The Christian church of the 21st century will look quite different than it does today. Yes, there will be a church, despite the dire predictions of many who keep pointing to declining church rolls and influence. There may even be more churches and more people going to them than we see today. But the churches will be different, and the relationships among them will be one of the most different things of all.
The best way to describe how the churches have been operating is to liken them to vertical binstop-down structures where ideas and leadership are dropped into the system from the top, in the hope that they will reach down to the grassroots level. But the vertical style of organization and leadership that has characterized most churches is already changing. In the future, horizontal patterns of relationship between congregations will be the normative style, and those ecclesial interconnections will cross the lines that have divided us for a century.
These new connections are profoundly local and focused on cooperation around specific and practical issues facing communities and neighborhoods. Three factors are producing the new horizontal configuration: the changing shape of social policy in America, a cultural crisis of values, and a deep spiritual hunger that transcends old ideological categories. Together, these forces call forth a new "ecumenical" reality.
WHEN AMERICAN PROTESTANTISM split into two camps in the early 1900s, the schism went deep and remained a permanent divide throughout the rest of the 20th century. The "fundamentalists" took the conservative road of personal piety and correct doctrine, while the "modernists" chose the liberal path of the social gospel. Protestants questioned whether Catholics were really Christians, and most all white churches wished to keep segregated from their black brothers and sisters.
Thus the four basic constituencies of American Christianity have remained apart: evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and the historic black churches. Each developed its own Christian culture and world, complete with schools, institutions, language, traditions, networks of relationships, agendas, priorities, and, of course, opinions about the other three groups.
I was raised in the evangelical world, renamed from "fundamentalist" after World War II. Our small Plymouth Brethren Assembly in Detroit, Michigan, saw itself as a direct descendant of biblical Christianity and the early church. Other evangelical churches were looked upon favorably, if with some skepticism, as long as they "preached the gospel." That meant the Baptists and independent Bible churches were closest to us. Evangelical congregations of Lutherans and Presbyterians were probably okay. The mainline denominations were deeply suspect theologically, and all Catholics were targets of our evangelism because we thought they worshiped Mary and the pope rather than Jesus and God. Nobody ever talked about the black churches; it was like they didn't exist.
Later I discovered that Catholics learned similar prejudices about us Protestants as they were growing up, and that liberal Protestants regarded most evangelicals as unsophisticated, uneducated, and unpleasant. No matter where they lived, evangelicals were seen as Bible-thumping street preachers who might corner you and ask, probably in a Southern accent, if you were saved. Interestingly, black Christians didn't perceive great differences among the warring white church factions, at least so far as racism was concerned.
"ECUMENISM" in the 20th century never broke down those divisions. In fact, the modern "ecumenical movement" has been a relationship almost solely among mainstream Protestant churches. The formation of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America in 1908 and various church councils in Europe at the beginning of this century launched the collaboration of the leading Protestant denominations. Later, consolidations into the National Council of Churches (NCC) in 1950 and the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948 completed the task. It is significant to note that the reasons for coming together had to do most with missions and service. "Doctrine divides but service unites" became an early motto whose spirit may still be key to future, wider, ecumenical realities.
For the first time, Presbyterians and Methodists, Episcopalians and Congregationalists, Lutherans and Baptists came together for at least some common mission. And some of the results were, indeed, impressive, like the leadership the NCC offered in the American civil rights movement and the role of the WCC in helping to end apartheid in South Africa. However, efforts to agree on theological issues and matters of church order and polity were usually much more problematic than joint efforts on common social agendas.
Evangelical Christians were rarely at the ecumenical tableboth by choice and by exclusion. In fact, the "ecumenical" table has belonged to liberal Protestants who have been adamant to serve as its gatekeepers. Consequently, evangelicals formed their own networks such as the National Association of Evangelicals, founded in 1943; established a myriad of parachurch organizations for mission; spawned great student movements such as InterVarsity and Campus Crusade for Christ; and conducted joint evangelistic efforts, most notably the Billy Graham crusades, which made common cause with both mainline Protestant churches and Catholics.
Both liberal and evangelical groups founded their own colleges, institutions, and publications. Evangelical pastors read Christianity Today, founded by Billy Graham, while their liberal counterparts read The Christian Century or Christianity & Crisis, the latter founded by Reinhold Niebuhr.
All along, Catholics have pursued their own course, evolving from a marginalized church of immigrants to a major cultural and political force by the end of the century. They also haven't been at the ecumenical table of liberal Protestants and, like the evangelicals, developed a whole network of schools and institutions that made a deep impact in local communities around the country. Catholics have become a "bridge" constituency in American church life, espousing the cultural conservatism shared by evangelicals as well as a social conscience, particularly in relationship to the poor, shared by liberal Protestants. The Catholic bishops could find themselves outside the White House protesting partial-birth abortions one day and the signing of a draconian welfare bill the next.
The black churches in America have defied the polarizations of white liberals and conservatives by consistently prioritizing both spiritual conversion and social justice. Though having their own divisions, the biblical balance of personal piety and public prophecy has remained strong in most black congregations of all denominations while their white counterparts created a century of false choices.
The black churches in the South and around the country led and became the moral infrastructure of the civil rights movementone of the greatest ecumenical moments of the 20th century. Nevertheless, black Christians were still not given a real place and voice at ecumenical tables controlled by white Christians for most of this century. The fact that this has begun to change may well be one of the most important signs for the 21st century.
Perhaps the greatest uncharted movements of the century were the pentecostal and charismatic revivals. Though suspected by all the other constituencies of the churches, pentecostals are the fastest growing sector in the worldwide church at the end of the 20th century. While this revival of the Spirit crosses all denominational and racial lines, 20th-century pentecostals and charismatics in many ways also became another group unto themselves, often distrusting those who didn't share their litmus tests of the Spirit's presence and power.
SO WHY WOULD anyone say that all these "vertical" constituencies of the American churches may begin to come together for 21st-century projects and endeavors? Because it is already happening.
In the final quarter of the century, the rigid patterns of American church life have begun to change. A new generation of evangelicals was impacted by the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. They discovered the forgotten evangelical movements of the 19th century whose strong social conscience featured abolitionism, concern for the poor, and equality of women. They began to meet the children of mainline Protestantism who were also hungry for a more personal spirituality and a deeper grounding in biblical faith.
Catholics, taking permission from Vatican II, also discovered the Bible and embarked on a spiritual pilgrimage of personal and parish renewal, but with a social conscience that 20th-century evangelicalism lacked. Black congregations grew within the predominantly white denominations, soon to be followed by their Latino and Asian brothers and sisters. Pentecostal pastors from the streets began to look outward.
Today the denominational ties and loyalties that Christians feel are weaker than ever. Yet never before have Christians been more interested in traditions other than their own. Many people find themselves drinking from the wells of Christian spirituality far afield from where they began.
Catholic retreat centers are overflowing with Protestants. Lively evangelical services draw crowds of hungry worshipers from every denomination. And few can fire the souls of American Christians, regardless of their racial and cultural identity, more than a black preacher or choir. When church-led efforts to meet the social needs of the community have opened up in downtown mainline Protestant churches, they have drawn volunteers from every kind of church and others from no church at all.
In fact, the real ecumenism of the last 25 years has taken place in soup kitchens and homeless shelters more than at tables of theologians trying to find unity on the meaning of the Eucharist. Instead, Methodists, Mennonites, and Catholics have been sharing bread together at nuclear test sites, outside the White House or the South African embassy, and in the jail cells to which they were taken after their spiritual protests.
I remember a Pentecost witness in 1985 in Washington, D.C., where Christians from around the country conducted nonviolent civil disobedience at symbolic sites around the city to register their conscience in relation to a variety of issues that cut across traditional political lines: budget cuts against the poor, the superpowers' deployment of first-strike nuclear weapons, the American wars in Central America, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the nation's acceptance of 1.5 million abortions every year.
