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 that in 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.
If we are to be the gathered and gathering community as the people of God, then we need to learn better how to go out the door. We need to learn how to be an authentic, welcoming community in a place. Yet we will also need to leave our church buildings and live God’s mission, practicing Christian hospitality in cafés, music lounges, pubs, coffee shops and virtual gathering places enabled by social media.
We are called to bear good news in God’s world. In fact, a characteristic mark of evangelical living is and will be the need to live the good news before attempting to speak it. We gather as God’s people, we listen to God’s story, we leave because we are sent to become what we receive, the body of Christ, listening to others, loving our neighbors — especially those on the margins — living out God’s story.
God’s church of the future won’t be afraid to experiment and embrace the practice of faithful innovation. The essential premise is that during periods of significant transition, human beings don’t need more rules but more stories. Alternative approaches or practices that fit the ethos of a particular community will generate new stories and allow people to seek an authentic experience of God within community.
This is not a whatever approach to being the church — whatever works or whatever people want or whatever seems to be the latest thing. But alternative approaches or practices will be needed to function and intelligibly communicate the Christian message in the future.
Often, these approaches or practices represent nothing new but rather a retrieval of the very old. This entails a deep mining of the great (Christian) tradition, reclaiming ancient values and practices and contextualizing them in a community for a new day.
If more experiential and participatory worship practices are more valued, there may be communal lectio divina instead of one person reading the text, or walking a prayer labyrinth during the time for intercessory prayer, rather than the prayer-and-response approach. The practice of testimony may be reclaimed in the church of the future to allow more of God’s gifted people to share their faith with others.
Call to go
The church of the future will need to be Spirit-breathed and display a more passionate spirituality rooted in the cross of Christ.
Dying and rising each day, individually and collectively, will mean removing obstacles: changing worn-out patterns, letting go of old resentments and fears, surrendering the need to be right, to be in control, to be bigger or better or trendier than some other place. Life on the way with the living Christ in the future will mean giving up the comfort of the club, the complacency of the conventional (in short, removing the church from the center of things) and opening ourselves to God’s in-breaking reign in unexpected or unbidden ways.
We need to stop building and hoping they will come and instead galvanize our resources and energy around a focus on the call to go. Go — a short and seemingly simple word, yet bearing the weight of Christ’s daunting and daring call.
The church of the future will empower and release the baptized to witness and testify and serve and in all ways bear God’s creative and redeeming love for all the world.
We will give our pastor, teacher and friend, Tim Lull, the last word:
“The church of the future will not be the kingdom of God. It will have new problems that we cannot yet see, to say nothing of the old problems of sloth, division, and limited understanding of the breadth and scope of God’s intention. But it will be the next stage along the pilgrim way, and it will seldom be a boring community or one that is scarcely visible because of its quiet passivity. Yet it too will be scanning the horizon, wondering in the midst of its rich common life about the church of the future of the 22nd century.”
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers