The State of the Church: Tomorrow

Donald Muchow

Leadership Conference
LCMS Foundation/Lutheran Church Extension Fund

San Diego, California
21 November 1999

Thank you for

The introduction
Your invitation to this conference
The privilege to address you

In preparation for this moment I faced two challenges:

Too much material for the allotted time. Reminds me of my mother-in-law who, being a farm wife, observed: “You can’t put a 10 lb sausage into a 5 lb tin.”

Puzzled why you chose me to speak:

Not a brilliant researcher or author like Dr. Barna;
Not an experienced church leader and president like Dr. Barry;
Not a futurist like Alvin Toeffler, Faith Popcorn or John Naisbett;
Nor am I like St. Peter before whom God dropped a sheet of mixed animals and gave him new revelation and insight.

That leaves me with but one explanation: I’ve been a sailor for 33 years and you were looking for someone really adrift!

Now it is true. I do know a bit about those the Psalmist described who go down to the sea in ships and do business upon the great waters. They reflect a wonderful cross-section of human beings.

So I guess I am here as a sailor who much as in the days of the tall ships would:

scramble up the mast,
crawl into the crows nest,
look through the spyglass
and move the horizon from 12 miles to a meager 20 miles at best!

You and I must have no misunderstanding: my vision is very limited.


The Good Ship Hope

Having said that, come now, as we prepare to sail on a voyage of extended metaphor aboard the good ship HOPE.

Ship! Sound silly? Maybe, but we are reminded throughout Christian history that a ship always has been a symbol for the Church.

Even today, and especially in Scandinavia, model ships adorn the naves of countless churches. Nave, the Latin word for ship, is no coincidence. Often ceiling rafters in naves resemble the keel and staves of wooden ships upside down.

Why does a ship symbolize God’s people, the Church?

Think of Noah and our great God who rescued him and his family in the ark;

Think of Moses floating in his basket among the bulrushes;

Think of Jonah and a ship that played havoc with that reluctant prophet’s personal plans;

Think of the loaves of bread offered in the Jerusalem temple being in the form of a dancing ship;

Think of Jesus borrowing a boat to use as a floating pulpit while coastline crowds pressed forward;

Think of fishing boats as platforms for Jesus’ miracles: walking on water, calming the sea, a great draught of fishes.

Press me hard and I am ready to say, Jesus was a sailor! Anyway, you catch the point: ship and Church go together and always have.


Preparations for Sailing

Now, before we sail, final preparations must be made:

We begin by reverencing God in an old sailor’s prayer. Dear God, our boat is so small and the sea is so wide. Save us, we pray.

We need charts. They point to safe passage through known waters. Holy Scripture and our Confessions comprise our most critical charts. They are filled with people, events and beliefs regarding God’s love affair with sailors and others on the journey of faith and life. These charts assure us that we never sail alone but with Him who suffered, died, arose and ascended as the world’s best Pilot, Jesus Christ.

We also need a compass and sextant to guide us through unknown waters, an instrument which locks us onto the Morning Star, our Day Star who is Jesus. He alone keeps us on course toward heaven. Lose sight of Him and we wind up like Peter. While walking on water he took his eyes off Jesus, and he sank!

And let us not forget to bring aboard the experiences of the past and of the present which Dr. Barry and Dr. Barna have shared with us.

One of last year’s hit movies was Amistad, the story of a slave revolt aboard a slave ship. Near the movie’s end, in a courtroom scene, former President Adams, now the defense attorney for the slave revolt leader, Cinque, quietly observes, “Who we are is who we were.”

I suggest he could just as easily have said, “Who we will be is who we are.” In other words, the seeds of the future and those of Christ’s Church are already germinating and sprouting up.

Enough of preparation, come, we must sail!


Watching for Swells

While sailing, experienced sailors distinguish waves from swells. Waves ripple atop the sea. Winds and breezes cause waves. Swells, however, are deep and massive movements of water. Currents, gravity and underwater eruptions cause them. As we sail into the future, we shall encounter at least three enormous swells which will affect our navigation:

Swell #1 – Increasing World Population and Urbanization

Last month the 6 billionth living person was born into our world. Every minute 247 babies are born. Depending on which source we use, for each of the next 50 years our world will expand by 40 to 60 million persons. The future connects us with the largest number of humans living at one time in all of history!

