Many church communities are rapidly approaching Annual Report time.

Writing an Annual Report causes me to ponder, not only the past, but to think ahead to the future. Predicting the future is a tenuous enterprise at best. But this year, I have found myself thinking about the changes we face in our culture and the impact these may have on the church.

Here, and over the next few days, is a version in four installments of a portion of my 2015 Annual Report in which I think in general terms about the future the church is facing and some of the implications for how we do church that these changes may prescribe.

What the future may look like in any concrete terms is always uncertain. The one thing that can be said with confidence about the future for the church is that it is not going to be the past.

We no longer live in the 1950’s. The culture has changed around us in my lifetime in dramatic ways. The church of the future will either pay attention to the reality of change or it will, deservedly, cease to exist.

What are the major changes that affect the life of the church?

1. The world in which we do church in the 21st century is multi-cultural and inter-faith.

We live in an increasingly diverse world. The statement, “We live in a Christian country,” which once may have had some meaning in Canada, is meaningless today. It will become increasingly less helpful as immigration brings a more diverse population to our shores.

Human beings are united for the most part around a common set of values. In general we share faith in the primacy of love and the belief that goodness, kindness and peace are more desirable than greed, selfishness, and violence. Beyond that, there may be little agreement about the root of these shared values or the best path by which they might be nurtured.

In the church we need to rejoice in the values we can find in common with the wider community and refuse to be fearful of the  differences we experience. When my neighbour is a devout, peaceful, faithful Muslim, it becomes increasingly difficult to claim my way is the only way to express a relationship with God or to grow in goodness and truth.

If the church is going to have any credibility a society in which we live so close to people who express and nurture their faith in ways that are unfamiliar to us, we must begin with humility. The days of standing on the side-lines of peoples’ lives and lobbing the truth into their court for them to receive with gratitude, are hopefully long over.

What distinct truth might Christian faith have to hold out in the midst of the many forms of faith expression that are present in our current context?

2. Families have changed.

In terms of its surface details, the word “family” no longer means what it once meant.

When I was a child, the pattern of family was fairly uniform. Family meant: mother, father, and 2.7 children (currently 1.9 in Canada). In the 1950’s mother was home with the children; dad went out to bring home the bacon (which everyone was happy to eat), and the majority of school-age children spent the day in public school after which they were free to roam the neighbourhood until it was time to come in for meatloaf, tastefully prepared by mother while father relaxed after his hard day at work. What part of that picture is not over?

Family today encompasses a multitude of relational arrangements. There is no common pattern that pertains in every home. And yet, at the core, the values we intend to indicate when we use the word “family” remain unchanged. “Family” embodies love, support, nurture and the value of human connection. Church exists to nurture these values in whatever form they are faithfully manifest.

How can the church nurture the deep values of family in whatever form they are expressed?

3. Authority is no longer authoritative.

When I was a child, if I became sick, my mother took me to the doctor (or possibly the doctor visited our home). The doctor assessed the situation, told my mother what to do and she followed the doctor’s instruction… without question.

Today, most patients google-diagnose before showing up in a doctor’s office, seek more than one opinion, and may pick from a vast range of treatment alternatives once a diagnosis that feels right has been determined. The days of “Yes sir, no sir,” father knows best, and unquestioning obedience to some supreme authority are over.

Church leaders cannot afford to locate themselves ten feet above contradiction. Church communities can no longer demand the unquestioning loyalty that was once available when Christianity was the dominant spiritual option.

How can Christians speak passionately about the truth we believe we behold in our faith, without needing to require agreement?