18 Church Trends (and More!): Trend 12

Continuing my highly derivative series on church trends, the next six are from Carey Nieuwhof’s post 6 Disruptive Church Trends That Will Rule 2017.

Trend 12: Consumer Christianity Will Die Faster Than Ever

Really? Nieuwhof explains,

Our faith calls us to live for Christ and to love and reach the world for which He died.

As the church reformats and repents, a more authentic, more selfless church will emerge.

When you’re no longer focused on yourself and your viewpoint, a new tone emerges.

If your church is still defined by what you ‘offer’ members to satisfy them, and isn’t defined by how you love each other and the world around you, the clock is ticking faster than ever.

Continue reading

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N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 27 (Boasting over Works of the Law)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

Rom 3:27-28

(Rom. 3:27-28 NET)  27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works [of the Torah]? No, but by the principle of faith!  28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith [in Jesus] apart from the works of the law [Torah].

“Boasting” [JFG]

I don’t think I noticed this verse until I was well into my 20’s, maybe older. It nearly knocked me out of my chair. I mean, if boasting is a bad thing, then I had been raised in a false religion! After all, we very proudly boasted of having the right answers on baptism, instrumental music, the use of the church treasury, the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, etc. We were a proud people. In fact, the Bible is so very plain on these points that you have to be wilfully obtuse not to get them right. And so our denominational neighbors weren’t merely mistaken, they were in conscious rebellion against God, wanting to follow the culture, be popular, cave in to secular humanism, etc., etc.

In fact, Paul is referencing a common theme in the OT. The Psalms repeatedly condemn boastfulness. And Jeremiah says,

(Jer. 9:23-24 ESV)  23 Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches,  24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”

–which sounds a lot like Rom 3 and Paul. In fact, Paul condemns “boasting” some 52 times in the ESV translation. It’s a big deal in his theology because the OT repeatedly condemns boasting other than in God. If your understanding of salvation gives you grounds to boast (whether you do or not), your theology is messed up.

“Works of the law” [JFG]

[This is a lengthy discussion not entirely pertinent to Wright’s latest book, but highly pertinent to understanding Gal and Rom as Wright explains in other materials. I found myself understanding the New Perspective and NT Wright far better having gone through all this. And it makes sense.]

The meaning of “works of the law” or “works of Torah” is controversial. Does it refer to any meritorious deed? Or does it refer to only the ceremonial elements of the Torah? Or does it refer to all obedience to the Torah?

Wright only briefly alludes to the problem in his new book, and his commentary only addresses the question cursorily. The most comprehensive discussion by Wright I can find is in his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. If you’re a fan of Pauline studies, this is a book you should read. But it’s not light reading.

Wright argues,

There are, then, two interlocking reasons why ‘works of the law cannot justify’. First, God has redefined his people through the faithfulness of the Messiah, and ‘works of the law’ would divide Jew from Gentile in a way that is now irrelevant.

Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 97–98.

If “justify” means “include in God’s covenant people,” then God justifies based on his covenant with Abraham — by faith. His covenant through Moses does not define the covenant people. Rather, among other things, the Torah separates Jews from Gentiles by imposing the food laws, festivals, and such, and this separation now contradicts the gospel and the ultimate promise to Abraham to bless all nations. Hence, those kinds of works of the Torah are obsoleted in Jesus.

Second, ‘works of the law’ will never justify, because what the law does is to reveal sin. Nobody can keep it perfectly. The problem of Genesis 11 (the fracturing of humanity) is the full outworking of the problem of Genesis 3 (sin), and the promise to Abraham is the answer to both together. Perspectives new and old sit comfortably side by side here, a pair of theological Siamese twins sharing a single heart.

Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 97–98.

The purpose of the Torah is not justification but revelation of God’s nature — especially so when it comes to the “moral law.” The revelation of God’s moral nature in the Torah holds those with the Torah accountable — as we see in Rom 5 in some detail — but does not justify. The covenant with Abraham then and now justifies by faith.