The July 1999 Reporter gave us a fine synopsis of population growth and shifting demographics projected for America in the coming years. This is no time to deep-six such information but to use it in plotting our voyage into the future.

Into this enormous swell of increasing population also has come rapid urbanization. To ignore this fact can severely veer our good ship HOPE off course.

While not abandoning rural and suburban peoples, we must intensify our focus upon the urban scene. That is where most of the people are, and will be.

For example, today 51% of the world’s population lives in cities of 50,000 people or more. In ten years we shall see 88% of Europeans and 81% of Americans living in cities. In Africa and South America the percentage of urban dwellers is similarly expanding. In China there are already more than 100 cities with populations exceeding one million inhabitants! By the end of next year, six of the ten largest cities of the world will be in Asia: Shanghai (25,900,000), Yokohama (23,800,000), Beijing (22,800,000), Bombay (16,300,000), Calcutta (15,900,000), and Jakarta (14,300,000).

By next year 25 cities in the world will number over 10 million inhabitants, and 5 of those 25 cities will have over 25 million people!

Sailors on the voyage of HOPE must note the declining ratio of urban Christians in all of this. This is a reversal from the Church’s early history when the ship of the Church originated and grew in cities such as Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Corinth, Damascus and others. Already one Protestant denomination in the United States has shifted all church planting to the cities. Expect others to follow.

We must not sail smugly around this swell of growth and urbanization. God has gifted us with people and challenges us to sail into their midst.

Swell #2 – Increasing Secularism

This swell has always undulated in the seas of life. Many sailors sense it is growing in size or at least in influence. Our charts have recorded it since the earliest of human history. The Old Testament and the New have given clear evidence of this secular swell.

In the Golden Age of Greece the philosopher Protagoras announced, “Man is the measure of all things.” Later the currents of Renaissance and Enlightenment added to this swell of trying to elevate man to the level of God.

From the last century arose Darwin and Marx and Freud, who each increased this swell. And today currents of New Age and designer religions, ethical and moral relativism and a host of other movements give our good ship HOPE a challenging and rough ride.

Sometimes we stow aboard elements which add turbulence to the voyage. Among such turbulent elements are indulgent pastors, cheap grace preaching and loveless gossip about other crew members (though we don’t talk much about this for fear of political incorrectness). We also get lured by theologies of glory displacing the theology of the cross. At times we even bring aboard authoritarian attitudes and actions which undermine God’s choice of instruments to touch and change hearts namely, the cross and the incarnation and the weakness of His only Son.

This secular swell carries with it some vicious whitecaps which we need to explore, but not in this hour. Whitecaps such as racism, sexism, extreme clericalism and controlism, narcissism and other “isms” act as dragging anchors on our ship.

Frankly, from the crow’s nest I do not see this swell decreasing. Could it be we are now sailing into the Eschaton, the Last Day? Wouldn’t that be exciting!

Swell #3 – Poverty

While negotiating swells one and two, we suddenly run into a third swell crashing green water over our bow. “Poverty!” thunders this swell, “Poverty!” Much to our shame and surprise many of us sailors, basking in relative affluence, have not seen poverty coming and growing. However, its power can greatly thwart our course—and should!

Do we realize that 20-25% of the world’s population is poor, regardless of which criteria we use?

Do we realize that 50% of urban dwellers in the world’s Southern Hemisphere live in slums? Some of us have been to Cairo, Egypt, where 500,000 people live in a huge cemetery now called the City of the Dead. Imagine that scene being multiplied many times over!

Do we realize that unless this swell subsides, by 2010, 18% of the world’s people will be squatters, and their number is projected to double each decade thereafter?

