Preparing the Church for the 21st Century

We have been hearing much about the need to prepare for Y2K. Will the computer systems of our country and the world be ready for the dramatic challenges they face as the midnight hour approaches? Industry, banking, service organizations, churches, and other institutions have been warned to be certain that their hardware and software are compatible and ready for the calendar change. People are being told to inventory their goods, list their assets, and have some extra food and water on hand in case of interruptions created by the transition. Last week the Governor of Georgia said an investigation revealed that out of the 8,000 entities checked, only 4,800 were Y2K compatible. He made the following statement to the remaining 3,200: “You can’t put off January 1, 2000.”

The new millennium is inevitable. We cannot hide from it. Church leaders, have you taken the necessary steps to ensure that your church is Y2K ready? “Time waits for no man.” No matter what challenges might result, there are certain steps that we must take in order to be compatible with the demands.

Actually, I write from another concern, which causes the Y2K challenge to shrink to microcosmic proportions in comparison. We are being alerted from many different sources that “the church as we know it has a rapidly expiring shelf life.” The church is in a state of crisis; the church is in the process of dying, and the church needs a complete revisioning or rebirth if it is to survive and live during the 21st century Dr. Al Mohler reminded the PCA General Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky, the Church of Jesus will triumph. It will never fail. Of course, we know that he was speaking about the invisible, universal church. We have Jesus’ own promise that not even the gates of hell will prevail against the church; as the body of Christ, it is indestructible. However, the visible church is another story.

I said to the 25th General Assembly in St. Louis that I do not believe we will recognize the visible church by the year 2025 AD. I was not attempting to be an alarmist. Based on my research and a compilation of the thoughts of many others, I believe the fast-paced change in our world is impacting the church far more than we realize or want to believe. Whatever happens during the next ten to thirty years will not be like anything we have seen before. Of that we can be certain. Change has invaded our world on every hand, and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Those in the more densely populated areas of our country are already seeing this reality; however, our rural and small town churches will not be exempt from this change and challenge.

One of the biggest challenges facing the church as we enter the 21st century is: Can the church reclaim its place of influence and leadership, or will it continue to be relegated to a place of minor importance?



No matter what develops, the church cannot simply continue with business as usual and be effective in today’s culture. After a flatline of growth in North America during this century, church membership is beginning to show a slight decline. Like the culture around it, the church is a graying institution. Though we are seeing a slight upswing in growth among the older baby boomers, fewer members of the rising generation see the church as an attractive option.

Those outside the visible church do not take it seriously, and from an early age those inside are beginning to demonstrate an attitude of skepticism about the need for the church. There was a time when the world really watched the church; however, it appears that the church now receives little attention. Many have simply written it off as something for a bygone era.

George Barna is among those who have warned us that we are raising a Biblically illiterate generation which has no framework from which to think about “priority things.” Absolute, universal truths are no longer in place for them. Authority, truth, and reality are up for grabs determined by the individual or group. Who is to say what is right? Who has the right to judge another person’s ideas and beliefs?

This postmodern generation does not have the privilege of living within the Christian consensus that once existed in the United States. That consensus began to diminish during the late 1800s and disappeared by the mid-1900s. The church has been put aside as a major cultural and religious influence. The clergy, once highly revered and respected, lacks social clout and influence in the community. Those within the church increasingly adapt to the lifestyle of the world around them, thus failing to show a distinction between the church and the world. They operate their relationships in much the same way as those outside the church, resulting in broken marriages, damaged families, and divided churches. The 20th century has seen the church capitulate or accommodate itself to the world around it (often in an attempt to be relevant) and lose its transforming message in the process.

Frustrated by its loss of influence, the church has tried to reclaim its position through a more intense authoritarian stance (do as I say) or “moral” legislation (change the laws of society). Yet such attempts are merely turning off a generation of younger people who want to be cared for and loved versus preached to and autocratically directed.

Clearly church leaders need to think, study, understand and discuss some key issues as they seek to develop strategic plans for their church’s ministry in the 21st century. In this article I will suggest eight areas that need to be considered. This will not be an exhaustive list, but will at least demonstrate the need for serious and immediate attention.

To be effective, churches cannot approach these challenges in isolation. If denominations still have a role in the 21st century, they are going to have to network their churches with other denominations that are facing similar concerns and challenges, think more collectively and communally, and work more closely with “parachurch” ministries. One thing is clear: the church must demonstrate a more united front, a greater unity of spirit and purpose, and a greater appreciation for those outside our immediate church circles if we hope to regain the younger generation and make a cultural impact. To do this without compromising our Biblical message, which is the only hope for this crisis, will be a challenge. It does underscore the need for stronger accountability to each other.


