Last week my colleagues and I over here in the Pastoral Residency program at Wilshire traveled to Indianapolis, IN to meet, compare-notes, and brainstorm with other young ministers funded through the Lilly Endowment’s Transition into Ministry program. Lilly was an excellent host, the worship time and guest speaker were both phenomenal, and it was a great to get to know other young ministers in similar situations but different denominational settings from all over the country.
But then we started talking about the future of the church.
I’ve got to tell you, these discussions–especially conducted within a larger group setting (there were approx. 100 people in the room on this occasion)–drive me a little crazy. Now, it’s not that I don’t think this a worthy topic of discussion. I’m committed to the church and I am genuinely concerned about its vitality. The problem with these future-oriented discussions, as I see it, is twofold: 1) they all too often fall victim to a doomsday, “scorch and burn” impulse and 2) if they stay positive rarely reach past the descriptive to something more constructive.
The specific question for discussion this time was: What will the 21st century church look like? To be fair, the small group discussions in which I participated were generally far better than others I have experienced, and we really did pinpoint what I see to be major issues, challenges, and opportunities for the church both today and moving forward.
But perhaps the most enlightened comment of the day came from Chris Aho, a CBF/Lilly resident currently serving as senior pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Mobile, AL. He noted that the 21st century church will probably look a lot like the churches we are all at now…seeing how we are already 11% into the 21st century.
It’s easy to brainstorm on what the church will look like much in the same way it was at one time easy to imagine the year 2000 looking like the Jetsons. In my experience its a lot more difficult, but ultimately more effective and more faithful to look with clear eyes at what the church is now.
How does that measure up to our hopes? To our history? To the gospel? What will we do about it? You might say that the tendency for Christians to spend too much time “planning for the future” while neglecting the present (salvation anyone?) is a sin for which we are still atoning.
What does the 21st century church look like? Look around. Look in the mirror. Look in the faces of the folks at supper this Wednesday or in the pews next Sunday. One thing that was made clear to me last week was that the story of the church is best told through stories about our churches.
A local missions project that has taken on a life of its own at one church. A once-expansive congregation who is now starting to learn how to die gracefully. A youth ministry that has almost miraculously started to find unreached kids from the neighborhood. An urban congregation integrating a new population. A suburban church-start finding its way and its voice in the community. Not to mention the explosive growth of Christian faith in other part of the world.
Successes and setbacks; new growth and the completion of life; challenges and opportunities for God to move in newly mysterious ways. In a sense the church now is no different than it has ever been: in motion. If the biblical story has taught us anything it is that we are never as stable as we think we are, and that Christ is more stable than we could ever imagine.
This is, of course, at the same time cause for distress and reassurance. But if we are lucky, maybe it can also serve as a reminder that it is not what, but who the 21st century church will look like.