Soon the D.C. jail was full of Christianshundreds of them singing and praying through most of the night. Baptist and Benedictine choir directors, evangelical pastors and Franciscan priests, Presbyterian theologians and Maryknoll sisters, and laypeople from virtually every denomination engaged each other. By the end of the night, the jail-house chorus was taking requests from the guards to sing their favorite hymns!
"The whole church is here," exclaimed an exuberant clergyman. "I must be in heaven," smiled a Catholic sister as she woke up to the strains of "Amazing Grace." And one seminarian, who had slept all night on the concrete floor, said he would have paid money to be there for the best theological education he'd had so far.
It's not only social action that is bringing people together, but also their spiritual hunger. Catholic "Cursillo" and parish renewal groups draw non-Catholics as well; evangelical Bible studies have proliferated across the nation involving people of every and no denomination; and prayer circles of support can be found now in virtually every workplace, including the halls of Congress. When Christians pray and study the Bible together, they also talk and come to know and support each other across all the former dividing lines.
Increasingly, American Protestants choose their churches with little reference to denomination. Other factors are more important: neighborhood location, Sunday school and youth activities, stimulating preaching and worship, and community service. Some might call that a reflection of the wider society's consumer mentality, but it also reflects a deeper desire to define church in more meaningful ways to families and local communities.
Independent community churches are now the fastest growing in the country for Protestants. Catholics still select a parish for Mass, but are more and more involved with Protestants in everything from social ministry to Bible study and prayer. And younger evangelicals are far less fearful than their parents were of mixing with both Catholics and other Protestants. Black Christians still understand the central role of the black church in their communities, but now can be found partnering with white congregations for the sake of inner-city ministry and racial reconciliation.
THE DEVOLUTION OF national social policy from the federal to the local level will only accelerate these changes. Increasingly, the churches and the projects they spawn will take a leading role in the battle to overcome poverty. Churches will become the catalysts and conveners of new community-based coalitions and partnerships.
To do that, churches must come together with one another, with other service-providing organizations, and even with other faith communities. As the nation continues to polarize along racial lines and O.J. trial verdicts, the racial reconciliation that comes from deeper and more spiritual roots will become more critical to the healing of the nation.
Second, as the values of the culture continue to disintegrate, centers of positive values and activities will draw more and more people. Instead of just complaining and blaming others, church congregations might become the places where moral reconstruction begins. Within the supportive and nurturing bonds that churches provide, broken families can be supported and many put back together again, children can find role models and moral guidance to navigate dangerous cultural waters, employers can be motivated to serve the common good more than just the bottom line, and young people can learn the deeper rewards of service over the numbing drive of materialism.
Finally, churches could directly respond to the obvious spiritual hunger across the land, instead of being afraid of its excesses. Congregations could become the much-needed places of spiritual formation that our society desperately lacks, stressing character over success, spirituality over consumption, fidelity over gratification, honesty over expediency, leadership over celebrity, and integrity over everything else. Limitless technology, endless consumption, and never-ending work have clearly not answered the longings of the human heart.
The spiritual hunger at the end of the 20th century is perhaps greater than at its beginning, and the churches have the best opportunity to respond.
In order to respond to that spiritual hunger, the churches need to turn their present divisions into resources for renewal. Virtually every denomination began with an impulse for reform, an insight that was unique, or a truth that helped define them. Each therefore has, within its own history, a tradition of renewal. Yet most of those renewing impulses have long since been forgotten, and the traditions have simply turned into divisions.
The transforming power of the early church is still imbedded in the traditions of every congregation today, and the renewing power of every new monastic order or Protestant denomination is available to be appropriated anew. Indeed, the Catholic orders are all learning that the road to renewal begins with a return to the earliest charismsthe inspirations that created the communityand then application of the charisms to the contemporary world.
churches and denominations can turn divisions into the spiritual wells of tradition from which we all drink. Important theology can be found in virtually every church tradition, and it should not simply be amalgamated into a new ecumenism. In other words, the ecumenism of the 21st century will not come from a bland, common-denominator Christianity. Rather, it will emerge from the exciting rediscovery of the strength of each of our traditions, which are then seen as gifts to be offered instead of walls to divide.