…is to overcome the assumption that many of our present ministries and methods are just like those in Biblical times. Somehow we have tried to convince ourselves that we are following the Bible’s patterns of ministry when in actuality we are merely adapting the Biblical narrative to the culture in which we live. That’s not necessarily bad unless we are unaware of what we are doing. Paul’s strategy of ministry certainly demonstrated flexibility. The “we’ve always done it that way” attitude will not equip us for impacting the world.

Before we react too quickly and become unnecessarily defensive, remember Scripture describes methods of ministry that adapted to the immediate culture. Paul ministered one way to the Corinthians, another to the Antiocheans, and still another to the Athenians. Francis Schaeffer wrote in The Church at the End of the 20th Century that “not being able, as times change, to change under the Holy Spirit is ugly.” While the message of Christianity, the grand story of the Gospel, never changes, our models and methods of delivering that story or message must always reflect a genuine understanding and compassion for the world around us. The church is going to have to be relevant in its method of ministry without altering the Biblical message. That is where working together with other churches and denominations can provide an accountability structure to keep us from altering the message.

In Book IV of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote that not every doctrine is of equal importance. We must carefully articulate those doctrines that are strategic to the Story and allow room for flexibility in those teachings that are not as clear. Our General Assembly in Louisville gave a wonderful demonstration of this principle as it moved into a progress report from the committee studying the “days of creation.” The ad hoc committee was prepared to report its progress on what type of interpretation of the “days” in Genesis is valid. Prior to the report a resolution was introduced that basically led the assembly to reaffirm its commitment to the historicity of Genesis and the creation of Adam in the image of God (See The Outlook, September 1999). The resolution kept the Assembly’s focus on the priority issue (the historicity of Genesis versus some type of evolutionary hypothesis).

Working with churches during the past three decades, I continue to be amazed at how easily we get knocked off course and find ourselves majoring on the minors at the expense of the majors, insisting on our preferences, and trying to transform them into principles yes, Biblical principles. The church must be willing to think more strategically if it is to regain any position of influence in the  world.


…(particularly for Reformed and evangelical branches) is to teach people to think and live Biblically. In training seminars the CE/P (Christian Education and Publications) staff points out that our priority should not only be to teach the Bible, but also to teach people to think Biblically. Of course, to think Biblically we have to teach the Bible, but often the Bible is taught as an end in itself and nothing really changes. We cannot assume, as we preach and teach, that our people will automatically know how to apply the content to real life. (That’s what turns off the rising generation. They see the lack of application and consider it hypocrisy.) The younger the people, the less likely they are to have a framework that connects with any Biblical reference point. That is one reason why they view truth and judgments as merely personal opinion.


…(closely related to the second) is to proclaim the truth of the Gospel in a way that helps people see where the Bible touches their complex lives. We cannot assume, as we preach and teach, that people have that Biblical framework for thinking; therefore, we are going to have to help them develop that framework as we disciple them. It is so easy for people today to sit in Sunday school church service, or even a small group Bible study, hear the Word presented, and still not understand what to do with it. Hence we have to focus much more attention on application than ever before. More than telling, we must be willing to tell and show if that truth is to be learned and applied to life.


…is to help Christians understand that we live in a missional context. That means that, as we teach the Bible and help our people to think. Biblically, we must do a better job of helping them understand the world in which we live. What does it mean that there is no Christian consensus in our culture, or that we have moved from a modern to a postmodern era? How do we live and demonstrate Biblical truth and morality in a world that is selling out to secular humanistic relativism? Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum and not only does change impact our world, it influences our church as well. Our people have to think of themselves as missionaries, and the church must focus its ministry more and more on preparing its people to live and witness in this non-Christian culture.


…is to conduct worship in a way that presents God in all His majesty and splendor, and communicates meaning and hope to this generation. Worship is causing much discussion, debate, and confusion in many churches today. This could be a blessing if it causes us to focus on the Bible versus mere tradition or popular culture. Worshiping God requires a certain amount of understanding about Him, and many people lack that knowledge of God. Author Marva Dawn has suggested that we are dumbing down our worship and not really helping people to know the God to whom we must direct our worship.

Everything we do in worship should teach us something about God, His church, and the world in which we live. I do not suggest that we must return to some yesterday-style of worship. I do suggest that church leaders must realize that worship also contains an apologetic element that should communicate hope, relationships, identity, and meaning to the participants. With the Bible as the gUide, church leaders must seriously lead the church in Biblical worship that is honoring to God and meaningful to the participants. That might look different in church A than it does in church B.