So up to this point, I agree with Wright. Then he says,

Here is the point—large as life, in the pages of the New Testament—that was one of James Dunn’s major breakthrough moments in the development of the ‘new perspective’. The ‘works of the law’ against which Paul warned were not, he suggested, the moral good deeds done to earn justification (or salvation), but the particular commandments and ordinances which kept Jew and Gentile separate from one another.

Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 148 (italics in original).

I just don’t see limiting “works of the law” to the boundary marker commands as a matter of grammar and context. I think Wright was far closer to right in the earlier quotation. Wright also explains it more accurately, to my thinking, in other places. I mean, if we take him too literally and consider “works of the Law” to refer solely to such Jew/Gentile separators as circumcision, we run into serious historical and grammatical problems.

An article by William D. Barrick argues for a broader view of “works,” and Barrick makes some points about the roots of Paul’s vocabulary that I find persuasive. For example, in the phrase “do the words of the law” appearing in such passages such as Deut 28:58; 29:29; 31:12; and  32:46, “law” means the whole law, not just the boundary marker or ceremonial portions.He further demonstrates that the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal an attitude regarding the “works of the law” that is indeed just as legalistic as what the New Perspective denies. And it’s incontrovertible that the Gospels show Jesus condemning Pharisees for legalistic attitudes.

He further shows how contemporary Jewish scholars of Judaism disagree with the New Perspective interpretation, concluding that “law” means “Law of Moses” — even though this results in a very negative view of the Judaism of apostolic times.

Now, the Judaizing teachers apparently understood that Jesus’ crucifixion ended the sacrificial system, and Christianity taught essentially the same moral laws as the Law of Moses (although not as the basis for salvation), and so it’s quite natural that the boundary markers became the focus of controversy. It’s just not obvious from the Gospels how Jesus repeals circumcision, and there’s nothing in the Gospels about rejecting the boundary markers — except for the Sabbath, which Jesus addresses several times.

Hence, it’s no surprise that the apostles and elders in Jerusalem had to decide whether the cross somehow ended the need for the Law’s boundary marker regulations. Are they like the Sabbath? or are they like the Ten Commandments other than the Sabbath?

(Act 15:7-11 NET) 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.”

Peter speaks based on God’s direct revelation about the household of Cornelius. God gave us the answer when he gave Cornelius the Spirit, which is when God cleansed their hearts “by faith” — with no mention of baptism because the Spirit was given by God before baptism in this instance, making a point that the Jerusalem Council considered the convincing argument for why we know Gentiles are saved by faith and not works of the Law.

And then he makes two critical objections to binding circumcision —

* Why bind a yoke that the Jews “have been unable to bear”? It’s just not practical — it will kill evangelism — and besides, we Jewish Christians teach grace by faith, too! It’s not like Paul was the first Christian to discover grace and salvation by faith.

* Implicitly, he argues that the terms on which we are initially saved define the terms on which we remain saved. The conservative Churches of Christ tend to argue, “Sure, works aren’t how we’re initially saved, but works are how we stay saved.” If Peter believed that, then his argument would have required converts to celebrate the Passover and Feast of Booths after they’re baptized to mark them as Christians. And his point is obviously exactly to the contrary.

Then again, Wright does offer this intriguing theory —

Now: another thought experiment. Let us suppose we only had a fragment of [Galatians], consisting of 2:11–16a, and stopping right here, ‘not justified by works of the law’. What would we conclude about the meaning of ‘justified’? We might well know, from extraneous verbal evidence, that ‘justified’ was a lawcourt term meaning ‘given the status of being “in the right” ’.

But Paul is not in a law-court, he is at a dinner table. The context of his talking about ‘not being justified by works of the law’ is that he is confronted with the question of ethnic taboos about eating together across ethnic boundaries. The force of his statement is clear: ‘yes, you are Jewish; but as a Christian Jew you ought not to be separating on ethnic lines’.

Reading Paul strictly in his own context—as John Piper rightly insists we must always ultimately do—we are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that ‘to be justified’ here does not mean ‘to be granted free forgiveness of your sins’, ‘to come into a right relation with God’, or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God’, but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.’

