Ancient Future Church

The adjectives “ancient” and “future” seem to be an elusive description for something as well known as the church. But the church we see today is far cry from what Jesus started. An ancient church without future elements is mired in traditionalism and will fossilize and die like the languages of antiquity. Likewise, a contemporary church that is too closely tied to the culture around it will also pass into oblivion. In order to pursue the extraordinary and divine entity that Jesus had in mind, it is necessary to blend the best attributes of the church of old and the church of the modern era.

The church of my youth is largely irrelevant to me. It is rightly rooted in the tradition of the ancient church, but wrongly mired in the past. It seeks to communicate abiding truth in a fleeting language by an even more fleeting means.

The ancient church can’t continue to speak Latin when the vast majority of those for whom truth is intended have never read or heard it. The church can’t stay unilaterally committed to the great hymns of the sixteenth century when the pace is like that of a dirge. The texts are certainly true enough, but they were written to be played on an organ, an instrument for which you can no longer buy parts. If there were a large listening market for the organ, you could hear it on every other FM channel. A church blindly committed to the past will euthanize itself and bring about its end much faster.

Likewise, the church of my adulthood is largely irrelevant to me as well. It rightly seeks to address the modern world, but wrongly ties itself to something as fleeting as Woodstock or Lady Gaga. It, too, will fade into history, but unlike the ancient church, it will happen in days or weeks as opposed to centuries or millennia.

The contemporary church takes on the characteristics of the culture around it. In America, the prevailing culture leads the church to shallowness. It follows a narcissistic world view in which we are entertaining ourselves to death. We essentially become spectators, not the active participants that ancient liturgy required.

Modern pastors are literally hocking health and prosperity, two things to which our current culture tells us we are entitled. The contemporary church teaches that poverty and disease are not meant to be a part of the Kingdom experience and fails to acknowledge that we are called to suffer for the welfare of others, just as its founder did.

Dean William R. Inge once said that “he who marries the spirit of the age will find himself soon widowed.” Fads die. And so do churches wed to the zeitgeist, whether the spirit is ancient or future.

The goal for the church should be to strike a balance between “ancient” and “future” and   to find a way to live in the tension between the two. However, the truth is that it is much easier to be one or the other because a tensionless world is the path of least resistance.

Depravity makes it so that humans don’t seek tension and this is clearly reflected in the church. Tension is intellectually and emotionally demanding, so we resolve it in favor of one extreme or the other. The church is either legalistic or antinomian, but rarely both. It is either overly rational or overly experimental, but rarely both. 

In an effort to turn our backs on tension, we also wrongly ignore the hardships which Christians endured before the church became wed to the culture in 313 A.D. This contributes greatly to the modern church’s belief that suffering and Christ do not go hand in hand.

Clearly the church must be Ancient Future however elusive. Pressure to be easily understandable and readily marketable be damned. It must adapt without losing its core truth. It must, as John Stott says, engage without compromise. The church cannot retreat. It cannot stand still. And yet it cannot yield its truth to the moment as it moves forward! It must live into then tension of what was dubbed long ago “Christ and culture in paradox.”

This site is a forum for exploring the tension necessary to being the church Jesus started. And explore we must. For as leprous as the bride may be in any age, it remains the God chosen means by which he advances His Kingdom.

15 Responses to “Ancient Future Church”

  • John Richardson Says:

    Just for those who are reluctant to be first. Now you may comment at your convenience.

  • Victor Sung Says:

    Well said. I think this is a great ideal to strive for, but our fallen nature just makes it so difficult. Also, though there are obvious reasons we are not in churches like the ones we grew up in, those memories still creep into our subconscious expectations. Just like in the rest of our lives, it is difficult to step out from what is comfortable/easy. But I think we will find great blessings if/when we do. Oh, and I have to say that I’m impressed with the Lady Gaga reference.

  • John Richardson Says:

    I’m afraid LG has become to the 21st century what Warhol’s soup can was to the 20th, an icon of our shallowness. Rembrandt painted himself in the crucifixion. We are not quite so introspective and Gaga’s star power is evidence of it.

  • Dave Matlak Says:

    Good thoughts to ponder. A few questions/thoughts that came to mind:

    It does seem that the principal question facing North American church leaders is (or should be), what role will the church play as we continue to shift into an increasingly post-Christian era? How does the church communicate the truth of the gospel to a culture that has wed consumerism with relativism and birthed the peculiar child of the 21st century? Also, and perhaps more specifically, How does the ancient/future church actually reach out to those who have no faith in Christ and not end up only catering to the growing swarm of church-shopping, disgruntled, suburban, consumer Christians.

    Don’t get me wrong; disgruntled Christians need a place to be (speaking from personal experience). Yet if all the church becomes is another extra value meal option for those who already have faith in Christ then I have to ask, are we fully living out the mission of the church? To me the ancient/future church should have less to do with the navel-gazing church issues of blue-jeans, aloha shirts, and guitars and should have more to do with engaging the bigger issues of our time (local and abroad): poverty, racism, immigration, human trafficking, etc. I don’t think that people need hip, relevant church as much as they need a Christ-centered community that cares about them enough to go to prison with them, feed them, employ them, find them and set them free.

    Of course, I’m still in seminary so I don’t have to worry about this for a few more years . . . right?

  • John Richardson Says:

    I know you said it with tongue in cheek but no. Heck no. Seminary provides you no cover, unless you want to perpetuate the myth that only the professional class should have an interest in where the church is and where it should be headed.

