Cover Page

The Present Future

Six Tough Questions for the Church

Reggie McNeal


Leadership Network Titles

Leading from the Second Chair: Serving Your Church, Fulfilling Your Role, and Realizing Your Dreams, by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson

The Way of Jesus: A Journey of Freedom for Pilgrims and Wanderers, by Jonathan Campbell with Jennifer Campbell

Leading the Team-Based Church: How Pastors and Church Staffs Can Grow Together into a Powerful Fellowship of Leaders, by George Cladis

Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens, by Neil Cole

Leading Congregational Change Workbook, by James H. Furr, Mike Bonem, and Jim Herrington

Leading Congregational Change: A Practical Guide for the Transformational Journey, by Jim Herrington, Mike Bonem, and James H. Furr

The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation, by Jim Herrington, Robert Creech, and Trisha Taylor

Culture Shift: Transforming Your Church from the Inside Out, by Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeiro, with Warren Bird

A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, by Brian McLaren

The Story We Find Ourselves in: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian, by Brian McLaren

The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, by Reggie McNeal

A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spititual Leaders, by Reggie McNeal

The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church, by M. Rex Miller

Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches, by Milfred Minatrea

The Ascent of a Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence, by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and Ken McElrath

The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transition, by Carolyn Weese and J. Russell Crabtree

To the new tribe;

you know who you are.

May your tribe increase!

There’s a world counting on you.

About Leadership Network

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While Leadership Network’s techniques adapt and change as the Church faces new opportunities and challenges, the organization’s work followes a consistent and proven pattern: Leadership Network brings together entrepreneurial leaders who are focused on similar ministry initiatives. The ensuing collaboration—often across denominational lines—provides a strong base from which individual leaders can better analyze and refine their individual strategies. Peer-to-peer interaction, dialogue, and sharing inevitably accelerate participants’ own innovations and ideas. Leadership Network furthur enhances this process through the development and distribution of highly targeted ministry tools and resources—including audio and video programs, special reports, e-publications, and online downloads.

With Leadership Network’s assistance, today’s Christian leaders are energized, equipped, inspired, and better able to multiply their own dynamic Kingdom-building initiatives.

Launched in 1996 in conjunction with Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint, Leadership Network Publications present thoroughly researched and innovative concepts from leading thinkers, practitioners, and pioneering churches. The series collectively draws from a wide range of disciplines with individual titles providing perspective on one or more of five primary areas:

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Many people have contributed to my thinking through the years. As I have formulated my convictions about the missional expression of the North American church in the emerging world, the following people have been most formative for me: George Barna, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker, Bill Easum, Findley Edge, Carl George, George Gilder, Gary Hamel, Charles Handy, Lyle Shaller, Howard Snyder, and Len Sweet. What makes sense to the reader in these pages is their contribution: the rest is mine.

I am grateful to Carol Childress (Leadership Network) for the encouragement to put this down in print and to Mark Kerr (Jossey-Bass) for his enthusiasm for the project and editorial assistance for light-speed production.

Finally, the three women of my life continue to provide constant inspiration. Cathy, my soulmate and prayer champion, believes for me when I can’t. Jessica and Susanna, my two teenage daughters, excite my efforts to challenge the church. I want them to experience a vibrant, missional Christian movement in North America.


We think we are headed toward the future. The truth is, the future is headed toward us. And it’s in a hurry (we now know the universe is speeding up, not slowing down). We also generally think that the present makes sense only in light of the past. Again, we need to check our thinking. The present makes clearest sense in light of the future. We humans write history by looking at the past. God creates history ahead of time. He never forecasts. God always backcasts. He began with the end in mind. The future is always incipient in the present. Before the foundation of the world, the Lamb was slain. Calvary was anticipated in God’s kiss of life into Adam. The cross gains dimension silhouetted against the empty tomb. The empty tomb confirmed the invasion of the future into the present. When Paul encountered the resurrected Jesus, he realized the future had been fast-forwarded. That changed everything.

It still does.


This book may not be for you. Not that long ago, it wasn’t for me either. In fact, I am not thrilled about writing this book for several reasons. One is that I am afraid that I will fail to communicate well enough what I want to say about how desperately we need to make some changes. Another is that you won’t be able to hear what I am saying because you are threatened by it or that you will shut down before giving me a hearing.

I also don’t get kicks out of deconstructing a world I was once very fond of. It is a world that nurtured me when I was young and imparted the faith to me and has continued to confirm and legitimize my life calling. I grew up in the home of a bivocational pastor, whose dad before him was a mill village pastor, whose dad before him was a song leader and Bible teacher. My two older brothers are ministers; my two sisters both married ministers; a niece is married to a minister; a nephew is studying for ministry. I began ministry in the church thirty years ago as a college freshman. Ministry and the church have been my world. But it is a world that I increasingly find difficult to feel at home in because it lacks spiritual purpose and missional vitality.

I’m talking about the church world in North America. A world that has largely forsaken its missional covenant with God to be a part of kingdom expansion. It has, instead, substituted its own charter of church as a clubhouse where religious people hang out with other people who think, dress, behave, vote, and believe like them. This book will separate me from many people who are in that world who will never understand what possessed me to do this (or who may indeed suggest that something did possess me). I don’t like rejection any more than the average emotionally needy person.

