALL KIDS in the education system, better health care for ALL PEOPLE, better access to the same services. 
We don’t want only the rich, only the white, only the men, or only the heterosexual, to be treated fairly. 
That wouldn’t be fairness at all! That’s called elitism and prejudice. Today’s understanding of such inequity is that it’s morally wrong! 

This is one example of progress in society that will affect the church. The church has to adapt and change, responding to these forces, or it will lose relevance and become out of touch with the people it is trying to reach. 

In one or two generations, as the mindset of these new generations drifts further from the traditional mindset, will the church adapt? Or become ancient history? The faster the times change, the faster the church must respond.

As a church we need to respond to these forces, and MOVE where motion is required. Let me explain further by addressing the various challenges the church is facing today and then describing how we can respond to them.


I don't have room in one article to cover all the challenges, so I'll break it into several posts.

The Mass Exodus

The church is feeling it – people are leaving. You can find more about this global trend all over the blogosphere so I won’t give the supporting details here. But it seems the church is losing its influence due to sheer numbers of people it is reaching.

This trend is not isolated to the church. People are spending less at retail businesses in favor of the convenience and selection of online shopping. Companies that depend on the old market forces to sell products are being blindsided by this new reality. Essentially a store in the mall has to compete with the cheapest prices anywhere on the internet. When I go to a store and see a price on an item I think about buying, I often check its price on my Amazon app on my smartphone. I know you all do it! If the price is cheaper and I can wait a few days, the item arrives at my doorstep in 3 days with free shipping!

Everywhere in the business world, companies are feeling the massive weight of technology change. If they don’t adapt and leverage what new technology can offer to change their business and reach a new audience, they will quickly stop having customers. We have seen many retail chains go out of business. I’ll never again get to shop at a Blockbuster Video, Circuit City, CompUSA, or Borders books. I actually feel sad about that. But there will be more retail chains that go the way of memory. Will it be Macy’s, Sears, Target?

Will I even be able to go to stores or malls in the future?
The tech industry is feeling the same crunch. Due to a crowded competitive landscape, companies that embrace the leading edge also risk going out of business due to competitors, through investing in the wrong technology, through mistakes in manufacturing (like smartphones catching on fire, for example!), or by not understanding consumers well enough. Companies that lead the industry, like Apple, also have to lead through numerous transformative changes. They have to keep leading, and not depend on products that worked in the past.

Can the church also respond to this reality?

The kingdom of God has to adapt to the times and world it is trying to reach. 

We must innovate, and we must embrace change. Fortunately, God can see over the horizon and understand what changes are needed. With God guiding us we can navigate these changes and find a new model that will work for future generations. The model that worked in the past may not work as well in the future.

In particular, what about worship services offered by churches? Do people still want to go to them? Will they continue to go in the future?

New Ideas in Old Wineskins

Jesus told a rather cryptic story about how you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins. Apparently when you do that they leak, or worse, burst open! Since we don’t use leather wine bottles these days this example is foreign to us. But it’s interesting. It’s true that when you try to adapt to change, the old system may not be able to take it. This is maybe the #1 challenge for the church. The changes it needs to make may unravel it.

In order to resist the painful breaks that will occur as the church tries to adapt, some people will build walls to protect the old ways.

Without even meaning to, these walls create a more country-club-like atmosphere. Without intentionally excluding anyone, the church can become a refuge for similar-thinking people trying to protect what they think is right from the tide of changing ideas around them.

As a case in point, from what I’ve experienced, many churches are responding to social issues with silent neutrality. They think that by avoiding the hard stuff they can stay out of the controversy and continue business as usual. Like in my examples of education and medicine above, some churches seem content to stick to the traditional way of operating, while knowing that it can’t reach many people that don’t fit into this system.

But here we have a clear example in Jesus. He came to change things. He was willing to break a few wineskins and tear down many walls in order to let people know what God wanted to bring in the world.

Take a close look at Luke 4, and the passages in Isaiah that Jesus was referencing. Do you see how Jesus was trying to bring about positive but disruptive changes to society and to religion?

If you gather all the changes Jesus was trying to bring from these passages in Isaiah you get a huge list!

I don’t read anywhere in the story of Jesus about how he tried to maintain the old system because he was worried that people would be upset, or that families would not have a place to feel comfortable, or that budgets would struggle. 

He had limited time on this Earth and he didn’t mince words. 

He said “Today this prophecy is fulfilled! The time is now upon you and these changes are happening, whether you like it or not!” I’m paraphrasing the conversation recorded in Luke 4. 

Jesus was referring to all the prophecies in the old testament about what he had come to do. To do God’s work, he had to bring disruptive change.
Are we too locked into our current way of thinking to allow this type of disruptive change to take hold today?  If so, this inertia, or unwillingness to move, may be our biggest challenge to overcome.


  1. As I read this I wondered what was left out because what you offered is vague. One thing that we (the church, the present body of Christ) MUST remember while trying to "advance" in order to reach people is that we are called to be set apart i.e. Not to resemble the "world."
    We aren't to do as the world does but more and more that is what I'm experiencing with churches. I didn't recommit my life to Christ because I wanted to be the same sinful fleshly lost person I had been and no one led me to Him. God was calling me back into the fold. HE gave me a reason to come into a new relationship with Jesus. HE used a specific person, with a specific and special testimony to reach me. Not a church.
    I resisted church but I did not resist people's stories.
    I say this because I am seeing very worldly examples in churches, mostly new churches. And people are attracted to these places because the full gospel is not being relayed, merely acceptance. People aren't being sanctified. They aren't receiving the Holy Spirit. They are merely falling into a "works" mentality that if they volunteer enough or feed enough homeless people they are going to heaven. Very "feel good" superficial stuff. The pastors are participating in the worldly aspects too which dumbfounds me.
    I'm in no way trying to incite debate here but urge people not to fall into the trap of the enemy while trying to reach the "lost", as many understand what hypocrisy looks like and that is why they're leaving or won't become part of the church. Scripture tells us that this would happen, Jesus also tells us to go and teach all nations while being genuine to His ministry/teachings while doing so. This includes combating those forces not of God in this world.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I think Jesus taught us about unconditionally love, demonstrating the heart that God has for all of his children. This is the good news. This is the message the church should demonstrate to the world.

  2. GraceEmerges, I greatly enjoyed your words. For some time now I've been delving deeper and deeper into what it means to be a Christian. I see so much hatred and intolerance, so many people acting in a way I can only imagine Christ finding abhorrent, and it's clear to me that Christianity is still so far from what God intended...

    I have my own theories that I'm in the (slow) process of working through, but I can't fight the nagging feeling that something about mainstream Christianity is very, very off.

    1. Thanks Amber for commenting on the post. Actually I thought I replied earlier but it didn't go through.

      Anyway I hope you are able to you are able to keep mulling over these questions, and that God will speak to you through your seeking.