In an age of American and Western European affluence, at a time when the gap between rich and poor is accelerating faster than ever, when in America we already have 5 million millionaires, and when the largest transfer of generation wealth (my Merrill Lynch friend says 3.2 trillion dollars) is underway, this swell of poverty insists on altering our voyage. Poverty challenges us mightily to match our lives with our lips in order to reflect Him who, though He was rich, for our sakes He became poor, our Lord, Jesus.

Incidentally, while sailing we shall continue to encounter some flotsam and jetsam. Those are sailor’s terms for floating debris which can slow us down and, more seriously, even divert our attention from the Great Commission and Great Commandment of our journey. Flotsam and jetsam have the potential of scuttling our voyage of rescue and love.

Off to starboard, to the right, floats the flotsam of controversies surrounding worship styles, hymnody, communion practices, congregational polity and so on.

Off to port, to the left, float the jetsam of increasing Biblical illiteracy, insufficient catechesis or religious knowledge (as identified by Lutheran Brotherhood’s 1998 study among Lutherans) and troublesome fellowship relationships with other faith groups. Each cry for attention, and rightly so, but never are these matters of ultimate concern. From the crow’s nest the ultimate concerns scream out: too many people are drowning, too many are tiring in the struggle of faith and too many are lacking the Good News about Jesus! Nothing, no nothing, must take precedence over God s Great Commission for our journey!

So much now for the big swells of population and urbanization, of secularism and of poverty.


Positive Trends

I also see some positive trends from the crow’s nest. Among those trends appearing on the horizon, please allow me time to address five of them which seem favorable to our future:

First, God’s promises continue to glow, even brighter than St. Elmo’s fire at sea. “I have made you; I will carry you.” “Lo, I am with you always.” “Even the gates of Hell shall not prevail against you.”

Sailors, we deploy into the future with a fully guaranteed voyage!

Second, while the seas roar and the earth groans awaiting deliverance, the Holy Spirit is not slowing down one bit. Have we not seen, have we not heard about the Christian faith explosions in Central and Eastern Europe? In Africa, South Korea and even Cuba? Or how about our own LCMS missions experiencing their best decade ever?

Not now, but perhaps in this afternoon’s workshops we can share stories of this incredible outpouring of God, the Holy Spirit.

Third, in the January/February 1999 issue of The Futurist magazine Ron Sellers described nine global trends in religion that are now emerging. Among them: The continuing presence of faith throughout the world. Why? Because it is truth in the purest form, and most humans retain a perpetual interest in truth.

As another global trend, he sees science and religion, backed by solid data, cooperating as never before. Especially notable is their joint exploration of prayer and wellness, faith and increased life span, along with religion and reduced recidivism among prisoners. One of my close friends, Dr. Hal Koenig, former Surgeon General of the Navy, now heads a new department of faith and health studies at Duke University. Our good ship HOPE needs him and others like him on board.

Fourth, on the horizon I spot a Robert Wuthnow from Princeton, and others, who project that the Church will have much variety in the 21st century. Large congregations and small ones, urban, rural and suburban; none shall leave the American scene. No one size, no one prototype, shall become the norm. Denominational distinctions will remain but become more blurred. Brand loyalty will continue to slide. Theology and doctrine will not take center stage in most congregations.

The number of independent churches will increase, but even they will seek linkages, knowing that much of their work cannot be done alone. That is the conclusion of Donald Miller in his recent book, Reinventing American Protestantism, Christianity in the New Millennium.

Fifth, the eminent church consultant Dr. Lyle Schaller, during a conference last January in Dallas, Texas, made an interesting and for some a surprising observation. He was asked a question about the emerging church of the 21st Century: Which congregations have more permanence, small ones or large ones? Without hesitation he replied, “The small ones, those under 100 members. Why? They most often have close bonds of family and friends and are prominent and influential gathering places in small communities.” When large congregations lose their leaders, usually they undergo more trauma because their bonds are looser.

In the LCMS where we have so many smaller congregations, we still have unexplored opportunities to tap such strength of relationships and permanence for the future. Church leaders and executives have not always appreciated or maximized these strengths. Nor have some members within those congregations, either. These small, sturdy congregations make great launching pads for exceptional crew members on our good ship HOPE.

