In the midst of all the discouraging news that come our way from print and online media, I have some good news to report. In the words of the early 20th-century journalist, Jack London, “I have seen the future and it works!”
I recently saw the future of the church manifested while visiting Frankfurt, Germany. There, a young woman has been a leader in a movement that has now established 46 new churches. What is unusual is that most of these churches are meeting in bars and pubs. The genius of this is that it’s a “win-win situation” for everybody concerned. Those who run the bars on Sunday morning are thrilled to have their places filled with enthusiastic young people, singing and listening to the teachings of scripture and, yes, drinking beer. The many young leaders who are in charge of these Sunday morning gatherings at these “bar churches” are pleased because they have a place to meet, and they do not have to spend any money for overhead such as heat, light, and rent. Sunday mornings had been a real “downtime” for local bars, but not anymore.
The important emphasis at these church gatherings is that the meetings are dialogical. All during the presentations of the gospel, young people are encouraged to ask questions. Interruptions are welcomed and, among the young people who are gathered, there is freedom to raise questions — even if they are not directly related to the subject that is being presented by the leaders. This give-and-take style is a significant departure from the usual monologues that church people regularly experience during traditional Sunday morning church services.
An invitation is made to get as many of these young people to commit themselves to going on mission trips to the Third World and to serve such places as Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Congo. These mission groups drill or dig wells in order to make healthy water available for the indigenous people living in arid areas. Since diseased water is a major cause of sickness and death in the Global South, you can understand how important this is. During these weeklong excursions, the leaders of these “bar churches” have the opportunity to carry on in-depth discussions about the message of Christ and extend the call to commitment to Christ and His work in the world. This is a whole new movement, and it is a church-style that might be replicated in other places around the world.
During my time in Vienna, Austria, I was privileged to observe the second manifestation of the church breaking out of old molds. This proved to be another movement led by a dynamic young woman who, in this case, had been theologically trained. Her congregation calls itself “The Burning Church.” I asked members of the congregation why this gathering had this name, and I received a variety of answers. Among them were these: “We deal with the burning issues of the day from a biblical perspective,” and “We are burning a new path for the church of the future.”
The congregation was holding a conference that was titled “Dangerous Ideas.” Whereas most churches try to avoid what is controversial, this congregation meets the hot issues of the day head on. They could have easily used the chapter titles of one of my earlier books, 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid To Touch, as the themes for their gatherings. The excitement and energy that radiated through this group of young people had me on an emotional high.
This particular congregation in Vienna had just purchased a rather large building, which once had been a ballroom and nightclub. The building is located in a neighborhood where there are many poor people, and they were building into this new facility places where local people could come for medical care, counseling, dental care, and a number of yet-to-be determined ministries.
This was a “listening congregation,” in that it was not simply imposing any a priori agenda on the local people, but rather was gleaning from those in the neighborhood what needs the church could meet.
The great deal of the work needed to refurbish this new facility was being done by the church members themselves. This congregation is extremely lacking in funds, but this does not deter them from dreaming, planning, and moving ahead with great excitement.
There is little doubt that I returned to the United States starry eyed over what I had witnessed as I observed these innovative Christian movements that just may be part of the avant-garde of what the church will be like as the 21st century unfolds.