A Church for the 21st Century

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken February 7, 1999

The Window on the World is our weekly opportunity to examine our culture from the vantage point of biblical Christianity. It is also my “bully pulpit,” as from time to time I open a window on my own agenda for Tenth Presbyterian Church.

This is one of those occasions. A week ago the elders met to discuss the past, present, and future of the Tenth Church. At the meeting I made a presentation on Tenth’s future. Tonight I want to share six of my guesses about where our civilization is heading in the next one hundred years, along with suggestions about what they will mean for our ministry.

1. The 21st century will be America’s first post-Christian century. By this I mean that we will be unable to live off the borrowed capital of our heritage and will enter a new phase of radical pluralism. At least by the end of the century—earlier, if there is some catastrophe—America will be a fading empire. Most likely, our nation will undergo a long, slow, demoralizing decline, the inevitable result of living for self rather than for the glory of God.

In this post-modern, post-Christian culture, Tenth will continue to do what it has always done: teach the Word of God. But increasingly, our first task will be to explain who Jesus Christ is to people who have no idea what Christianity is. We may discover some new vehicles for doing this, such as taking maximum advantage of the Internet.

But no matter what else happens, the preaching of God’s Word is God’s permanent agenda for the church. How can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Rom. 10:14). As far as God is concerned, the living word spoken by the living voice will never go out of style.

2. One likely result of pluralism will be the continued collapse of the institutional church. The 20th century ends with the last gasp of liberal Christianity, which can no longer be sustained. The 21st century will likely witness the fall of evangelicalism as a movement. Indeed, in his theology and methods, today’s evangelical is fast becoming yesterday’s liberal.

In the face of church decline, Tenth will plant growing, vibrant churches. Humanly speaking, many dying churches cannot be renewed, but they can be replaced. America needs to be re-evangelized, and we must think of the City of Philadelphia as a mission field. If we are to reach the city for Jesus Christ, our current interest in church planting must become more than a moment in our history, it must become a movement.

3. Another likely result of pluralism will be hostility to the gospel, perhaps even persecution. Already there is widespread resistance to the very idea of truth. Christians are considered (at best) strange and (at worst) dangerous. Witness the current bumper sticker: “God, Save Me From Your Followers.”

In this truth-averse culture, Tenth will not compromise its gospel message or its Reformation theology. We will need to become more bold, not less. People will look to us for guidance on how to live courageous, winsome Christian lives in a hostile culture. We will also need to become more rigorous in our theology, partly to resist the flood of error pour from formerly reliable institutions, and partly to offer guidance for the ethical dilemmas of the “Biotech Century.”

4. The family will continue to disintegrate. Without suitable models for stable family life, children will repeat the sins of their parents. This will create a keen hunger for community, and a sharp pessimism about the possibility of love, romance, and the joy of parenthood.

In a socially-fragmented culture, Tenth will provide a spiritual home. Although the destruction of the family will have dire consequences for our culture, it will create an extraordinary opportunity for Christian witness. The church is our primary family. If people want to know what family is supposed to look like, they will have to turn to the church.

What this will require from us is a radical commitment to Christian hospitality, a willingness to give our lives to people so they can learn how to live. In sacrificial ways, we will need to live up to the wonderful invitation on our bulletin:

To all who are spiritually weary and seek rest;

to all who mourn and long for comfort;

to all who struggle and desire victory;

to all who sin and need a Savior;

to all who are strangers and want fellowship;

to all who hunger and thirst after righteousness;

and to whoever will come—

this church opens wide her doors

and offers her welcome in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

5. America will become increasingly multicultural. By the middle of next century, Caucasians will compromise less than fifty percent of our population. Over the last fifty years America has made significant strides in matters of racial reconciliation. During the next fifty years we will either continue to make progress or we will enter a dangerous new era of tribalism, particularly in our cities.

The challenge for the church is to demonstrate authentic unity in Christ, a unity which bridges the social, ethnic, and cultural distinctives which divide us. By God’s grace, Tenth increasingly will reflect the ethnic diversity of our city, not only in our membership, but also in our leadership.

6. The city will continue to decline. Do not be deceived by our present civic euphoria. What appear to be recent gains are largely illusory, the result of a temporary economic boom. The long-term financial prospects for the city remain grim. In Philadelphia, at least, the poor, the sick, and the elderly will always be with us.

In the middle of this needy city, Tenth will develop a variety of outreach strategies, developing new ministries to meet new needs, all of them combining mercy with the gospel. A commitment to the city of Philadelphia is our permanent calling. We will continue to be what we are now: a regional church with an urban focus.

Meeting these challenges may require new resources, like expanded educational facilities, for example, or perhaps more parking. We also need to maintain the transcendence of our worship, which will mean purchasing an instrument for the 21st century—namely, a state-of-the-art digital organ. Then there is the changing face of our world-wide mission to consider. Missions is shifting away from North America to the rest of the world, a shift which has profound implications for where we will go and what we will give.

That is my analysis of what the next one hundred years might hold, and what we ought to be doing about it. Some of my guesses will be proven wrong, of course, but these are important things to think, talk, and pray about so we can become the church God wants us to become for the 21st century.

© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org