I also spot John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, who in their book Megatrends expect worldwide religious revival and no decrease in interest for things spiritual. Faith Popcorn, the well-respected American futurist, sees a massive trend of what she calls “anchoring” within American society, that is, a deepening of religious interest and belief. And it is not confined to only one generation. That the Dalai Lama drew 40,000 hearers last August in Central Park is significant also, compared to what few numbers of people he attracted 20 years ago.

Sadly though, most futurists see so-called “mainline” churches continuing a decline of members, a decline of revenues, a more aging worshiper and a lesser attractiveness to younger generations unless or until these congregations are recaptured by a new passion in their hearts and a new vision for their work.

Frank Capon gives a masterful account of this phenomena in his latest book, The Astonished Heart. He sees national church bodies co-opted by corporate and leftover Christendom models of polity, which tend to stifle, undermine and upon occasion exclude the astonishing grace of God.

My own experience in the military sea services informs me that our nation’s young adults’ interest in issues of faith and God is not waning but remains very high. In fact, recent conversations with chaplains and commanding officers at the Naval Academy and the Great Lakes Naval Training Command affirm that, while our youth may not have had as much experience in organized religion as generations in years past, they do have great interest in God and matters of faith. Their chapels are bulging with weekend worshipers and discussion groups, as well as Bible studies and information classes.

Most all the current Church literature predicts that congregations shall continue to become more multi-ethnic and less homogeneous in membership.

Three years ago I caught a dramatic example of what may be emerging. My prior Navy position allowed me to be invited to an Independence Day celebration at a 10,000-member congregation in West Covina, California. Six months before I arrived, this independent congregation had purchased the Hughes B-2 bomber plant, 186,000 square feet of space, to serve as its sanctuary, classrooms, administrative offices and multi-bed unit for housing the homeless. This congregation each year invited a military chaplain to help honor veterans and their families. (For those of you who worry, this was not a worship service.)

Assembled were thousands of people, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, young, old, male, female—a foretaste of heaven and, hopefully, the 21st century as well. I believe I saw there a sample of what can result from our own LCMS Mission Board’s initiative for 1,000 new efforts in cross-cultural mission by the end of the year 2000.

So, to recap, from the crow’s nest I have spotted at least five positive elements on the horizon: God’s continuing promise and presence, the Holy Spirit’s dramatic on-going work, the growing cooperation of science and religion, the viability of all sorts of congregations and the abiding interest in things spiritual by most of the human family.


Islands along the Way

In the days of the Vikings, crows and ravens were standard navigational aids for determining proximity to land. They have an innate sense to fly off in the direction of the nearest shoreline. As we have been sailing we have not called attention to any land masses or islands along the way. While today we have no time to stop and explore, we do have time to record a few of them on 21st Century charts:

First, there is the Island of Change, somewhat misty, but massive and without end. Some of us sailors see it and say with Mark Twain: “I’m all for progress, but I don’t much care for the change that comes with it.” Other of us sailors see change and say with the Chinese proverb: “Change is a dragon. You can resist it and be eaten, or you can ride it and prosper.” Most of us find ourselves somewhere in between these two alternatives. One thing remains certain regarding change; never has it come faster than now, and never has it affected simultaneously so many aspects of our voyage than now. This island demands more thorough exploration!

Next, we spot another island, the Island of Technology. This, too, is murky and mysterious, larger than my spyglass can take in. This island affects every aspect of life: business, faith, economics, health, education, communication, science and “whatever,” as our children say. We need only to read the 20 September 1999 issue of Newsweek to see how the Internet, for example, is changing life. Or look over last month’s issue of Forbes ASAP magazine, which is totally devoted to convergences, wherein forty distinguished thinkers see things flowing and merging together, creating new connections, new hybrids and intriguing ways of seeing our world. Mark our charts well, because technology’s impact portends to be greater than any of us can imagine.

