There is a scene that pops up in movies and TV shows fairly regularly. An unexpected accident or illness lands one of the characters in a hospital on life support and likely in a coma. Family and friends gather around and look to the doctor, who describes the injuries or illness, making it sound extremely serious. Someone asks the inevitable question, “What are the chances?”, seeking to discover whether the patient will live or die.
Almost invariable, the answer from the doctor is that the chances are not good–the patient will likely die and if they don’t die, they will be disabled for life. Some shows then follow the miraculous recovery process while others follow the family and friends as they deal with the resulting death or disability. Which track the show follows probably depends a lot on the contract negotiations between the studio and the actor playing the patient.
That scene popped into my mind when I was thinking about the church. All of us are standing around, looking at the church, which appears to be on life support and in dire shape. What are the chances?
Well, based on historical reality, the church will survive. It will not, however, likely survive in exactly the same shape and form it has today. Nor will every congregation that exists today survive. Many congregations, both small and large will fold, leaving crumbling buildings and fading memories. A few denominations may even disappear, either because they amalgamate with another or because they just dwindle to nothing.
But the church will survive. The history is the Christian church is as much a history of change, mutation and variation as it is a history of struggle, stagnation and decay. The church established on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) was very different from the church of today. The church that struggled to exist under official and unofficial Roman persecution was diverging from the Acts 2 church. The church that will develop in Islamic parts of the world will be very different from the worshipping body of 12 that I pastor. The church that is developing around Internet based activities is very different from anything we have seen so far in the history of the faith.
But whatever it looks like, it will still be the church. The church exists as a human organization and a divine organism at one and the same time. The human organization can and does experience all the realities of any human organization–and as a human organization, will face failure and parts of it will disappear. The seven churches mentioned Revelation 2-3, for example, no longer exist.
And if the church were just a human organization, it would have had a very short history. But since the church is also a divine organism, it can be assured of a long and significant history stretching from the day of Pentecost to the day when Christ returns. The church is built on the power of God shown in the resurrection and filled with the power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit. The church is formed by those who have accepted God’s grace in Jesus Christ and have discovered the wonder of God.
This powerful, Spirit-filled and led organism cannot be defeated. God has a plan for the church and through his Spirit, he is ensuring that the church follows the plan. There have been and will be many false starts, deviations and detours, dead ends and defeats–but God is guiding and directing the church, shaping and reshaping and directing and pushing and prodding and moving the church in the way he planned for it to follow.
The church has a future, a future that depends on the power of God. The long term future of the church probably won’t involve a lot of what we consider important and essential. It may not have buildings; the music will definitely be different; pastors will look and act differently; congregations may not meet together in the same place–but there will be a church, a gathering of the Spirit-filled who have responded to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
There will be a church because God instituted the church, protects the church, empowers the church, has a role and a mission for the church and will eventually bring the whole church to him. Until that day, there will be a church. Some congregations may not have much of a chance, but the church’s chances are excellent–it will survive and thrive.
May the peace of God be with you.