There are many reasons to be down on the church. Prominent church leaders appear regularly in the news, too often in the midst of a scandal. Some churches have aligned themselves with political forces, making demands of others veiled in the language of freedom. Religious affiliation and church attendance are trending downward at an accelerating rate with no end in sight.
Still, there are reasons to be hopeful for the church. We are Easter people who remember that only a few faithful souls remained at the foot of the cross. We take heart in the example of the mustard seed. We know that the church desperately needs reformation but we believe that God is capable of providing that and more when people stand ready to co-create a new future.
In watching, listening for, and experiencing the challenges and opportunities I see in the church today, I have the following hopes for the church:
- I hope that the church will be known for its unconditional, even foolish, love. Some within the church act as if withholding love from those they disagree will force change; a strange practice for Christians called to love even their enemies. This withholding strategy (if it is worthy of being called a strategy) undermines the one and only thing that does make a difference in people’s lives; relationships bound in love.
- I hope that the church will stop fighting its worship war between contemporary and traditional stylings. Our problem is not found in the prayers that we pray or the songs that we sing. Instead, it’s the fact that we don’t mean them or accompany them with action. If we want to call upon the teachings of Jesus, or honor the prophetic tradition, we would be best served to focus less on style and more on passion and fruit. We can sing the songs of David Crowder, or Charles Wesley, but if we have not love, we are just noisy gongs or clanging cymbals.
- I hope that the church will be known for what it is for, not what it is against. We have very strong voices in the church who have, for a number of generations, railed against a broad variety of problems they’ve identified in society. In some cases, their criticism has been insightful, based in Kingdom values that have led to more justice for all of God’s people. At others time, however, these critiques have been burdened with personal preference and Christian privilege. When our demands lack a clear vision for how they truly make the world a better place – for everyone – we are confusing our personal piety (or preference) for our public witness.
- I hope that the church will be more open to the gifts of 50% of the population. While it is accurate to say that certain forms of Christianity have advanced further than others, women within each tradition work harder than men to break through stain-glass ceilings of a sort. Despite the varied and unique gifts they offer, sexism and limited visions of leadership hamper the church’s ability to fully integrate women’s offerings and stifles our witness to a world that struggles in similar ways.
- I hope that the church will get over its age problem. Many Christian churches in the United States are aging. Yes, this is a problem. But too often, our fretting and attempts to solve the issue are akin to trying to erase the lines of age that appear on our faces; they are vanity and formed in desperation. Instead, we need to learn to be comfortable in our proverbial (and real) skin and allow the intergenerational outreach we do to flow from a place of sincere love for younger people and who they are.
- I hope that the church will seek diversity in all things. Homogeneous communities too easily devolve in mutually affirming social clubs without the adequate internal tension to keep people open to new ways of seeing the world. Despite our professions of faith to the contrary, that is too often what we have become. While unity is a Christian ideal, churches that seek unity through conformity find themselves incapable of reliably producing disciples who can see the world in self-critical ways and recognize where God is calling them forward. Instead, such groups are likely to see difference in other cultures, and even within the Christian faith, as threatening.
- I hope that the church will understand the grace in dying well. Prolonging the life of an older family member, or a terminally ill patient, without regard for their pain or quality of life can be cruel, even though that is seldom the intent. Keeping a church open long after its prime is similarly cruel. As resurrection people we need to develop, and more regularly teach: a theology that recognizes regular life cycles in ministry; that faithfulness to principle is sometimes rewarded with the cross; and that letting go may be a prerequisite to new life.
Now these are some of my hopes for the church and as much as I may think they reflect God’s hopes, of course they fall short. Some are being addressed with greater frequency in more places. Others are just now appearing on the horizon. Each, in my view represents a challenge and great opportunity for the church.
Some of these hopes may resonate with you, and others may not. A number of great hopes (like a positive vision for the environment) could surely be added (which I kinda just did) and I hope (pun intended) you’ll feel free to leave yours in a comment below. I promise I’ll read them.