I think there are many of us who sit around and dream about the future of the church (and we're privileged to do so). What will it look like? How will we do it? To what expression of church will we be drawn? To what will people be attracted? These are the questions that buzz through our brains.
But last night it dawned on me.
Our dreams tend to revolve around what people will want and how we, the church, might be able to provide it. For example, our culture may not be attracted to big churches with old theology and poppy worship music for long... they may be attracted to something built more around image and experience than reason and the written word. So we might dream of a church with more ancient liturgy and stories (since they're so connected with experience) and less sermonizing from the pulpit, more art and symbolism (since they're so connected with image and vision) and less power point and bulletins. We might dream about how we the church can provide what people are looking for. We think about what the church can be and not necessarily about what it may need to be.
The presupposition of these dreams is that we, the church, will have relative control over the resources. By only considering what people will be attracted to, we ignore what people, particularly those who suffer from poverty, will need the church to be. We assume that we should and will have money. We assume that we should and will have facilities & technologies. But we don't think about how, if at all, we could be the church if we had nothing. The truth is, the poor don't need us to have flashy screens and band music. The poor don't even need us to have a paid staff. The vast majority of the world, though they are ignored in the west, simply can't do church in the same way we do church. The lifestyle (or churchstyle) we are living out and perpetuating is simply not sustainable for the rest of the world. The amount of overhead that goes into maintaining buildings and generously paying staff is vastly disproportionate to the amount we can and are spending on truly meeting the needs of one another. As we are, we are grossly dependent on the success of the economic system of which we are a part. If it fell, we would fall with it. The Amish would be ok, but the the rest of the American church wouldn't know what to do with itself and pastoral unemployment rates would surely be on an increase (and that's an understatement).
So the question is not "what can the church be?" or "what can make us more attractive?" but rather what might we need to be if we're planning on embodying God's kingdom, a lifestyle/churchstyle that can be sustained independent from wealth and excess. What we need to be for the sake of the poor might be vastly different from what would make us more attractive. We may shrink in number in order to be better lovers of the people around us, particularly our hungry and impoverished neighbors. Would we be able to hire full-time staff and pay them what we've been paying them? Would we be able to add a new and flashy youth building to our property? Would we be able to have property in the first place? Would we even want any of that stuff? If we were truly in tune with the heart of the God who's always on the side of the poor and oppressed, if we really lived for the things he lives for, would we even be attracted to the concept of being attractive? Of being big? Of being "effective"?
No, I believe that we would only love and be attracted to love. Love would be the beginning and end of all we do. Not influence or power, but simply love... the kind which was displayed on a cross... the antithesis of power, the antithesis of attractiveness.
So, since last night, I've been trying to dream about what the church needs to be. I've been thinking about how my job, my role as an employed director of Youth Ministry, is for the most part a contradiction in terms. I've been dreaming of what it might look like for a "church" to share together, to sustain each other, to find creative ways for our excess to become the fulfillment of someone else's need. What if the "staff" relied on one another financially so that they might live on as little as possible and still have time and energy to be a blessing to their church? How could the church function on as little as possible and still create space for God to inspire and invite? How could the church embody a churchstye that could be sustained?
There is something Shane Claiborne calls "theology of enough," in which we envision a world where everyone gets what they need (not what they deserve and not according to merit or criteria), in which we truly reject our "need" for and addiction to excess and we simply say "this is enough." The church, as we American white folks know it, is dependent on wealth and excess. What would it look like for the church, as an institution and an organism, to embody and display a theology of enough... a churchstyle of enough? Man, we'd need a healthy dose of love... the kind that casts out fear. We'd have to be so aware of God's love for us; so aware that all our fear of losing what we've got, all our fear of failure, flies right out the door.
These dreams are harder to dream. I'd rather, no doubt, go back to picturing my face on a screen in front of hundreds of people, each of whom being touched and freed by my wonderfully articulate message. But I think that dream has for too long drowned out God's dream.