As part of my daily sprint out onto a limb I’m going to say I know exactly what the future of the Church is. The actual future of the actual Church. All of it. I have the answer. When you have recovered from the faints, waving your St Paul action figure to ward me off and filling your super soaker with holy water lest I come close, tell me first if you’ve ever casually asked another Christian or suspected Christian the following question: “So where are you going at the moment?”
If all is well in the world of the churched, the well-initiated responder will offer a reassuring reply, dropping the name of a recognisable, established local kirk and for extra holy points add something about the “great work they do in the community”/“wonderful teaching”/“insightful leadership”/“powerful worship” or a similar commendation. They are saying, in Christian code: “Relax. All is well. I am one of you.” Stage two of the enquiring process – to be initiated if reason has been given to doubt the passion, commitment or even salvation of the target – is more pointed: “Have you been to St Juniper’s lately?” or even: “When did you last go to church?” This thinly veiled pastoral enquiry – code for: “HAVE YOU FALLEN AWAY FROM THE LORD, BETROTHED OF BEELZEBUB?” – could yield a similar response, offering a couple of items from the Good Churchgoers’ Checklist and a: “Bless you for asking, bro” side hug, or it could divert down a whole other road. If the answer is “Nowhere” or plain old silence, bring on the awkward.
Somehow, somewhere along the way being a Christian has become synonymous with going to church. Without the name-dropping of a saint and building, a heady fear of impending heresy and dissent clouds conversations and relationships. I met the amazing Kelly Bean recently, author of How to be a Christian Without Going to Church, who talked with wisdom, maturity and masses of common sense about this odd conflation, among many other insights drawn from her 24 years of doing it differently.
Her experiences are well worth investigating. It would be joyful to me – and, I suspect, many others – to find a way past the looming judgement that comes with expectations about how faith is lived out. To move past application forms that request ‘name of church attended’ and ‘What would your pastor think about you applying for this job?’ and onto a more mature, diverse expression of faith that doesn’t depend on structures, formality and turning up regularly as the only measure of a relationship with God. There are a few things that should be present – the importance of community, ongoing spiritual development and growth, the need for life to include and embrace the awkward Other – but these shouldn’t need formal references, spiritual shorthand or paternalistic approval from denominational authorities for us to trust each other.
So my answer to the question about the future of the Church is simple. It is each of us doing the thing we’re called to do, in the place we’re called to do it, with the people called to do it too, and doing it with commitment, humility and passion – supporting and not judging those called to do something different. It could be in the thick of the mainstream, visible, church or in quiet community. It could change over the years. It could look nothing like your idea of what a Christian or Christian life should be. I love that I share my life with people called to politics, activism, contemplation, feeding people, funding projects, media, ordination, business, mediation, relationship building across faiths, creating works of art, praying, being the visible and masked face of God wherever they are.
I love that we work at the unique things God has shown us while supporting each other, celebrating the diversity that God has revealed of Himself through the breadth of that activity. I love that there is always something new and there is always the unchanging, ancient I AM in all of it. I love that we’re in it together.
That, for me, is the future of the Church.