Can the Church as We Know it Survive?

In a recent blogpost Neil Cole contrasts two (very different) Non-Western Churches:

When the communists took over the nation they arrested the church leaders (like Nee) and seized all church property. The indigenous expressions of simple churches meeting in homes not only survived…they thrived. The Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-Tung sought to eliminate all religion from society in China but instead mobilized the church and it grew from about 2 million Christians in 1949 to over 60 million. It is estimated today that there may be upwards of 80 million Christians in China.

Contrast this with the church of Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church was dependent upon three things: holy buildings, holy men in robes, and holy services performed by those men in those buildings. When the communists took over in Russia they seized all the buildings and arrested or compromised all the leaders of the church. The church was devastated.

He goes on to ask the question – which structure most reflects the way we do church in America? Are we dependent on buildings, holy men, and holy services performed by those men? Could we survive the arrest of our church leaders and seizure of church property? Are we more like the Chinese church or the Russian Orthodox Church?

Cathedral Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow

Without a doubt the American church is going to face ongoing persecution in the future. However it wouldn’t even take any real persecution to dismantle most churches, just a few legal changes (especially to tax law) could cause the church as we know it to implode, or more likely to become unsustainable.

The problem is that the western church concentrated all our people, resources and ideas into a few large groups. This is bad investment 101 – don’t put all your eggs into one basket. Much like the Russian Orthodox church, who put all of their energy and resources into holy buildings, holy men in robes, and holy services performed in those building the western church is liable to experience real devastation if (when) persecution or legal action is taken against the church as we know it.

In the future, most churches will not be able to sustain the model we are running on. This will, lead many churches into times of intense suffering and hardship. There are only two types of churches that will be able to survive those times. The only churches that will survive are the churches that are large enough to sustain themselves without all the tax benefits that the government offers to non-profits and religious institutions and those churches that are small enough not to need those benefits. When clergy stop getting tax benefits, many pastors in small churches will not be able to get by economically. When churches lose tax benefits on their properties, many churches will no longer be able to afford their mortgages. Either you will have to be large enough to generate enough capital to pay your mortgage or you will need to be small enough not to require funds to pay a mortage (i.e. because you don’t own any property). Either way tt’s a bleak future for the church as we know it.

The church will need to learn to survive without the government’s help. The church will need to learn to survive under government opposition. Non-Western churches have much to offer us in learning how to do both of those things.

However we aren’t there yet. We aren’t facing those difficulties yet, and it may be many years before we get to that point. However, its my own personal belief, that the church needs to prepare itself for that day. One of the best ways to get ready for that time is to emphasize the importance of what some have called “cell communities” or “small groups” or “community groups.” These small communities seem to be the essential building block of the church in the non-west. We have much to learn from our non-western brothers and sisters. They are clued in to the many strength of these sorts of communities.

According to Scott Sunquist (Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary) these communities are the “strongest organizational unit in world history” – here are the reasons why this is so:

  1. It is a remorseless self-multiplier.
  2. It is exceptionally difficult to destroy.
  3. It can preserve its intensify of local life while vast organizations quickly wither when they are weakened at the center.
  4. It can defy the power of governments.
  5. It is the appropriate lever for praying open any status quo.

It really sounds to me as though “cell communities” (simple churches, small groups, community groups, missional communities, call it what you will) are going to be vital to the future of the church in the west, especially in the US. If this is true – are we preparing for the future?


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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