Tired of counting the reasons the sky is falling? Me, too. The traditional metrics for mainline ministry (church membership, finances, number of organists) may be on the decline and the angst about how the nation’s Great Divide will impact the church continues. But let me give voice to the hope that is within me during the moments I dare to dream God’s future:
1) We are getting over our generational building fever. There are some places where investing in major new buildings makes sense and I appreciate the energy that comes with beautiful sanctuaries and new ministry space. But more and more churches are living out the truth that we often proclaim – the church is not the building. So I look forward to using the legacy space we have in new ways and doing more ministry in the community in places like homes, restaurants, campus lounges, and coffee shops.
2) Cooperative parish models are offering new life to small churches. Particularly in rural areas, the joining together of congregations to carry out ministry cooperatively makes sense. Combining missions committees, youth groups, and even church councils means greater resources for ministry, a critical mass of people, and less burden on small church leaders who often juggle multiple roles. Churches in cooperative ministry also have more capacity to focus on mission rather than just keeping the doors open.
3) The segregation of our churches along racial lines has never looked more ridiculous. Half a century after Martin Luther King, Jr. made the observation that Sunday at 11 AM was the most segregated hour in America, mainline churches are still trying to live into a new reality. The good news is that our clergy and lay leadership on the denominational level is more diverse than it ever has been and cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments of clergy to churches are now becoming routine. This is one of the features of our United Methodist appointment system that I most value. Of course, there’s still a long way to go.
4) Young clergy are transforming the way we do church. Young clergy have always been seen as slightly irreverent by their older peers, but I admire the way that God continues to use the creativity and gifts of young people in the church. The young people in ministry that I know are bringing a deep thoughtfulness to their engagement of this changing culture that we live in and from their online experiments with podcasts and social media to their non-traditional gatherings like street liturgy and pub theology, they are challenging us all to take both our tradition and the realities of the contemporary world more seriously.
5) Small, communal experiments are modeling new ways of connecting the church to the world. The Missional Wisdom movement, Fresh Expressions, and the New Monasticism are all examples of Christians seeking to live in accountable community with one another as they serve the world. Most of them commit to a rule of life that brings them to a level of sharing and spiritual formation that many people hunger for. They also tend to take seriously ministry with the poor.
Church is different these days. No doubt about it. And if our expectation of success is a model circa 1955, then we’re destined for disappointment. But if we expect that God can do a new thing and is transforming the world and wants us to be part of it, well, then we’ve got a lot to look forward to in 2017.