I believe there are many people like me in the church who, in terms of their church experience, want to script a story different from the one they are a part of now. I believe this because I talk with these people every day. My work carries me into dozens of congregations to meet hundreds of church leaders every year. In addition, I consult with denominational agencies, teach at seminaries, speak for parachurch organizations. In every arena I am running into an increasing number of people who are expressing fundamental doubts about the viability of the church. These are not critics from the outside who don’t like what the church is doing. These are connected leaders who don’t like what they are experiencing in church.

This morning I spoke with a young pastor who has hopes for the future of the church but is currently captive to club members in the congregation he serves. “I wonder why I am still doing this,” he sighed. He’s only thirty years old! Some of us are asking this question after many more years of investment. If you are, I am writing to give legitimization to your concerns and doubts about the church culture, but also to give you hope. I want to help you by giving you ways of starting conversations that might lead you out of church captivity and into the adventure you anticipated.

This book is not for you if you are content with the way things are. You shouldn’t read this if you are just hanging on to your church job because you don’t know what else to do. You should put this book down now if you can’t separate faith from institutional religion or if you can’t contemplate a God larger than your experience of him in your church tradition. By all means do not read this book if you are looking to bolster your opinion that the way to the future is charted through the past (“we just need to get back to …”). Please, if you fit any (or all) of these categories, take my advice and don’t read this book. It will just agitate you. Trust me, you don’t agree with it. Here are just some of the assumptions that are challenged in these pages:

If you believe these things, you are operating in a world that has a short time left. Even worse, if you persist in acting on these assumptions, you could actually hinder the current mission of God.

On the other hand, if you are convinced that God has not abandoned the world, you should read this book. If you have leadership responsibilities and want to challenge the people you lead to think through your ministry strategy, I think you will find help. If you are convinced that the new world is radically different but the church lives in a bubble world, you should get help here to understand more of what’s going on (and why the church is increasingly irrelevant to people outside the bubble). If you are willing to ask different questions than most of the people in the church, you might be at home in these pages. If you are looking for costly adventure, this trip might be for you.

Let me be blunt. I am writing this book as a polemical volume. I want to galvanize church leaders to action before it’s too late. My goal is to provoke and to frame conversations that lead to action, to risk, to rediscovery of mission.

Many church leaders feel overwhelmed with the challenge of ministry in this new world. Maybe you are one. Perhaps you even know some of the contours of the emerging culture and some of the “hair balls” in the current church culture that prevent it from being missionally effective. But where do you start? How do you present a comprehensive agenda for missional rediscovery rather than introducing piecemeal approaches and ideas? How do you know the difference between fads and major changes? What is worth cashing in some leadership chips for? What will really make a difference in the long haul?

Church leaders have got to start working on better questions than we’ve been fooling with for the last half of the twentieth century. A lot of people have been saying for years many of the things you are going to read in these pages. My hoped-for contribution is to provide you with a synthesis of essential actions, an overall strategy, which will help you move forward with those who will join you in reshaping the Christian movement in North America.

I contend that a future already exists that significantly alters the spiritual landscape in North America. I identify six new realities of this present future that must be addressed by church leaders who want to participate in a renewal of the North American church. These realities represent tectonic shifts in the ethos of the spiritual quest of humanity. Even though they can be separated out for discussion, the whole set must be addressed if we want a full engagement with their implications. Each reality requires the church to shift its thinking from answering the wrong question to pursuing the implications of a tough question. The wrong questions reflect an approach to the future that focuses on solving yesterday’s problems. In my observation, most church leaders are preoccupied with the wrong questions. If you solve the wrong problems precisely, what have you accomplished? You have wasted a lot of energy and perhaps fooled yourself that you have done something significant. Each tough question reframes the issue in a way designed to prompt discussion within you as well as between you and other leaders in your constellation of influence.

I have three target groups of church leaders I want to help. The first is congregational leaders who get it and are growing restless for something to happen that only God can get credit for. My second target group is pastors and staff leaders who already share the ideas I present but who need help in converting their leadership constellation. And I want to address emerging leaders, both clergy and lay, who are going to give leadership to the church in the emerging world.

This is not a how-to book. It will frustrate those looking for a “model” for doing church. I believe the search for models can often short-circuit a significant part of a leader’s journey into obedience to God. The Bible is not a book of models; it is a record of radical obediences of people who listened and responded to the direction of God for their lives. The quality of leadership we need for the renewal of the North American church requires that we have people who are operating from a well-thought-out approach so they will know why they are doing what they are doing, not just copying someone else’s cool idea.

That is why this book is not a travel brochure (“go here to see this”). When I give illustrations of leaders and churches who are operating effectively within these new spiritual dimensions, I deliberately don’t give specifics. I want to give you enough suggestion for you to prepare for your own journey. I want to get you in a position to hear from God by helping to create for you a new mental landscape as you listen and look for him. Once you know what you are looking for you will find it (a lot of helpful travel brochures are being produced).

My life calling is to be a missionary to the church in North American to help it rediscover the mission of the church. This book is another way I am trying to be obedient to this assignment from God. It’s a tall order because many, if not most, church members have never experienced missional living. They’ve just experienced church.

“Don’t do it!” he said. I had just explained to a friend that I was writing this book. “It won’t make many difference. The church is not interested in the truth.” My friend has given up, defeated in his very public ten-year crusade to reform the church. He has taken his campaign in another direction. He may be right. I don’t know. I may do what my friend has done eventually. But right now, like Jeremiah, I have to get this said—even though I know many will not listen or receive it well.

Because maybe it will help the church. Maybe it will help you. Above all, maybe it will help others become part of the kingdom of God.