Sometimes we first need to identify what we do not want in order to articulate what we do.
-Christopher Butler, “Future Daydream”, Print, February 2012, 66.1
When you think about the future of the church, what is it that you think of? I know it’s a difficult image to conjure, given that we’re in a time of so much upheaval in the life of faith, but surely you’ve thought about it.
Perhaps you can just glimpse some nascent truths you hope flower into something larger. Perhaps you’ve been able to articulate something quite robust in a particular area. However, my guess is that you are like the rest of us and you fall back on a very tried and true notion of many an amateur futurist: You imagine the future to simply be a “better” now.
Periodically, a company will release a video of a design concept they’ve been working on as a way to show what kinds of experiences we might be able to look forward to down the road. Recently, Microsoft released one they’ve called “Productivity Future Vision” and design critics and technologists alike have widely panned the vision presented. This led Christopher Butler to write in the current issue of Print that the hump we need to get over is one of simply assuming that the future will be a pristine version of all the things we like to do now. As he put it, “It would be a shame to be remembered as the generation that tweeted while the world crumbled around us.”
To open up new vistas, Butler suggests that we might want to spend some time talking about what we don’t want to see the future become before we further attempt a positive vision. I think that’s wise advice. The truth is that tomorrow’s problems are going to be caused by today’s solutions.
I don’t want a better tomorrow. I want a different one.
Here are bits and pieces of a Christianity I don’t want to wake up to in 30-50 years years:
When I try to glimpse the future of the Christian faith, I don’t want to see old white men in a suit. Don’t get me wrong: I’m gonna be that guy some day and I’d like to be valued for my gifts. However, we’ve traveled this road for long enough. The truth of the matter is that white guys represent the very top percentage of privilege and power in the world. Given that the faith is increasingly moving to southern, not-white regions, I’m not convinced that having me and my pale brothers “in charge” is a very good idea any more. The fact is, we do not understand the world most Christians are or will live in. It’s time to step aside, boys.
As I have recently written, I want to challenge our understanding of theology as law or science. In an increasingly diverse world, where faithful disciples live in countless different contexts, it is ridiculous to me that if we just try a little bit harder we’ll find that one magic word that brings us all together. Our faith in a unifying theological expression is more of a hurt than a help. We have beat each other up over our doctrines for years and, at the current course and speed, I see no reason why we would stop.
If I wake up in 30 years and all theology has amounted to is a continued argument about whether [insert favorite theologian] was right and whether or not you’re living up to the legacy of [insert favorite theologian], I’m giving up my ordination.
Modern church membership, as a category, was conceived of by Mainline denominations. By and large, the reason congregations began to keep membership rolls was so that a per captia (“by the head”) apportionment could be assessed in order to pay for the workings of the levels of the denomination beyond the congregation. At the congregational level, there are always concerns over how many members are on the rolls so that the Board can ascertain what the yearly budget might look like based on the number of current “giving units.”
Although we have developed very sophisticated theologies of membership, and although it cannot be denied that church boards genuinely care for the people they serve, on thing is clear: church leaders are concerned about “membership” because they are concerned about cash. I am all for good stewardship, but I do not want to see the Church of the future judging its ministry by asking “How much? How often? How many?”
“Missional” is still a buzz word for Christians. We try to encourage one another that “missions” is not something we do as the people of God, it is a way of approaching our work as the people of God. It seems as if every variety of the Church wants to conceive of itself as a “Missional Church,” but as I look to the future I hear many predicting I’m afraid that we are still conceiving of missional activity in terms of an institution directing large scale activity. We are still conceiving of the Church largely as a social service agency. I’m no longer convinced that judging the viability of our congregations rests in their ability to design, implement, and sustain large scale social service programming.
So… what would I like to see?
Regarding leadership, I want to see a lot more women, particularly young women of color. As one example, I believe that my friend and colleague Theresa Cho is one of the most gifted and visionary leaders I’ve met in the last ten years. She represents everything I want my own denomination to be, and I bet she’s close to what you want as well.
When I think of the future of theology, I want to see an understanding that allows and accounts for multiple visions of God work in creation. I don’t want us to continue arguing for an understanding of God that seeks to lock down and limit, but one that suggests, sets free, and expands our understanding of God. In my opinion, the only thing that can do that is see theology as an art form.
Frankly, I’d like to do away with the cheap version of membership that we currently have. Rather than hunt people down and then try to sap money from them as they casually engage our community for a while until they slip away leaving us to wonder where they went when it comes time to review the membership roster, I suggest that membership becomes a serious endeavor. Feel free to engage the community in any way you wish, but don’t be a member until you’re ready to dedicate a serious portion of your “time, talent, and treasure” supporting others in the work of ministry. In short, membership becomes willful servitude.
But this “willful servitude” is undertaken to a particular end: ensuring that others can live a life of mission. Rather than mission being a program that is directed by the congregation, which people do in their spare time, I would like (instead) to see congregations providing nurture, support, and education for people as they dedicate their lives to endeavors which seek to bring freedom to all.