Imagine if we all recovered the wonderful Catholic sense of God's presence in all of life and the world, and regained a commitment on the part of every Protestant commuter church to take spiritual responsibility for the life of the "parish" in which it finds itself. The depth and quality of Catholic social teaching also offers much to Protestants who are looking to move beyond the old categories of Left and Right, and the spiritual formation available from Catholic religious communities could be a powerful resource for the whole of the church.
Imagine if the evangelical invitation of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ brought people back to the pews of churches where evangelism and members have been steadily declining. The spiritual energy and passion of evangelical churches are desperately needed today in churches where both are in short supply. If Bible study and prayer again become mainstays of Christian life, small groups doing both would draw spiritually hungry people that are not inclined to venture into a more formal church service.
Imagine if mainline Protestant churches rediscovered the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbush, which refused to separate personal piety from social action. Instead of backing off from strong social commitments because of declining numbers, the denominational churches could strengthen their prophetic witness by renewing their call to evangelism. The exemplary commitments of many mainline churches to the gifts and leadership of women could offer much to the still patriarchal patterns of Catholic, evangelical, and black churches.
Imagine if evangelical and mainline churches recovered their roots in the Wesleyan-holiness-revival traditions and in the Reformed traditions. The revivalist movement swept across 19th-century America, making converts and challenging the social evils of the day. The Reformed tradition refused the division of life into sacred and secular, private and public, and insisted that everything must be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
The Anabaptist tradition, which created the peace churches of Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers, has much to teach the contemporary world about the importance of church independence from the state. Such a stance has led to a strong witness for nonviolence, simple living, and personal integrity.
Imagine if white Christians finally looked to their black brothers and sisters for instruction in how to feed hungry souls and bodies. The spiritual power and social courage of the black churches have provided the best single contribution of American Christianity to the worldwide church. It is time for that contribution to be fully accepted at home.
The great influx of Latino and Asian Christians to the United States are further transforming the churches, and the emergence of Native American congregations offers to diversify the face of American Christianity even more. All of these should be allowed to express their own indigenous spiritualities and not be forced into the old categories and divisions that are passing away.
AS THE TRADITIONS that divide become the resources that renew, we see the emergence of a new ecumenical "table" in every community. Old ecumenical structures must give way to new ecumenical networks. The mainline Protestants who controlled the old table are vitally needed at the new one, but it is no longer their table; in fact, no one needs to control it.
The World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches seem to be realizing this new reality and are making attempts to reach out to other families of churches. Catholics and evangelicals are finding they have more and more in common as well, and both seem willing to sit down with their mainline Protestant neighbors. Some white Christians finally understand how much they need their black and brown brothers and sisters, especially in a society desperate for models of racial repentance and reconciliation.
This new table of Christian unity is possible only as we seek to find the common ground that has been hidden by our divisions. If we don't, a new period of division awaits us, perhaps not along denominational and constituency lines but along social and cultural cleavages. Instead of helping to resolve society's deepest conflicts, the church would likely ratify them. How tragic if the future church were simply defined by pro-gay and anti-gay congregations, pro-choice and pro-life partisans, and conservative and liberal voting blocs. It's a future we can avoid, but only if we let our theological vision and spiritual clarityrather than political positionsdefine our public witness.
While the old table is a thing of the past, there won't be one new table, but many. Virtually every Christian project and endeavor must strive to bring all the church families together. On many community issues, we must also learn to sit down with brothers and sisters from other faith traditions. We have yet to determine the shape of a new interfaith collaboration that moves beyond highly unsatisfying lowest-common-denominator worship services to real partnership where everyone is free to be and bring who they are. That will come.
Instead of a church made up of divided kingdoms and warring factions, the church of the 21st century could well become a rich mosaic of interconnected faith communities. Nothing would be better news for a society looking for social leadership, cultural healing, and spiritual grounding.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.