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The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church Hardcover – October 3, 2003
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"This is the most courageous book I have ever read on church life. McNeal nails the problem on the head. Be prepared to be turned upside down and shaken loose of all your old notions of what church is and should be in today's world."
— George Cladis, senior pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City and author, Leading the Team-Based Church
"With humor and rare honesty Reggie McNeal challenges church leaders to take authentic Christianity back into the real world. He's asking the right questions to help us get back on track."
— Tommy Coomes, contemporary Christian music pioneer and record producer, artist with Franklin Graham Ministries
"Reggie McNeal throws a lifeline to church leaders who are struggling with consumer-oriented congregations wanting church for themselves. The Present Future will recharge you passion."
— Rev. Robert R. Cushman, senior pastor, Princeton Alliance Church, Plainsboro, New Jersey
"Christian leaders will find great questions being answered in this compelling and motivating work that unwraps what he calls 'the realities of the present future' in the church today."
— Kelvin Gardiner, district superintendent, Christian and Missionary Alliance.
"The momentum of God that allows visionary ministries to experience exponential growth stalls for the lack of great management (having the right systems and people in place to move to the next level). This is a must read for the young entrepreneur at the beginning of ministry or the seasoned pioneer!"
— Mike Slaughter, senior pastor, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, Tipp City Ohio
"I would highly recommend this book to any person interested in the current state of the Church in North America and the future of that Church. It is time that we pay attention to the realities of our ministry context and like David's 'Men of Issachar' discern the right path into the future."
— Rick E. Morrow, pastoral care coordinator, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Ft. Bragg, North Carolina
"This book is a rare find in which McNeal lovingly challenges the church with a spirit of adventure and rediscovery."
— The Rt. Rev. Charles Jenkins, Bishop, The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana
From the Inside Flap
Many of the old beliefs held by church leaders and congregations read as if they are self-evident, irrefutable truths If you build the perfect church they will come . . . Growing your church automatically makes a difference in the community . . . Developing better church members will mean better evangelism . . . Time has failed to produce the evidence of these claims.
In this provocative book, author, consultant, and church leadership developer Reggie McNeal debunks these and other old assumptions and provides an overall strategy to help church leaders move forward in an entirely different and much more effective way. In The Present Future, McNeal identifies the six most important realities that church leaders must address including: recapturing the spirit of Christianity and replacing "church growth" with a wider vision of kingdom growth; developing disciples instead of church members; fostering the rise of a new apostolic leadership; focusing on spiritual formation rather than church programs; and shifting from prediction and planning to preparation for the challenges of an uncertain world. McNeal contends that by changing the questions church leaders ask themselves about their congregations and their plans, they can frame the core issues and approach the future with new eyes, new purpose, and new ideas.
Written for congregational leaders, pastors, and staff leaders, The Present Future captures the urgency of a future that is literally now upon us, in a thoughtful, vigorous way. It is filled with examples of leaders and churches who are emerging into a new identity and purpose, and rediscovering the focus of their mission within new spiritual dimensions.
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The book also reinforces that we are "the called out ones"... the Ekklesia in order to GO and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). We often miss the obey His commands in this verse. We must be obedient to rise up out of the comfort of our Assemblies and meet the other "Called Out Ones" where they're at in the world. Imagine when the final person receives the Gospel and our Lord return!! What a wonderful thought! Let's get mobilized Church!!
This book presents some really tough questions, as implied by the title. However, it doesn't just present the questions, but posits some great potential answers to those questions. This is a great book about church growth and outreach. The contents are very well laid out, concise, and to the point. The author doesn't attempt to sugar coat anything, and gives some great, practical, and real-life examples and stories. It was a very easy book to read.
I have given this book a rating of 5 stars, based on the following:
- I have already suggested to others that they read this book.
- This is definitely a book that I will read and reference again and again.
- The book has some amazing content.
