A reader posed the question in response to the blog ‘Churches are Changing’, ” Wish this were a longer article. I wanted to keep reading to find out what comes next.” So what might just be next? What might the church of the future look like? I imagine it will be distinguished by three characteristics. It will be challenging, curious, and kind.
We live deeply wedded to a culture largely motivated by self indulgence (You deserve) and self actualization (Be your best self). Within limits, none of that is wrong. But idolatry grows as we make self indulgence and self actualization the very gods we worship. (Pick up most magazines and see where the preponderance of articles point.) Self indulgence and self actualization as ends in and of themselves create a fatal arrogance. The challenge – they look good and feel good. And in leaving us satiated, they leave no room for challenge and surrender.
My goal is largely to get more more stuff, feel good etc….. God’s goal for me is transformation.
A large part of religion today however draws from the wells of self indulgence and self actualization that keep us a safe distance from transformation. Not unlike the Pharisees of the New Testament, in the pursuit of purity, creedal agreement, and set worship forms in which all sacredness is mistakenly imbued, we rapidly turn faith and church into a “club” in which we as “members” can feel good about ourselves, indulging in our unique knowledge and practice compared to “them.” It is an ego trip in religious garb. That is true of churches on the right and churches on the left.
But transformation, not membership is the goal. And transformation does not occur outside of challenge. And crazy part … I think we all know that! I think we all crave challenge. I think we all harbor a need underneath that material numbness around which most of our lives pivot to have God and our churches call us out not with crushing guilt, but in a way that gives breath to who we truly are, where our soul seeks to come to life.
As Christ says in John:
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.
That challenge will be in many forms. It will be personal (Can we see our obsession with consumption differently?) It will be local. (Can we see and serve the broken in our community?) And nationally. (How can we step in to areas where the massive economic shifts we are undergoing have creating need?) These are really hard ways for churches to function because they call us to a certain “death” in terms of self preoccupation but it is death, like the kernel of wheat, that leads to life.
What if, as one author noted, churches were known more for curiosity than certainty? What if curiosity typified a religious person?
I think the future church will be a collection of the curious.
And how can it be otherwise? We simply have no clue what the future will hold. Simple case in point … approximately 1/3 of all Americans retire with less than $10,000 in savings. That is daunting. How long will their life span be? Whose responsibility will it be to give them a baseline quality of life? How will we avoid “generation war” as the ratio of workers to retirees shrinks? I am deeply curious about that. None of it will yield to simple answers. What it will yield to however is transformation, slow and challenging as that is.
In my experience, some of the meanest folks I have experienced come from religious circles. As Shane Claiborne noted, you can be right but if you aren’t kind, you quickly aren’t right. And, it should be noted, some of the kindest folks I have met come from religious circles as well. Which will we choose?
Creating churches that challenge and that are curious will need to be done in a spirit of kindness. If such transformation lapses into one church believing they “get it” and needing to “correct” other churches, we rapidly fall away from transformation right back into self indulgence and self actualization at the corporate level. Transformation means it all belongs … all the parts.
I loved the words of Gregory Boyle. In talking of the Pharisees, he noted how the Pharisees did everything right, from how they worshiped, to how they prayed, to how they gave alms. What did they miss? They had forgotten the duty to delight in people. They had forgotten the simple virtue of kindness. Swedenborg was crystal clear – churches end not from a theological lapse but from when they no longer hold loving kindness as the priority. Faith then separates from charity.
Challenge, curiosity and kindness point the way towards a transformation that will breath new life into churches. We, I think, bear some responsibility in having the conversation about how it unfolds and in the sacrificial work it takes to create churches that do what churches do best … serve.