…is to think about family structures. We have carelessly assumed that the nuclear family, a mom, dad and two children, is the Biblical model. We have divorced the immediate family from the extended family. We have not always known how to deal with one parent families. We have attempted in the last half of this century to teach parents the how-tos of child raising, but often at the expense of teaching Biblical principles of family life. We get crossed up with one another on whether this or that particular method of parenting is Biblical; hence, we cannot always work together in this enterprise.

The family is the most basic unit in human society. The American family has gone through terrible trauma and hurt in this century. Our divorce rate is the highest among all the civilized nations. There are more single, never married people and single, divorced people today. Things that were once viewed with much criticism are now more socially acceptable. One statistic shows that since 1960 fewer people marry. The baby buster generation is a good example. The average age for marriage is 27–28 among males and 25–26 among females. And those who do marry are doing so later in life. Since the early 1970s the number of households with mom, dad, and children has declined. Couples are living together outside of marriage, even senior citizens. More mothers are working outside the home, and more dads are becoming the primary parent. In 1970, 12% of households were run by single parents. In the mid 1990s that has risen to 27%. There is also a growing number of couples who are having kids without the marriage context. The church must know how to respond to these situations and know how to minister to these people.


…is to focus more attention on stewardship. We have known that churches and para-church ministries have been financed by the older builder generation. For some time concerns have been expressed about how we will support Christian ministries as this older, generation moves on. Their boomer children are not institutionally oriented. They even think negatively of institutions. The rising generations of busters and millennials, while showing a little more interest in institutions than their parents, are showing less interest in denominations.

Crisis in the Church, by sociology professor Robert Wuthnow, deals with this subject. Wuthnow’s thesis is that churches are experiencing a crisis in the area of finances because the people are not giving. He says that around the country, churches are cutting back on programs, staff, bUilding, and salaries, and often do not have enough money to heat and cool their buildings. He concludes that the crisis (stewardship and finances) is actually a spiritual crisis resulting from not teaching Biblical principles of stewardship. He says that the clergy and other church leaders err by not teaching their people how to set priorities and understand the Lordship of Christ in all areas of life, and consequently the people are not giving. (He further suggests something that fits the third challenge above: people are not being taught to apply Biblical principles to their everyday lives. Hence consumerism prevails and indebtedness increases.) Wuthnow suggests that the clergy doesn’t teach this topic because the “money question” makes people uncomfortable.

Have you heard any attempt recently to teach the Biblical principles of stewardship? I have asked people all over our church about this and find very little happening in the PCA in this connection. The PCA is a generously benevolent church, but what will happen in ten years when the builders move on? The situation is not as critical in our church as in some mainline churches, but if we fail to proclaim and teach this part of God’s counsel we will certainly experience a drastic change in its ability to minister.


…which brings us fullcircle back to number one, is for the church to revision its ministry. We have already mentioned the need to make the ministry of the Word meaningful to the rising generationswithout altering the content of the message. We have talked aboutthe need to know the world around us and the need to think and act Biblically. But this need for the church to revision itself focuses on the church’s need to know the people (both in and outside the church) to whom God would have us minister — to understand who they are, why they live and think the way they do, and how we can bridge into their lives in a meaningful way. This will require a some~ what different approach from the past. While the church has historically been strong about telling and preaching, today’s church will need to do a better job of listening as well as telling. Many of us are better talkers than listeners. The rising generation wants someone to listen to them, to hear them out. They are better participants than listeners themselves, but when you get them talking, it is amazing what you learn.

By listening to them, hearing their hurts, cries, concerns, frustrations, fears, and genuine questions, the church will be better poised to focus its ministry to its audience, and will be able to help people see who they are and where they fit in God’s story. That’s one of the missing elements for the rising generation. “Who am I and where do I fit? What is my purpose and are there any values for my life?” The church may need to include in its curricula courses on communication, particularly listening skills and conflict management.

Again, to change effectively in this area, we must not leave the job to clergy alone. Christianity is not a hierarchical religion. While always demonstrating the place of both formal and informal leadership, the church also must demonstrate the priesthood of all believers in its practice. The laity cannot be passive even if it challenges, threatens, or makes the clergy and formal leaders uncomfortable. Lay men and women, boys and girls must be trained, not as passive pew sitters, but as active participants in the ministry.

My challenge to the church and its leaders is to think strategically about how to be the church, which God describes as the salt and light of the community — how to be the church that demonstrates kingdom-of-God living, and how to reach out to people and enfold them into the family. The church cannot afford to remain in its backseat position allowing the Word of God to be ignored by the people. That will continue to happen unless we revision our churches’ role as we approach the 21 st century.

Rev. Charles Dunahoo is Coordinator of Christian Education and Publications of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). This article is reprinted from Equip for Ministry, (September/October 1999), a bi-monthly leadership resource published by the PCA.