- The book is not extremely repetitive, things are clear and concisely stated, but not drilled into you via simple redundancy.
- The book has compelling examples from the author's life experience that shape the content of the book.
This is definitely not a "how to" book, but more of a mirror and evaluator. At the least, it's a gut check. At most, it'll change the way you see church as it has done for me.
With the writing of The Present Future, Reggie McNeal lent his voice to a rising chorus in American Christianity warning that traditional church growth and development strategies are no longer effective. He posited that over the past hundred years or more, the church adopted an organization and operational model consistent with the needs and expectations of modernism. With the cultural shift toward postmodernism, the expectations of the North American society have changed regarding established institutions like the church. However, the church has largely failed to recognize the influence postmodernism has had on the decline of the church. McNeal theorized that the church must force itself to recognize where the culture is and where it is heading in the future. American Christianity must then adopt strategies that best translate the timeless Gospel message into the language of the culture without compromising essential doctrinal truths. To help church leaders in this process, McNeal presented what he considered the six new realities arising from the advent of the postmodernism. His examination of these new realities provided opportunities for serious reflections on any future strategies of the church.
Critical Analysis of Strengths and Weaknesses
McNeal's first new reality of the changed culture is the imminent collapse of the modern manifestation of the church. He did not suggest that the church as a spiritual entity is dead. He suggested the cultural expression of the organizational church is dying and the obituary is already written. The builder generation is passing away. Those in generations X and Y, along with the more recent millenniums, no longer see the relevance of the church. They do not support the institution of the church as their parents and grandparents once did. In response, the church must rediscover a theology of missions. For too long, McNeal asserted, the church in North America has operated primarily for the benefit of its own members. McNeal charged that the modern church has forgotten its true mission as the Body of Christ; that is, to provide a human voice to God's call of reconciliation to humankind. The remedy for the dying church in America is not a new method, but a rediscovery of its classic mission to a lost world.
McNeal's second reality of the changing culture faults abuses within the church growth movement of the past thirty years. McNeal proposed that the church growth movement primarily focused on building the institution of the church rather than building the Kingdom of God. The approaches adopted within the movement increased members, but did little to significantly transform people into kingdom citizens reflecting kingdom values. As a result, church leaders transferred their focus from engaging the culture with life-changing truths onto how to attract and retain people who were interested in what the church was doing for itself. Church resources have been concentrated on activities that make church members happy and keep them from jumping ship to another church. McNeal warned that such a consumer-minded approach to doing church fails to impact a culture that desires something fundamentally different from what the church has to offer in its programming.
The third reality calls for a new reformation. Whereas the first reformation freed the church from the stranglehold of a corrupt clergy, the modern reformation movement seeks to free the members from the burden of the institutional church. Presently, the common definition of an active church member is one who devotes his or her time to the needs of the church bureaucracy; that is, the care and feeding of the institutional church. The new reality of the postmodern culture requires members to engage the culture in creative ways that may not easily fit into predefined models of church work. The effective church of the future will thoroughly exegete its culture and will equip and empower its members to engage that culture in creative and meaningful ways. A more meaningful definition of an active church member will no longer be defined by their contributions of time, talent, and treasures within the church; but will be defined by whether church members are engaging their culture in meaningful ways outside the walls of the church. Members will become missionaries to the culture.
McNeal's fourth reality tackled the nebulous issue of spiritual formation. In the past, church leaders were concerned about how to develop good church members. In the future, leaders must learn how to help members become devoted followers of Jesus. McNeal's proposition is that a person can function as a strong and faithful church member and still live a devilish lifestyle outside the eyes of the church. All of one's life must fall under the lordship of Jesus Christ. The role of church leaders is not to build better members, but to build better disciples. Toward this end, McNeal suggested the church provide life coaching with the view toward spiritual formation. Life coaches provide mentoring and accountability to assist Christians in incorporating the values of the faith into every aspect of their life and personality. McNeal believes that the postmodern culture is searching for spiritual significance and would be attracted to the call of Christ if they see Christians living the life of Christ.
New reality number five, the shift from planning to preparation, challenged church leaders to prepare for the culture of the future by adopting a vision informed by the values of the Kingdom of God. McNeal asserted that if we plan for a future that does not materialize, then our planning has produced strategies inconsistent with the new reality and the church has wasted valuable resources. Instead, church leaders must prepare for the future by maintain a flexibility to respond quickly and agilely to the culture as it moves through the future.
McNeal's final reality calls for a change in the way pastors lead their congregations. McNeal proposed church leaders adopt an apostolic leadership model. Past and present leadership models seek to maintain the industry of the church. An apostolic leadership model best responds to the new spiritual landscape that reflects more of the world of Acts then America of the twentieth century (126). Apostolic leadership has a different measure of success. Success is measured by the church's impact outside it walls, not the strength of internal programs. Apostolic leadership in the new church paradigm will not be the sole purview of the clergy. McNeal asserted that all church members should develop apostolic leadership characteristics. Only when Christians at large take responsibility for engaging the culture will the church once more reflect its biblical roots.
Evaluation of Author's Success
Much of McNeal's thesis is well taken. This reviewer once served as church development director for the Northwest Louisiana Baptist Association with the responsibility of helping inner-city churches develop strategies for more effective ministry in transitional neighborhoods. What he discovered is that traditional churches, all of which were in serious decline, were more interested in returning to the glory days of their past. Their focus was on strengthening failed programs and shoring up crumbling infrastructure. They too were asking all the wrong questions. They wanted to build a bridge to the future with the rotten lumber of the past. Most of these church leaders would reject McNeal's words out of hand.
While McNeal's premise is thought provoking, he failed to provide enough specifics to be truly helpful. He stated that "church activity is a poor substitute for spiritual vitality" (7), but did not define spiritual vitality. McNeal accused church leaders of searching for new methodological fixes for sagging vibrancy. He proposed that leaders should pursue a new way of thinking about the problems in light of the new millennium. He suggested asking the question, "How do we hit the streets with the Gospel?" (26). The question of "How" is a methodological question.
McNeal's suggested approaches to dealing with the realities of ministry in a postmodern context leaves one with the impression that he has a low view of church membership. Specifically, ministry to the culture does not necessarily mean gleaning people for membership in the local church. For example, McNeal recounted a San Antonio church that took a portable baptistery into the barrios as a part of their block party ministry. Those who expressed a faith in Christ and so desired were baptized (34). This activity will challenge Baptist beliefs that the ordinances are for the church, and that baptism serves to unite the new believer into the fellowship of the local church. An essential part of spiritual formation is active membership in the local church--not for the sake of preserving the visible institution, but in recognition of the spiritual reality of Christ's presence in the midst of assembled believers.
A sign over a youth minister's door once read, "Challenge Everything." McNeal has done that. This reviewer discovered that his traditional rural church operates to preserve its institutional systems and structures. New members are desirable only for what they can do to shore up the institution. Evangelism is the means of self-preservation. McNeal's challenge to focus on Kingdom growth rather than church growth provided a new vision for this pastor's work.
McNeal insisted the new paradigm church would focus on spiritual formation. This reviewer's church focuses on helping members develop quality churchmanship. New member orientation is designed to point believers to internal church ministries that need tending. This pastor must seek to help people grow in their faith with respect to all aspects of their lives.
Believers must become disciples who then become disciple makers.
A challenging lesson for this pastor was the validation of an individual's community activities as a part of kingdom ministry, even though the church does not officially sanction it. Church members who volunteer at hospitals, community action agencies, and schools are performing valuable ministry in Christ's name. Therefore, this pastor has begun publicly recognizing and applauding such civic-minded volunteerism. There may be no direct benefit to the church, but kingdom work is being done nonetheless.