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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

The Next, Next Church

  • Dr. James Emery White
    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
  • 2007 Jul 30
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The iPhone is so last month. 

Which means, writes Adam Bryant in the New York Times, that “it’s been downgraded from the next big thing to merely new.”  And these days, “new can seem so yesterday.  What matters is what’s next.” 

Bryant then notes how “next” is the go-to buzzword of our day. 

There is “Next” the movie, released this spring with Nicolas Cage as a man who can see two minutes into the future. 

Newsweek’s annual “Who’s Next” issue, intended to run against Time’s Person of the Year issue, prompted Time to start a regular “What’s Next” feature of its own. 

New York magazine recently had a cover article on home design titled “The Next Next Things,” an update on the title of Michael Lewis’ 1999 book, “The New New Thing.” 

Turn on the TV and you’ll find “America’s Next Top Model” on CW and “Next” on MTV.

There are even stores specializing in the “next” through “fast fashion,” such as H & M and Zara, which replace their entire line of clothing every few weeks. 

Our preoccupation with “next” has replaced our earlier fascination with “new.”  The difference?  New is what something is; next suggests a special insight. 

Christians can be captivated by “next” as much as anyone. 

Just think church.  Pastors often joke about a “migratory flow pattern” among Christians in their community who are constantly church-hopping to the “next” thing in church life.  They move from one church to another, looking for the next hot singles group, the next hot church plant, the next hot speaker, the next hot youth group.  Many times they end up full circle where they began, because their original church suddenly became “next.”

Church leaders can succumb to the same temptation, only in terms of church model.

First it was Willow Creek.  Then Saddleback.  Then came Hillsong, Northpoint and Fellowship.  Or perhaps instead of doing it by church name, it was by type:  first came seeker-targeted, then purpose-driven, then postmodern, then ancient-future, then emergent, then “simple.”  For some the allure of the next “next” is programmatic, moving from Alpha to KidStuff to…well, you get the picture. 

In truth, many of the “next” churches we flock to - as attenders or leaders - have little of the true “next” about them.  More often than not, what is behind the attention is little more than a gifted communicator, or a niche-focus, or tried-and-true contemporary approaches in a traditional context, maybe one or two twists on previously envisioned programs – coupled with a growing edge of town.  Yet the seduction of the “next” lures us to move our attendance in order to experience God more fully, or as leaders, to race to their conference to find the “secret” to success. 

Yet there is a real danger in flocking to the “next.” 

According to James Katz, who directs the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University, our current level of engineering knowledge allows products such as the iPhone to be developed more quickly than ever before.  With basic performance less and less of a concern, consumers will purchase on the basis of looks.  Add in what he calls “the professionalization of hype,” and you have the life of a product burn hot - and fast.

Meaning you can buy into the “next” before you know whether it was ever worth buying into in the first place.  With an iPhone, you’re only out a few hundred dollars.  With your spiritual life, not to mention a church, the stakes are much, much higher.

There have been, and will be, some truly “next” churches.  But our threshold should be more than rapid growth, a charismatic leader, a niche-market, the latest beneficiary of a growing edge of town or the migratory flow of believers.  Not simply because there may not be anything truly “next” about it beyond that which is cosmetic, but because our appetite for the “next” has us looking to churches that have yet to truly prove themselves through the test of time.

But let’s not hold back the last five percent.  Attenders looking for the “next” must realize that a church, no matter how innovative, is not the provider of spiritual formation.  Individuals must dig deep into the core disciplines of the faith which have been with us for centuries and own their own spiritual development through prayer and study, fasting and retreats, worship and solitude.  And leaders must realize that however exhilarating a new church model may appear, silver bullets do not exist.  Leaders must look deeper than the latest model or program, conference or style, and realize that the process inherent within a thriving church has not changed in 2,000 years:  you must evangelize the lost, then assimilate those evangelized, then disciple those assimilated, and then unleash those discipled for ministry.

Not much “next” to that.

Or maybe there is.

James Emery White

Sources

Adam Bryant, “iSee Into The Future, Therefore iAm,” The New York Times, Sunday, July 1, 2007, section 4, page 3.

Marian Salzman, Next Now: Trends for the Future.