Most American cities have one church, to which most professing believers in the area attend, at least a few times a year. At Easter, one of these city churches puts on an amazingly spectacular laser show, complete with live tigers and bears. At the end of the presentation, a holographic Jesus walks on water and rises into the heavens. One can always expect a marvelous performance whenever his schedule allows him to attend...but never anything like this. This takes worship to a whole new level! The church world is abuzz about the holographic Jesus. Hundreds of churches are already planning to do it next year. Aspiring Christian leaders in 2030 carefully study the techniques and performances of the most brilliant and creative pastors. They realize that only the best will emerge from the steady dying out of the less talented. They diligently apply themselves. They focus their drive toward success. They work hard to continually improve their presentation. They realize that holography has now become an indispensable part of their work. The churches in 2030 require leaders with superb organizational skills. They must maintain the financial wherewithal to build state-of-the-art facilities capable of continual technological adaptation. They know the competition is fierce. They understand that some young upstart may draw away their crowds at any time with an exciting innovation. Church leaders stay on their toes. In this environment, there is room only for the quick or the dead. A few church leaders still know something about the Book of Ruth and the meaning of the word Logos from St. John’s Gospel. However, no congregation expects their leader to use company time for such arcane and irrelevant studies. A consultant gently reminds one pastor that his audience has become bored with his references to the Sermon on the Mount. “Save that sort of thing for academic conversations at the pub,” the consultant says to the pastor. “Get back to those great messages on topics that are more....relevant. After all, that is what built your church!”
Of course, this is only one possible future of American Christianity. We may experience a more European one, in which immigrants from other countries go to worship in old strip malls. As they drive to the worship service, they pass old church buildings used as restaurants, art galleries or theatres. If that is the future, churches will lack enough resources to offer a holographic Jesus. We hope to avoid both of these scenarios, of course. If we do however, we must become aware of how secularism has already eroded our faith. For some time now we have been headed toward a future in which “church” will mean something very different than what it has meant for two thousand years. Christians on the theological left have openly embraced and celebrated this shift. Indeed, they articulated its course and organized its advance. We wise, conservative Christians know this. Christians on the right have experienced the shift without premeditation or even an acknowledgement that it was occurring. That is because there is not much of an ideological structure left in conservative churches. Existing structures simply have us do whatever we must to keep the people coming in the doors and the money dropping in the plates.
Indeed, if a church in 2030 puts on that laser show complete with live bears, tigers and a holographic Jesus, the people who attend it will likely think of themselves as conservatives. If there are any liberal Christians left by then, they will be meeting in an old church building to chant beautiful passages from the Baghavad Gita. What is missing from my futuristic scenarios is not conservative or liberal churches but orthodox ones; communities which teach and practice “that which has at all times and all places been believed by the whole people of God.” A church, you see, is meant to be a spiritual family. Eccelesia, after all, means “called out.” That implies a deliberate movement of a people out of an earthly kingdom into a heavenly one. Church should be an embassy of heaven; a place one goes to breathe the air of his eternal country. Church should be a school, one that teaches us the structures of Christian thought and trains us how to apply what we learn to everyday life. These impractical but indispensable things are the essence of what we mean by “church.” When they become secondary, or when we eliminate them altogether – whether by neglect or by design -- the institution that survives is no longer a church. It may be large. It may be rich. It might have laser shows with bears and tigers. But it is not a church. Unfortunately, for several decades we have been eroding or eliminating the spiritual components of church life. Worship, meant to offer transcendence and to provoke awe – meant to lead us “to taste the powers of the world to come” -- has become entertainment. In fact, the word “worship” now means “musical performance” to great numbers of believers. Worship in that case, is a product we observe and judge, not an entrance into heaven’s court. We have replaced biblical and theological training. Where we once grappled with concepts to transform us by renewing our minds, we now focus on practical life skills and the maintenance of traditional culture. Instead of thinking of the members of our congregation as parts of a spiritual family, we now tend to treat them as stakeholders of a corporation. Pastors have become CEOs rather than fathers. Evangelism has become marketing. Spiritual direction has become counseling. In short, we have been steadily replacing our spiritual quest with technique. We have become religious consumers rather than spiritually hungry souls. We are a backslidden nation, much like the people in the Book of Judges, in which “everyone does that which is right in his own eyes.” Ours is a world in which orthodoxy has become an unspeakable form of radicalism. In Chasing Francis, the pastor shocks his congregation by saying such things out loud. He discovers his path by following a saint rather than a rock star. He walks away from the idols of the age. He turns his feet toward Zion. One hungers for such courage. Then...he wonders if he just might become the first great innovator to offer a holographic Jesus, complete with bleeding hands and feet, ascending into the air as thousands gasp between their sips of award-winning coffee.