June 30, 2019
Why do we prefer the past to the future? It’s called the “status quo bias.” This is an emotional preference for the current state of affairs. What we know becomes the baseline reference point. Any change from that baseline is experienced as a loss.
We are twice as sensitive to potential loss as we are to potential gain. So we tend to see the future more as a threat than an opportunity. The seven last words of the church are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Those words are often repeated as the remaining members of a church turn off the lights and lock the doors for the last time.
The mission of the church always looks forward. That’s what Jesus means in the gospel reading. Looking forward is good news. If we are bound always to the past, there can be no hope for the future. Forgiveness means freedom, as we read in our second lesson. That freedom is a release from our past sins. It is also a renewal of our call to be children of God. So our baptism looks backward and forward at the same time.
If there is any group that embraces the future, it should be the Christian church. We know how the story turns out. Spoiler alert–God wins! We know that Resurrection life defeats death. We know that the Holy Spirit is moving in Creation to make it happen. We know that God is working in all things for good. And yet, we worry about what is to come.
Status quo bias is killing churches. If congregations still exist in the future, things will be different. How will things be different for the church? I’m not sure, but I have some suspicions. The way I was trained to do church is now a museum exhibit. That’s why I call this message “Reflections of a Relic.” Here are three ways I think the church in the future will be different.
The church now and in the future must see itself as a movement. Newer pastors know this and are trained to lead in different ways. Once upon a time, the church was a place you went to in order to meet your religious obligations. It was an institution like school or work. Now following Jesus must once again be seen as a movement. So church happens when Christians take their faith into daily life. Church is perhaps a base of operations and a source for training and support. But following Jesus takes place in the real world and in daily life.
I think this means letting pastors out of the church box and loose in the world. For example, you may have read, in the online version of Living Lutheran, about Pastor Adam White. He serves as Lutheran campus pastor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Sometimes he sits outdoors on a folding chair. To his left is an empty chair. To his right is a folding chalkboard sign reading: “Rant to Me About Religion and I’ll Listen.” Over the past eight years he has had conversations with students who were raised in the Christian faith but found it inhospitable to their doubts, curiosity and questions.
He’s heard students rant about the role that religion—Christianity in particular—has played in warfare, sexism, racism, homophobia and every other form of violence imaginable. More often than not, he agrees with their criticisms.
Pastor White has prayed, offered pastoral care and laughed with students who never would have set foot in the Lutheran Center, the building where he serves as pastor. Again and again, he says, in such unexpected holy conversations, the boundaries of where the Lutheran Center began and ended seemed to disappear. This is church as movement rather than institution.
I am proud that Emanuel has taken steps in this direction. The congregational inclusion statement is precisely what a movement congregation needs to say at this time. I pray you will live out that statement in the future.
The focus of the church must include experience alongside theology. The church must allow people to meet God with their hearts and hands as well as their heads. So spiritual formation and direction will be large parts of the future church. The church will be more and more a place where you learn how to pray. Mainline Christians will talk about the work of the Spirit in their daily lives. People will get emotional and stuff will get real. If that doesn’t happen, someone will be happy to convert church buildings into office space and condos.
Surrounded by a deepening sea of loneliness and isolation, the Church needs to be a source of genuine community. I believe the future of the church is in smaller congregations–those places where everyone knows your name. The megachurches will provide rock concert music and rock star preachers. But it is places like Emanuel where people will drive you to a doctor’s appointment, bring you a casserole after a death, and
let you be yourself in pain and in joy.
Most important, the church must get used to being a bunch of odd outsiders. Being Christian is no longer part of mainstream American life. In the future, if being a Christian doesn’t make you culturally and socially and politically weird, you’re probably not doing it right.
I’m not talking about the self-absorbed, self-righteous and self-indulgent garbage that passes for Christianity on cable, the internet and in public life. The prosperity gospel is not orthodox Christianity. Right-wing evangelical fundamentalism is not orthodox Christianity. White nationalist and America first ideologies are not orthodox Christianity.
All that nonsense will remain popular for the foreseeable future. Churches that seek a more faithful path will be marginalized. Get used to being weird. That’s how Christianity flourished in the first three centuries. That will be our call for perhaps the next three centuries as well.
I find myself coming full circle. The pastor biz was a vocation that became a career. I am grateful for the call to serve. The career is over, but the vocation remains. I look forward to being an amateur Christian again. I am curious to see how that will work out for me, and for us.
I close today with a quote from a favorite poet. Rainer Maria Rilke put it this way. “Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, For the hour of new clarity.”