I serve on the editorial board for the Connect Journal, the Journal of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network. The current issue is out on-line, viewable on the gorgeous ISSUU platform. The title of this issue: The Church We Hope to See.
I publish simultaneously here my article which appears in the issue:
The Church We Hope to See
Every step we take, every move we make, in organizing or forwarding the mission of the church, either explicitly or implicitly expresses in concrete form the church we hope to see. Although a strong vision of the future may or may not drive our daily ministry, nevertheless what the church does and says from day to day is just so an expression of what the church hopes to see itself as in the future.
Once we come to this realization, we realize the extent to which the present form of the church--or the past forms of the church as we remember them--tend to drive our vision of the church we hope to see. The classic cliché, "We've never done it that way before," is not just a description of how the church has been in the past, or how we see the church in the present; it is also a prescription for how the church ought to be in the future.
In other words, the church is almost exclusively driven by what already is rather than what might be. The church re-actualizes what already is rather than dwelling and visioning in possibility. When and if the church considers hoped-for or preferred futures, it tends to extrapolate the future from present realities, either in the negative--because we don't like the church as it is now, we hope it won't be this way in the future--or more rarely the positive--we like this part of the church now and hope it will be strengthened.
By comparison, consider the gospel pericope for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 10:46-52. Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind begger, knew precisely the church he hoped to see. He hoped to see the kind of church that could give him sight to see. In other words, Bartimaeus was wise enough to pray not for the future of the church per se, but rather for the sight to see anything at all. You can't see a church or hope for it if you yourself remain blind.
His simple prayer has developed over the centuries into the Jesus Prayer, a penitential prayer prayed by millions of Christians (especially in the East) that offers a concrete vision of the church we hope for, as well as a confession of who we are that blinds us from this vision. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Bartimaeus hoped to see Jesus, Son of David. He sought mercy and healing. Having received report from the crowd that Jesus was calling him, he sprang up, threw off his cloak, and came to Jesus. Upon receiving his sight, he made sure he kept Jesus in his sights by following him.
What might this mean for our description of the church we hope to see? For starters, it means listening to the thrum of the engine that has driven the recovery of the eschatological imagination in 21st century theology: the future is not something that we are on the way to; instead, the future is on the way to us. The future is coming to meet us in Christ. In this sense, the church we hope to see is the church on the way to us in Christ.
I remember reading a column a few years back by Richard Bliese, the president of Luther Seminary, that caught my attention, so much so that I made one quote from it one of my "favorited" quotes on my Facebook profile.
Reflecting on his return to the United States after 11 years serving as a missionary in Germany, Zaire, and Rwanda, he wrote, "I once heard this advice from a wise African missionary: In working with young people in America, do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before." (http://www.luthersem.edu/elerts/article.aspx?id=532)
There is much to commend this way of thinking. At the very least, it opens up the possibility that the church of the future might be beyond the imagining both of the church inviting young people into ministry, as well as the young people themselves considering partnership with the church in ministry. It confesses the temptations to continue church as it is, or to continue life as it had been prior to an encounter with the church on a mission in God. These are admirable and salutary. I recommend this kind of imagineering.
In the end, thought, it may not go far enough. The danger is simple: the insight still implies there is something intrinsic to the tribe or the missionary that will lead them into a new place one could have guessed completely apart from God as future. It is still you, the missionary, together with them, young people, on the way to somewhere.
The eschatological insight here is that the future is not our preferred future, but God's future. It is God's future on the way to us, not the other way around. This makes all the difference in the world. It means that the question, "What is the church we hope to see?" is not only a future-oriented question, but a matter of present realities. We are called to live, as N.T. Wright felicitously expresses it, "from the future back into the present." The church we hope for is standing right there in front of us, if only we have eyes to see. The church we hope to see we entertain in faith when we cry out with Bartimaeus, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us."
Now everyone is going to want something concrete, right? Tell me what this future coming from God looks like. Part of me wants to respond that this future looks like Jesus. Another part of me wants to say that the future is God. Both of those answers, though true, will sound too abstractly theological to some. I admit that I don't find them to be so, because part of being open to God's future on the way to us is to let go of some of our empty visions and false hopes. We are called, like Bartimaeus, to plead for God's mercy in our blindness. Who knows what kind of sight we'll have when Jesus heals us?
However, the concrete vision is actually implicit in the eschatological insight. If the future is coming to us, then it is our reception of God's future that is our concrete action in the world. And the model for what this looks like is Christ's suffering love. Walter Brueggemann, in his wonderful early work, Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom, offers this quote, which summarizes as well as anything written, the shape of the church we hope to see: "What is it God has promised that the world does not know? Simply that which separates the followers of Jesus from the slaves of this world--suffering love. This little, seemingly powerless community is ordered and identified by its practice of caring, transforming, empowering love of the towel and basin variety."
The church we hope to see is a church on its knees, washing feet, praying under their breath, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me," all the while keeping their eyes focused on the one who has given them sight--Jesus. Oh wait, I see, that means all the church is doing is what they've already seen God's future in Jesus doing, because there he is, on his knees, washing feet.