Another island is emerging on the horizon, the Island of the Self. Look closely and we see a puzzle with enormous consequences. The puzzle concerns our very being, not only in theological terms of saint and sinner but also in terms of whether we are one persona through life or multiple personas. Are we capable of deep interior change one or more times? For example, what stops my being straight now, gay later and bisexual after that? Neuroscience is the alleged bedrock of this island. Stem-cell biotechnology, DNA mapping, nanotechnology, the human genome project and even the infusion of instant data and information into the human brain without years of study or schooling. Yes, the Island of Self bears close scrutiny for us sailors of the 21st Century.


Standard Operating Procedures

According to metaphor this voyage has no human end; it stops when God stops it. Until then, it does become clear that we sailors have at least four standard operating procedures to maintain:

  1. We keep our charts always on board. Word, sacraments and Confessions remain crucial for godly sailing. They are not placed under glass for viewing on the ceremonial quarterdeck. They are used to keep proper angle for the rudder.
  2. We sail by the stars, not by our wake. Traditions, history and the past play a vital role, but only looking back endangers the success of the voyage into the future. Furthermore, only looking back ensures only sailing in circles.
  3. We occupy the crow’s nest at all times and in all kinds of weather. Competent lookouts keep the good ship HOPE alert to changing conditions in order to properly trim its sails, set its rudder and avoid the shoals. Scanning the horizon is never a part-time job when underway. All of us share the task. All of us must coordinate the task. I believe our LCMS Presidium and Administrative Team would benefit greatly from a future advisory group. Composed of people who can discern trends and changes occurring throughout all aspects of religion, culture and society, it can offer counsel for robust sailing.
  4. We find ways to sail in concert with others at every possible opportunity. Jesus, the one who commissioned us, prays the Great Commission Fleet to be one. Fleets always have a better chance to achieve mission than do single ships. If I m not mistaken, our LCMS holds fellowship with no other church bodies in our nation. Now might be the time to withhold criticism of others’ fellowship practices and urgently direct our efforts to fulfill our Lord’s deep desire: that all sailors be one in Him and one another.

I know of no other church body that has as wonderful a confession of faith as ours. Currently, I am not eager to face the Lord’s judgment regarding how lovingly we have tried to share it with others. I pray our synodical study of fellowship will open the way to lash us onto other ships and sailors.


An Urgent and Critical Mission

Now these operating procedures have no chance without the grace of our Navigator, Jesus Christ. The good ship HOPE is not a part of Carnival Lines. It has a mission much different than fun and games. To borrow a mission statement from one of the synod’s districts, our ship sails in order to “reach the lost, disciple the saved, and care for people.” No playing tourist; no dawdling on the weather decks; no spit-polishing the brass. Good ship HOPE is sailing an urgent and eternally critical mission.

Our good ship HOPE sails into the future in the name of the Lord and is beholden to no other master. Jesus and telling the good news about Jesus is its charge. Nothing is able to separate us from that—not swells, currents, whitecaps, debris or anything else. On our journey, hope swallows up fear, and faith swallows up sin. Both are barnacles that impede our travel. In facing the future, both hope and faith, drawn from the cross and empty tomb of Jesus, prevent shipwreck. Those nailed hands, which were spread once for all people and for all sin, now attend our hands on the ship’s wheel. Those same hands shall welcome us at heaven’s pier.

Now for a final thought: In 1779 a refugee British naval Captain, John Paul Jones, sailed the American frigate Poor Richard into the North Sea. For months the American Revolution had been raging.

On the afternoon of 23 September, Jones and his crew ran into a British convoy led by a mighty man-of-war. It fired a cannonball across Poor Richard‘s bow and demanded it to halt. Jones, fearing his smaller ship would be sunk, pulled alongside the man-of-war and tied on.

The British Captain thought Jones had capitulated. He bellowed to Jones, “Do you surrender?” That afternoon Captain Jones wrote his name in the history books: “Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!”

Three hours later Captain Jones received the weapons from the British man-of-war. Up to that moment Jones had no assurance of the outcome.

My fellow sailors, we now sail as part of the Holy Christian Church of tomorrow. The one sure feature of our voyage remains: its outcome is assured!

We pray. Lord God, you have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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