Reformation, Part 3 – The Church of the Future
What will the future be like? We already know that the world’s climate is changing, that the very shape of the world as we know is shifting due to floods, famine, fire, and earthquakes. But what about the people? From various sources, including The Atlantic and The New York Times, I gleaned a few statistics. By 2050, it’s expected that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, so the future looks much more urban than the past or present. Second, in 2050, it’s predicted that 80% of the global population will live in Asia or Africa. Nigeria will have surpassed the US in population size and will join India and China as one of the top three largest countries. 63-67% of global GDP will come from countries in Asia, Africa or Latin America. And, while today’s fastest growing religions are Islam and Christianity outside Europe, if we subtract the dead weight of Europe, Christianity is now and will continue to be the fastest growing religion.
With all those numbers about increasingly urban and non-Western future, what is a mostly-white, Western, aging congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, to do? How can we prepare for a future we can’t imagine? An old Danish proverb says, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” That resonates on this Sunday we have designated for focusing on how the Reformation applies to the church of the future.
Maybe it’s comforting to know that the church has struggled with questions about what comes next ever since its very beginning. Today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians was probably written about 30 years after Jesus died, and already it shows an anxious church, waiting for Jesus to return to tell them what to do, nervous about his delay. Matthew’s Gospel, which was probably written another 60 years after that, includes today’s parable, and also depicts the frustration of waiting for what comes next. And now here we are, centuries later, trying to figure out what to do with what we have, where we are, until Jesus comes back, bringing a that longed-for universal reign of justice and peace.
Of course, not all waiting is the same. Sometimes we wait full of anticipation for something good: the birth of a healthy child, closing on the house of our dreams, a job promotion, an acceptance letter from our first-choice college. Waiting for a future ripe with hope is different from waiting for something difficult, like the foreclosure of a home because you couldn’t make the payments, or a doctor’s report confirming that, yes, the cancer has returned. Whether we await something good or something bad, when the anticipated arrival is delayed, it’s anxiety-provoking.
So, since it’s evident that the church of the future is something we do not yet see nor can we imagine clearly, how do we live? How can we be about the business of preparing for the Bridegroom’s arrival when we have no idea when he might return? How can we slow down and patiently enjoy the beautiful things around us instead of worrying about what we don’t see? Maybe one of the calls of the Church is to renew the custom of honoring Sabbath time—modeling for our driven culture the value of stepping back and breathing sometimes, pausing to remember that God is still God and we are not.
Which is easier said than done. Even when we are waiting for positive things, we can get antsy. It’s much worse when we are waiting for something we dread, or when it is made harder by delay. Take the story of the delayed bridegroom Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. He speaks of 10 bridesmaids wait to greet the groom. Five took lamps and extra oil. Five took no extra oil, thinking they knew what the future held, unprepared for or anticipating any delay. All 10 fell asleep. A shout that the groom is arriving wakes them up. The five bridesmaids without oil in their lamps ask the other five to share some. Those five decline to share. They split up. This is a sad state of affairs all around.
The five bridesmaids with no oil abandon their original plan of greeting the groom, in order to search for oil for their lamps (at midnight!). These bridesmaids forget that the one job of the bridal party is to be available and present for the couple who have honored them with this task. Meanwhile, what do we make of the other five bridesmaids, who couldn’t spare an ounce of oil for their sisters, even though their need was obvious? Why can’t they let go of even a tiny portion of what they have? “We might not have enough for ourselves,” they explain. “We’re not sure, but just to be safe, we’re not sharing.” Like the bridesmaids who were unprepared, these friends have lost track of the main thing about a wedding—that it is a celebration of love. All 10 bridesmaids operate out the same premise of scarcity and fear.
But our God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. Our God fills our cups to overflowing. Our God created the cosmos out of nothing, and fed a hungry crowd with a few loaves and fish. When we are afraid or unprepared, however, when we feel inadequate or abandoned, we lose the joy and enthusiasm of abundant living. How can the church be a place of safety and strength while a frightened and fragile world waits for redemption? Perhaps what is needed most inside the church and outside the church is the alleviation of fear.
Fear causes three equally unhelpful responses in us: to freeze, to flee, or to fight. Fear makes us selfish and mean. None of those attitudes leave much room for hearing or sharing the Good News that our liberating God has claimed us as God’s own and loves us no matter what. If we are to be a church in the future and for the future, we’ll have to figure out what to do with our fear while we wait.
Personally, when I am anxious or afraid of what comes next, one of things that helps me the most is assurance that I am not alone. There is no substitute in my world for someone saying, “I understand,” or even just sitting quietly beside me. Maybe what the church is called to be and do while we wait for the future to unfold is to offer up ourselves as a community of people who will wait with others. Maybe we can share a safe space, where in our uncertainty, we gather to eat together, laugh together, pray together, hope together, cry together. Maybe what the church can be and do is prevent the sense of isolation that makes waiting even harder.
Maybe one of the gifts of our uncertainty about the future is that it opens us up to learn from others who have a different vision. We can sing songs from lands where Christianity is booming. We can finance missionaries who work alongside churches around the globe. We can embrace people who think, pray, act, and believe in ways that are unfamiliar to us. We can allow others to teach us how to be the Body of Christ in and for a changing world.
In next week’s texts, Jesus will wrap up his series of parables about how we are to live as Church, and he will give us a perfect picture of what we are to be about. But in case you aren’t here next week, I want to tell you the conclusion Jesus draws. (If you are here next week, consider this is a spoiler alert in the best possible sense).
In the end, Jesus says, those who inherit the kingdom, those who live into the calling of being church most faithfully, are those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and imprisoned. In other words, the bridesmaids who share their oil with those who have none. Those who open locked doors. Those who won’t let anyone wait alone. Those who embody the power of love.
Let us never lose track of the fact that God created the Church and through all of history has opted to continue to work in it and through it. There is no reason to believe God will abandon the church now. So, in the future as in the past and the present, even if it’s dark and we feel unprepared, we lean into the promise that God won’t give up on us. God will keep on inviting the Church of every time and every place to jump in the ever-flowing streams of justice and mercy. God will nudge us, again and again, to invite all our friends and strangers to jump in those life-giving waters too. This is most certainly true.
~Pastor Susan Schneider