    Let me (and I hope others) engage your line of inquiry in two or three posts. But let’s begin by admitting what your post makes obvious. Much of church in the modern day, whether traditional or contemporary, has been reduced to what we do on Sunday morning. I think at times that I could start a comparative religion class equating Islam, Judaism and Christianity without much fuss. But let the praise team wear jeans or shorten the Eucharistic prayer to accommodate a guest preacher or personal testimony and folks begin amassing the pitchforks (once the battle was literally over the consumption of cookies). The mall of worship is where the vast majority of consumers have their most frequent experience of church. Too often worship is about personal preference and that contributes more and more to shallowness, exercising it and affirming it alternatively. If we further consumerism in the way we worship, will not the people shaped by it be consumers in the areas of theology and ethics and even things like evangelism and discipleship.

    The ancient future church has an intense interest in neutralizing the worship wars so that the church can get back to its purpose – shaping the kind of people and community to which you allude. I long for the day when the Body, not just the pastor and/or staff but every member, is as passionate about a transformed life as they are the length of service and the attire of people leading or attending. In my experience, both ancient and future churches lose sight of reaching the lost, discipling the found and loving those on the margins when they make the form of worship (insisting on traditional or contemporary only) the perpetual center of the debate.

  • liz gunter Says:

    As I confessed to John earlier, I find myself feeling somewhat intimidated by the highly intellectual musings of you fine folks – especially Lady Gaga references. 🙂 That being said, let me press forward through my insecurity and join this conversation.

    The church of my youth was a pompous, egocentric tomb. It was spiritually dead and I never learned that I needed or could have a personal relationship with Jesus until I attended Young Life in high school. The church of my mid-twenties seemed to have a primary goal to capture an audience through media savvy techniques and gimmicks. Each Sunday, once the fireworks died down, I found myself feeling emotionally drained and bordered on feeling depressed. It did not seem like there was any genuine substance – nothing more than a show.

    I think on a personal level, I absolutely continue to struggle with the tension that John described. It seems that the Lord will not allow me to be comfortable / complacent for long in either of the extremes of ancient or future church settings (by his grace) so here I am trying to hash out what it really means to find that balance. As importantly, what is my role in contributing to that balance in a church setting?

  • John Richardson Says:


    You mentioned the post-Christian era. Good luck convincing folks of that. A member of a mega-church here in Birmingham recently argued that there was no need for a missionary church presence here in the Unites States as the nation is Christian. It’s been won to Christ.

    These numbers are off the top of my head but I think Barna’s research reveals that 92% of Americans believe in God but when pressed with the particularity of God in Jesus Christ and things like virgin birth, sinless lamb, raised from the dead, the numbers are more like 7, 8 or 9% over more than a decade. Hardly Christian! There is some credible research out there that less than half the clergy hold the faith once delivered to the Apostles. It’s hard to give away what you do not have.

    An Ancient Future Church will take seriously these tension-filled truths. There is no need to ponder how we will reach unbelieving people until we admit they are out there. This is where individualism has a powerful grip on the church. There are an infinite number of caricatures of Jesus within American belief. The poor believe Jesus is a champion of the poor. Our oppressed in the US, hmmm, believe Jesus is a liberator. Too often the affluent believe Jesus is the perpetuator of an old covenant in which they will be blessed with land and livestock (read health and wealth). John Stott says, “The truth is that there are many Jesuses on offer in the world’s religious supermarket, and many of them are false Christs, distorted Christs, caricatures of the authentic Jesus.”

    Individualism has belief within it but belief in what? An Ancient Future Church will take seriously its burden to challenge false belief even if it means being a smaller leaner church without all those who insist on a Jesus and a church (and a pastor) that affirms their caricature, even if it means not being able to pay the bills.

  • John Richardson Says:

    Kudos to you Liz for your willingness to live in the tension and your willingness to step out in public with faith.

  • Robert Piretti Says:

    Love the blog. Cannot wait to hear more from you John amidst my incredibly busy schedule!

  • John Richardson Says:

    Dave, Lastly, your vision of the church is biblical and therefore bold. But know you will pastor in an environment where this reality reigns – “We have been inoculated with a mild form of Christianity such that we are immune to the real thing.” Just the same, press on with reaching the lost, discipling the found and loving all especially those on the margins. Do so without expectation of understanding and therefore no expectation of appreciation and certainly not expectation of accolades save the ultimate, “Well done good and faithful servant.” Blessings, John

  • Dave Matlak Says:

    John, thanks for your comments. In regards to the post-christian era I should clarify and say that it I’m referring to North America as being in that transition, even though parts of the country like the “BIble belt” may be lagging behind. A trip across the Mason Dixon Line to the east coast or the west coast will quickly dispel any myths about the declining presence of Christianity. However, as you know, Christianity in the global south (Africa, South East Asia, Latin America) is rapidly growing. I didn’t want it to sound as if Christianity is dying all over the world because that is clearly not the case.

  • Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Says:

    John, you quoted lady gaga. You’ve done me proud. Way to go navigating the rough waters of this technicolor world. Do it with ZEAL! 😉

  • John Richardson Says:

    What’s with all the Gaga comments? It is as if you guys think I am old and culturally unaware!?

  • Richard Says:

    Found your sight. Weekly postings at a minimum please! Has anybody else over 40 left a comment
    (interesting comment in it self)

    Be very careful or the organists will get you !!

  • John Richardson Says:

    Thanks to all for your engaging responses to the initial post. It has remained up so that for a season all comers would first be introduced to the reason for the site. More posts will show up the week of October 3rd. I imagine one or two lengthier posts each week and several shorter posts including commentary on church related articles. Blessings!

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