(This first appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on October 3, 2014)
“But forget all that—
it is nothing compared to what I am going to do.
For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19, NLT).
Life in a congregation can be thought of as a great, big conversation. It is a conversation between God and the people though the reading of the Bible, prayer and worship. It is a conversation between all of the churches across the globe, as each congregation continues to be aware of the many joys and struggles of its sisters and brothers in Christ, whether they are down the street or in the war-torn regions of the Middle East. It is a conversation with all the congregations of history, which spans almost 2000 years, as churches re-enact the rituals of the Christian tradition. And it is a conversation among the individual people within the local congregation. It is a conversation with many different voices mediated though a common faith.
But there is one more voice that I would like to include, and that is the voice of the future church. Because we live in a time of turmoil and transition, it is apparent that the way we do church must change. I am not worried about whether or not the church will survive, because the church belongs to God. But I am certain that it will look very different than it does today. And in 50 years from now, a lot of the big questions we have will have been answered. From that vantage point, our children and grandchildren will be able to look back to us and see how crucial this particular period time was for the church.
Like everyone else, I don’t have those answers yet. But I think that it is important for the people of this time and place to think about that future church, and enter into conversation with it. What are the challenges of this world in the days ahead? How does the gospel speak to yet unborn generations?
There are a few things that I think must happen, which I think should happen. First, the institutionalism of the church must give way to more nimble and less-centralized ministries. That might sound like bad news to some, but it’s a reality we need to face so that we can move forward. Think about it, people today are more connected and more concerned with the big problems of the world than ever before: violence, poverty, hopelessness and instability. In an age when you can find a charity online that is able to dedicate 70 cents of every dollar given to fulfill a mission rather than pay administration costs and overhead, it is increasingly difficult to justify a top-heavy model that requires 70 cents of every dollar or more to maintain it, giving only the left-overs to actual mission.
Secondly, the lines of denominationalism must be erased. We no longer have the privilege of doing ministry only as the Christian, Baptist, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Independent or any other church. Today’s challenges require unity. I’m not saying it will be easy or even enjoyable. It would be much more comfortable to stay in our own herds. But alas, we have no choice but to cooperate. And if we accept this, then we might indeed find some unexpected joy in the process.
And lastly, the lines separating the church from worthy and effective non-profits, charities and secular organizations must be questioned. Why in the world would each church want to invent another ministry from scratch for every need that is discovered? There are wonderful organizations out there that are doing amazing work. There are plenty of opportunities for collaboration and cooperation. And Christians do not have to compromise their faith to do so.
Now is the time to expand the conversation among churches and between churches and the rest of society. Now is the time to accept that the problems of this world are too urgent, too serious to be met alone. Now is the time to lay down the weapons of ideological disagreements and pick up the idle tools at our feet. Now is the time to see not only that God has called us to work together, but also that God is raising up leaders in our midst, that God is doing something new. Do you not see it?