This does not clinch the argument for my reading of the whole doctrine. But the first signs are that, for Paul, ‘justification’, whatever else it included, always had in mind God’s declaration of membership, and that this always referred specifically to the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in faithful membership of the Christian family.

Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 95–96 (paragraphing modified, emphasis added).

Hence, we might translate something like —

(Rom. 3:27-28 NET)  27 Where, then, is boasting [of Jews against the Gentiles]? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works [of the Torah]? No, but by the principle of faith [in/faithfulness to Jesus]!  28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous [faithful to the covenants] by faith [in/faithfulness to Jesus] apart from the works of the law [Torah].

Read in light of the Jew/Gentile divide, while “works of the Torah” certainly includes both ceremonial and moral laws, the works that would allow Jews to boast over against the Gentile Christians would not be the moral laws, as both were equally obedient to them. It would be things like circumcision and the festivals, as they would be the works of the Law that give grounds for boasting by Jewish Christians over Gentile Christians — as shown by the constant fight over circumcision, which was not a moral command at all but was a point of pride, even boasting, by the the Jews.

Wright argues the same case in Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Certainly in Galatians, where the ‘sin’ root (hamartia) occurs only in this passage and two other places, one of them the letter’s opening formula, it is clear that Paul’s whole argument is about membership in the single family, sharing the same table-fellowship, not primarily about the way in which sins are dealt with and the sinner rescued from them. He presupposes the ‘anthropological’ point (that all, Jews included, are sinners), but his point is not ‘this is how sinners get saved’ but ‘this is how people are marked out as members of the covenant family’. The ‘forensic’ and ‘anthropological’ hints are held within the ‘covenantal’ meaning.

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:969.

Hence, to be “justified” in Rom and Gal means “to be declared in the right” or “to be declared righteous,” but in context means more particularly “to be declared part of the righteous community.” And the Gentiles are not shown to be part of the new, spiritual Israel or the church or the Kingdom by the Torah but by faith — because God is righteous in keeping his promises to Abraham (which is why chapter 4 will be all about Abraham).

Hence, works of the Law are all forms of obedience to the Torah, but the works of the Law that cannot be used by the Jews to boast over against the Gentiles are the separator or boundary marker laws — circumcision and such like — because “faith in Jesus” does not involve such things.

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Regarding Facebook and Me (A Necessary Repeat of a Recent Post)

sad-reality-about-facebookI’m on Facebook. By that I mean my posts show up on Facebook.

I occasionally post something that strikes my fancy, but only once a week or so.

You see, my main purpose in being on Facebook is to see pictures of my grandchildren.

I post OneInJesus posts there because it’s automated and requires no effort whatsoever — and some readers prefer to get my materials this way. And that implies no criticism of others. I just happen to have no pets and nothing interesting to say about my breakfast or my politics.

Also I’m on Facebook because I’m a retired elder. When I was eldering (if that’s even a word), I felt obliged to “friend” everyone in my church, since the young people were posting their plans to change congregations, be divorced, or whatever on Facebook before they talked to their church leaders. So it seemed to be the pastoral thing to do. (It was. Elders should be on Facebook. And Twitter.) Continue reading

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18 Church Trends (and More!): Trend 11

Continuing my highly derivative series on church trends, the next 10 are from an article by church growth consultant and author Thom Rainer. (This is last one from Rainer.)

Trend 11: The remarkable shift toward continual learning.

Our research is showing that pastors and church staff tend to have greater success in their roles if they are intentional about continual learning. Some go the path of greater formal education, but more are receiving coaching and intentional programs of continual learning like the ministry we developed called Church Answers. An ancillary trend to this one is the increase in number of mentors and coaches for pastors and staff.

First, I’m obviously big on Bible study, and I wouldn’t trade my Logos, Accordance, and BibleWorks for 20 M.Div.’s or D.Min.’s. That is, I think the best learning is the learning you dig out for yourself through diligent study and conversation with your peers.  Continue reading

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N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 26 (God as both Just and Justifier of the Sinful)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

Rom 3:26

(Rom. 3:26 ESV)  26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

(Rom. 3:26 NET)  26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.

(Rom. 3:25 NRSV)  it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

(Rom. 3:26 NET/JFG)  26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness [loving covenant faithfulness] in the present time, so that he would be just [covenant faithful] and the justifier [one who declares covenant faithful and so a part of the covenant faithful community] of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.

The same verse translated four ways, the ESV, the NET Bible, the NRSV, and my own annotated version. Let’s see what NT Wright has to say about this verse. And while Wright mentions this verse several times in his new book, it’s not the focus of his analysis. Which is surprising because in the Romans Road approach to atonement, this is the central verse for many commentators. Continue reading

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N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 25 (Passing over sins previously committed, Part 4)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

Rom 3:24-25

(Rom. 3:24-25 NET)  24 But they are justified [declared faithful to God’s covenants with the Jews] freely by his grace through the redemption [freedom from slavery] that is in Christ [King/Messiah] Jesus.  25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat [place of forgiveness in the Holy of Holies, God’s throne on earth] accessible through faith [faithfulness/trust]. This was to demonstrate his righteousness [faithfulness to the covenant], because God in his forbearance [tolerant patience] had passed over the sins previously committed [by whom?]. 

So … In Conclusion [JFG]

Okay. I admit it. I’ve gone pretty far afield from Wright’s book. But not from his comments on Rom 2:4 and 3:25 and Acts 17:22-31. To his credit, Wright doesn’t avoid hard topics, and he admits that Paul says sins committed by both Jews and Gentiles pre-Pentecost were forborn and so unpunished. To me, this surely means that there was no gehenna for the damned. They just died never to be resurrected — which is why the OT is silent on gehenna and eternal punishment but does speak of the blessed afterlife for faithful Israel.

Not all commentators believe that references to being “gathered to his fathers” refers to a belief in the afterlife — partly due to an assumption that the Israelites were too primitive to be concerned with such things and partly because, if you think in Platonic (Greek or pagan) terms, you assume that a blessed eternity must imply hell — and the OT knows nothing of hell.

So this is all a thought experiment. I mean, let’s just think through the possibilities and see how well they fit the text, and so far, the theory seems to fit pretty well. After all, Jesus  himself said that the Patriarchs enjoyed resurrection to eternal life.

(Matt. 22:29-32 ESV) 29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.  30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.  31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God:  32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 

But he doesn’t say that everyone born died to live with God in the resurrection — and yet, according to Paul in Romans, everyone was left no worse than unpunished due to God’s forbearance.

If this speculation is true, then the coming of “forgiveness of sin,” the Spirit, the Messiah, and the Kingdom also brought punishment for the damned in the afterlife: gehenna.

Now, I prefer gehenna to “hell” because gehenna is a garbage dump, whereas in the popular imagination, hell is a place of perpetual conscious torment, and the Greek says gehenna. And as we’ve covered, I agree with Edward Fudge that punishment post-Pentecost is finite. The damned suffer a perfectly just punishment in the afterlife and then cease to exist — never to be resurrected. No second chance. No one repents. They are destroyed.

(Matt. 7:13-14 ESV)  13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” 

(1 Thess. 5:3 ESV)  3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 

(Rom. 9:22-24 ESV)  22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,  23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Available Light, Part III [JFG]

So if this is all true, and it’s likely not. I mean, I surely got something wrong in there. But if it’s even close to right, this study sheds considerable light on the Available Light theory. According to many Bible scholars — some of whom I hold in the highest esteem — people who’ve never heard the gospel are saved — provided they’re good people.  And I disagree. But I think there’s another possibility.

The question is when is “now” in Acts 17:30 —

(Acts 17:30-31 NET) 30 “Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Does “now” mean “now that Jesus has been resurrected”? Or “now that Pentecost has come”? Or does “now” mean “now that I’m preaching the gospel to you”? Or does it mean “this date in  history worldwide, even though I’m only preaching to a handful of Greek philosophers in Athens”?

If “now” refers to the coming of the Kingdom, then between Pentecost and Cornelius, there were several years — perhaps a decade — when God’s forbearance for the Gentiles had expired and yet, as a practical matter, they’d had no opportunity to repent. I guess they could have found God in the Creation, but in Acts, “repent” typically (not always) means “repent of your unbelief” — and how can they believe unless they are preached to? — as Paul writes in Rom 10.

If God was forbearing to punish in hopes of the Gentiles repenting, he really needed to forbear until they heard the gospel. Only then could they truly repent by believing in Jesus.

Rejection of the gospel [JFG]

Consider these passages:

(Lk. 10:16 ESV)  16 “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” 

(Jn. 12:48 ESV)  48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.

(Jn. 3:16-18 ESV)  16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 

(Heb. 12:25 ESV)  25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.

It’s not an overwhelming body of evidence, but one could argue that condemnation (meaning punishment) is reserved for those who reject the gospel and so refuse to believe in Jesus.

That would mean that those who’ve never heard the gospel are not destined for punishment in the afterlife. They just die and are annihilated. This is, in a sense, punishment and, in a sense, not punishment. After all, plenty of people outside of Jesus fear death, even though they believe it means annihilation. First, they’re not so sure that it doesn’t mean hell, and second, we humans have a very powerful survival instinct. It takes very real faith to not fear death. It’s built into us.

But death followed by the wrath of God, separation from God, and punishment that’s perfectly just, well, that’s terrifying. Well, it should be.

So does that mean that when we preach the gospel to a new land that we subject our listeners to the risk of hell? Well, only if we define “hell” as finite, perfectly just punishment. And if it’s perfectly just, then this is a good thing — in the same sense that putting rapists and murderers in jail is a good thing. Justice is, by definition, good and holy. It’s part of God’s good nature. When we see justice as cruel and unfair, we’re revealing our unhealthy understanding of the nature of God.

So, then, from what did the apostles “save” their converts when they preached the gospel in Acts? Well, remember that their favorite proof text is Joel 2:32a, “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.” Joel and the other OT writers had no concept of hell or gehenna. Salvation was not understood as being salvation from eternal torment. Rather, Joel’s original readers would have understood him to be speaking of salvation (or rescue) from the curses of Leviticus and Deuteronomy for disobedience. He was speaking in terms of the end of Exile.

But, of course, as we’ve seen, the end of Exile means a return to the inheritance God promised his people, but in the NT this is the entire earth, purified and transformed by God to be the New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE). And this means the receipt of the Spirit and the reign of God’s Messiah. So it all fits. The NHNE is not a change in the promises of God to end Exile but an expansion and fresh understanding in light of Jesus — but not nearly as different as we imagine. Both speak to a transformed world in which God dwells with man.

More difficult is what “saved” meant for Gentiles — and it means the same thing. They would be grafted into Israel (Rom 11) and so enjoy the covenant promises of Israel. But the Gentiles were not under the curse of the Law. They were, however, under the curse of Creation of Gen 3 — and so in Rom 8, Paul explains how the Creation itself is to be redeemed when God’s people are redeemed. After all, one cannot enter into Jesus and receive the Spirit unless the uncleanness of the curse of Gen 3 is removed by restoring the convert to the image of God — through the Spirit.

Last point for today — this all only works if it fits Rom 5. And I’m seriously tempted to go straight to there, but we’ve not even finished Rom 3, much less 4. So remember all this and in a few days we’ll return to it. And if Rom 5 proves me wrong, I’ll delete all these posts before y0u get to see them. I could be wrong  …

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18 Church Trends (and More!): Trends 9 & 10

Continuing my highly derivative series on church trends, the next 10 are from an article by church growth consultant and author Thom Rainer:

Trend 9: Worship center downsizing becomes normative.

This trend was easy to predict. The Millennials are leading the way to attend worship services that are small to mid-size. As a consequence, the huge worship centers have lost their attraction. Church architects and design/build firms will be busy downsizing worship centers.

Eh … this one doesn’t have much to do with Churches of Christ. We only have a handful of “mega-churches,” that is, churches with more than 2,000 in average attendance.

Trend 10: Longer pastoral tenure.

This trend is being led by Millennial pastors. These younger pastors do not desire to climb the ladder to larger churches. They are more desirous to stay and make a long-term difference in the community.

Continue reading

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