The Future of the Church: Discovering a New Theology of Transformation Through Pluralism
Change From Within: Christianity’s Transformation
In 21st century United States of America, religious life and expression is undergoing rapid and dramatic change, of which, two major trends manifest. According to Harvey Cox, Christians are moving into the Age of the Spirit, the third major period of Christian existence, which has a multiplicity of implications on the order and form of the Church. Some of the more prominent developments include: the reality of an increasing diversity of Christian expression, a decentralization of leadership, and a focus on relationship rather than right belief. Diana Butler Bass points out that all Christian denominations including evangelicals are decreasing in numbers, emergent Christianity is beginning to flourish, and the younger generation claims to be more spiritual, than religious. How will Christians respond? What will be our theology of transformation?
Change From Without: Religious Diversity
Second, the US religious landscape is becoming increasingly diverse. For example, there are three times as many American Muslims as there are PC(USA) members. Mosques, temples, ashrams, and community centers of all different traditions stand next door to churches, and the adherents of these faiths live completely integrated lives in American society. Eboo Patel writes, “One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Dubois famously said. ‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.’ The twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line.” How will Christians relate to this religious diversity? What will be our theology of pluralism?
Hopefully, the Church will respond to these two trends, embracing the transformation of Christianity and the increasingly religiously diverse society, discerning the guiding movement of the Holy Spirit. Further, I hope we will see this as an amazing opportunity to refine and improve the effectiveness of the gospel, becoming a truer embodiment of Jesus Christ. We can create a new theology for ourselves.
A New Theology of Transformation through Pluralism: Communion with the Religiously Different
The common link between the aforementioned major trends is that our society, our neighborhoods, our houses, even ourselves, are becoming increasingly religiously and spiritually diverse. New forms of Christianity are emerging, the older forms are changing, people are becoming spiritual but not religious, people of all the world’s religious backgrounds live next door, agnostics and humanists and atheists are joining the conversation.
As Christians, we are constantly in relationships with people that are different, whether a different kind of Christian, a different kind of religion, or otherwise. While diversity has always existed, it used to be in the form of homogenous pockets scattered throughout the earth. Today, advancements in technology, communication, politics, and cultural ideology have created opportunities for diverse people to live closely together, which has led to the diversification of those homogenous pockets.
This is not only the way it is. It is, I believe, the way it is supposed to be. This stance is not just a hunch, or guess, but is backed by the revelation of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus Christ continuously interacted, “communed,” with people that were different in all senses of the word. Think woman at the well. Further, Jesus transformed their lives and was changed himself in the interaction. Think the healing of the bleeding woman (she touches him and Jesus feels the power leave his body).
So what does this mean for us? How are we to live as Christians communing with religious difference? First, we must re-imagine what it means to be Christian, to be Church. Instead of thinking about Christians and Church as a group of people that believe the same thing, who do the same thing, who are the same, let us think about Church as a dynamic movement of divine love that transforms people’s lives through meaningful encounters.
We cannot be scared of losing what we have, our buildings, denominations, hymns, doctrine. We cannot be scared of straying too far away from our foundation. That fear will only hold us back. We must risk losing what we have, courageously committing to following Jesus’ model of communion with the religiously different. We will gain so much and become more fully who we are meant to be. We will be transformed.
The New Seminary
So what will be a practical marker of this future change of which I am speaking? For the change in the church manifest, we must change the way we train our leaders. Emergent Christians are already wary of the traditional seminary. Their leaders normally avoid seminary altogether and get a Ph.D. in philosophy or something similar. I’m not suggesting a total departure from seminary education, rather, a transformation in the way we do seminary.
Seminary or divinity school should cease in being a Christian only institution, but rather should team up with institutions of other faiths and create a multi-faith university, as Claremont School of Theology has. There, seminarians get the chance to learn, dialogue, work, and live with religious leaders of Judaism and Islam. Maybe, in the future, universities including Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, humanist, and other religious/spiritual leaders will be created. In this environment, students will wrestle with the theological implications of pluralism, learn tenets of other faith traditions, solidify and challenge their own beliefs, and gain deeper insight from the religiously diverse student body, than in a traditional seminary. Since the world we live in reflects this diversity, the training of our leaders should reflect this diversity. How should we learn to live as Christians in relationship with religious diversity if our leaders have not learned to live it?
Once the leaders develop their own theology of pluralism, they can then go and lead members of the church on how to be not just Christians, but Christians-in-relation-to-others. Not only will we learn how to live in harmony together and help mend the religious intolerance rampant in the world, but our own faith and our own lives will be transformed through these encounters. Hopefully, we will achieve a greater Christianity through the help of our non-Christian friends.
Some people are suspicious of having multi-faith encounters because they are worried of losing their own particular religious identity. They are worried that by deeply sharing with the religious other, they will either be converted or their faith will become watered down. But this isn’t true. By talking to people of other faiths, one’s own faith is broadened, strengthened, and deepened. New insights about one’s faith can be revealed through conversation. Similarities among faiths can strengthen and enrich each other, and differences can serve as reminders of the many views, perspectives, and possible truths in religious experience.
At TCU, where I serve as Associate Chaplain, many Muslim students are dedicated to their prayer life, utilizing our multi-faith prayer room throughout the day. And when I dialogue with them about it, when I experience their prayer with them, it doesn’t make me want to pray Muslim prayers and abandon my Christian identity, per se. Rather, it leads me to reflect on what can Muslim prayer life teach me about my own Christian prayer life. It leads me to pray my Christian prayers in a deeper and more profound way. I become more connected to millions in America who pray to the same God. I am changed, but I remain Christian. But I am more than that now, I am a Christian-in-relation-to-Muslims. That is the transformation that takes place. I have learned about another religion which breaks down dangerous stereotypes and prejudice, and I have gotten to know a person of another religion more deeply, building trust and respect. I have enriched my own faith, with a little Muslim influence, through the encounter. I have developed a divine empathy, connecting me to the religious lives of Muslims. I have begun to learn a second language. Just think of the transformation that would take place in our church and society if Christians began encountering to people of other faiths in an open and loving way?
The New Church
So as we continue into the second decade of 21st century, we are experiencing change in the church with an increasing number of forms of Christianity, we are experiencing change in culture with an increasing number of forms of religion and spirituality. We also have the model of Jesus Christ, who communed with the religiously different to bring about transformation. So I suggest the future of the church will be marked by the development of this theology of change/transformation. Central to this theology will be a communion with religious diversity. It is where the culture is moving and where the Spirit is taking us. We cannot be just Christians anymore. We are Christians-in-relationship-with-a-diversity-of-others. And in this relationship, this dialogue, this encounter with people that are different, our faith, our lives will be transformed for the better. We, through the Spirit’s guidance, will achieve a new and better Christianity. It’s the future of the church.
 Cox, Harvey. The Future of Faith.
 Bass, Diana Butler. Did You Know? Religion 2010. Compiled from Pew, Barna, Gallup .
 Patel, Eboo. Acts of Faith.
 John 4:4-42