After many emails and posts and text messages, we decided that an old-fashioned face-to-face meeting would be best to tackle this assignment. As we talked over coffee in Bexley, Ohio, we found ourselves intrigued by the question we were given. But instead of “Will the church have a future?” or “What is the future of the church?” we zeroed in on “How the church of the future will look.” In other words, since the church will be, the more figural question is, “What will it look like?
This question has been engaged by the likes of theologian Douglas John Hall (Has the Church a Future? 2009) and one of our contemporary Lutheran sages, Timothy Lull (“The Church of the Future and the Prospects for Ecumenism,” Word & World, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 1998), in whose company we feel humbled to contribute our own thoughts.
We begin with the obvious: insofar as both the church and the future belong to God, the church of the future will “look” like whatever God intends or desires it to.
As disciples of Christ, we trust and live and worship and serve and do our best to discern what “church” the world needs as the future unfolds — trusting the Spirit’s agency along with ours. And because we know that “the church doesn’t have a mission, God’s mission has a church,” the church is and always will be called to witness to and participate in God’s mission, all the while knowing that the “mission” as well as the “future” does not belong to the church, but to God.
We are not seers, so what we offer here is some imagination about what the church of the future will look like — at least in North America.
To start with, we certainly believe that God intends the church of the future to be more than a system of belief or a commodity that can be programmed, packaged, marketed and tweeted as the ever-elusive new and improved quick fix. Christian beliefs and practices are intended to foster a way of life as disciples of Jesus Christ thatin turn send us into God’s world to imitate the forgiveness, mercy and love of God. Claimed by God in baptism and drawn by the Spirit, we are invited to participate in the life and mission of Jesus Christ within community and in God’s world. This is a gift to which the Spirit calls people; it is not something we create or can force.
So what might this look like?
With Lull, we believe it needs to be ecumenical, as the great question for Christians in the 21st century is likely to be what it means to be a Christian — rather than a Lutheran or a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian — in a world of many Christian groups, many religions, and widespread indifference to religious affiliation. For us this means bringing our distinctive Lutheran voice while recognizing the gifts other denominations have to offer to the common mission we share as members of the one body.
We believe it will be less about being tied to a building and more about participating in a way of life, a life of discipleship. It will mean an understanding of church that is more nimble, more agile, perhaps more mobile, yet deeply rooted in God’s word of promise in Jesus Christ.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers