The Future of the Church – The Church of the Future
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 3
May 14, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Last weekend, Vicar John and I attended the Southeastern Minnesota Synod assembly in Rochester. The theme of this year’s assembly was “Following Jesus into a changing world. It’s a great theme as it reminds us that Jesus always goes ahead of us into the world and bids us to follow him there. Additionally, we are reminded that the world is ever-changing. At the assembly, there were several workshops around the theme. One that I attended was titled, “The Future of the Church – the Church of the Future.” The workshop consisted of a panel of five high school youth talking about their dreams for the church. The “future [members] of the church” were discussing “the church of the future.” Interestingly, these high school students didn’t care about style of worship, though an audience member assumed they preferred contemporary worship. (Most of the panelists worshiped in traditional settings.) Instead, they were looking for a church that was authentic, built on relationships, and open to their questions and struggles.
An underlying question in the book of Acts is, “What is the future of the church and church of the future?” As we look at Acts, it’s helpful to remember some basics about the book. First, the early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is making it up as they go along because they are in uncharted territory. Furthermore, it’s not settled at the end of the book just what this church will look like. It’s organically and dynamically open-ended.
Second, there are three broad movements in the book, all of them open-ended as well: from Jerusalem to Rome; from Jew to Gentile; and from Peter to Paul. All of these movements are present in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian in today’s reading. The good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen is spreading beyond Jerusalem to the entire world, signified by the journey on the Wilderness Road. Furthermore, the gospel is going to the unlikeliest of people, signified by the Ethiopian Eunuch, as far removed from the Jewish faith as you can get. Finally, the gospel is proclaimed by others than Peter, in this case Philip, like Stephen one of the deacons set aside to provide for the widows in the community.
It’s a wonderful story, but what caught my attention was the exchange between the Ethiopian and Philip regarding the passage from Isaiah. Eric Barreto, Bible Study leader at the assembly, wants us to imagine Philip running up to the chariot and overhearing the Ethiopian reading out loud (a good reminder that one should text and drive, even 2,000 years ago). Eventually, the Ethiopian asks for help and Philip agrees. The first thing that occurred to me about this text is that scripture is intended to be read in community. We can and should read the Bible ourselves, but we remember that the Bible comes out of community and it is intended for community.
I’ve talked before how I left the church after Confirmation. Shortly after my “conversion,” I returned to church and had many questions. I needed guides who would walk with me and help me through the questions I had. Since then, I’ve been involved in many Bible studies and I always come away richer. Almost every week, I gather with other clergy to discuss the text for the coming week and I always gain something from the experience. But I’ve also been in Bible studies with lay people who also bring a viewpoint and experiences to the discussion that are enriching.
The second point I want to make is highlighted by one desire the young peoples’ panel had for the church: the church as a place of questions. They want a church that takes their questions seriously and doesn’t give them pat answers. They want a church that meets them where they are in their faith journeys or wilderness roads. They want us to come alongside them, build relationships with them and treat them as authentic partners in ministry. I left the church when I was their age because I didn’t see that kind of church, even though I couldn’t articulate it as well as they did at the time. But I came back hoping to find it and if I couldn’t find it, help make it into that kind of church.
So, I think we are on the right track with what we’ve been doing here at Grace the past five years with our programming and staffing changes. Even so, like the early church in Acts, we’re not there yet and we’re making it up as we go along. While we are “Growing with Grace,” we’ll continually ask what God is doing in the world and what God is calling us to do. We’ll keep ourselves open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We’ll read scripture together, we’ll build relationships and connections, and we’ll walk with each other on our wilderness journeys. So, hang on: the church does have a future because the crucified Jesus is risen. Thanks be to God. Amen.