The Future and Three Essential Commitments It is a political season and political discourse causes me to think about the future. However, I find the political discourse of part of the church disappointing in both its lack of depth and failure to show character that looks different from the norm. What is the shape of the church tomorrow? How will the church re-shape the future? What is important to remember every day when taking single steps into the future? There is, I am sure, more than one answer to these questions. The variety of cultural and geographic situations of the local church guarantees an assortment of answers. One thing seems persistently true in every culture – thinking about the future has a dual character of release (freedom from the ineffective and imprisoning) and rebirth (an entrance into trauma that makes new). Release and rebirth reflect the nature of God’s promise and leads me to think about the future in two ways.
First, I think about the local church. I have served in the church as a campus pastor, pastor, church planting supervisor, executive pastor, missions director, board member, and 2 and 3-year-old teacher for over forty years…it does not seem that long! Time has reinforced my appreciation for the fact that new generations must wrestle with how to be the authentic and vibrant church. New insights and forms consistently disrupt and encourage how I think about faith.
Second, I think about the business stewardship with which I am entrusted i.e., how businesses create, communicate and deliver value to customers through the products or services they design and manufacture or offer. Businesses cannot ignore the social changes facing the local church and their own business any more than other leaders can. The reality is that the church by nature is a catalyst to change (transformation) and not just a victim of social change. As believers we have to embrace the disruption of our thinking because the promise of God woos and summons us to a new future. I like the way Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer put it in their new book:
The alternative to this biblically mandated transformation is to pick a rut and make it deeper. And this is just what many churches have done, preferring, even if not consciously, repetition or even stagnation. As leaders we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that just managing the status quo is good enough…Rather than missionary disciples for Christ going out into the world, we have a group of people content to go in circles.
I have seen businesses and congregations dig ruts that look too much like a graves – they have either gone out of business or gone bankrupt. The only way I see to avoid following in a similar path is to engage the sometimes uncomfortable and always transformative vision of the future the work of God brings. Isn’t it strange that the promise of God is simultaneously comforting and disconcerting?
In thinking about the church and business in today’s social environment I cannot avoid the need for three essential commitments. In my view without commitments like these the church fails miserable at being a differentiated body of people. Without commitment the church floats somewhat aimlessly amid the currents of culture without making any real difference and without demonstrating any real change. I attempt to explain these commitments below.
Engage the Conversation
Commitment 1: Engage the conversation about how the church relates to the culture. One of my friends complained that the church can never get this right. It is right to say that the conversation is perennial, and it needs to be. Culture is not static. New generations grow in changing contexts and express different ways of addressing their situation’s critical questions.
Paul S. Minear in his book on the images of the church reinforces the necessity of thinking about how to reach the world in which we live. Conversations about how to relate to the culture necessarily start with a commitment to Jesus as Lord. Minear’s insight is sobering:
Yet we know enough concerning God’s design for the church to be haunted by the accusation of the church’s lord: “I never knew you.” So there is much about the character of the church to which the church itself is blind. Our self-understanding is never complete, never uncorrupted, never deep enough, never wholly transparent. In every generation the use and reuse of the Biblical images has been one path by which the church has tried to learn what the church truly is….
Commitment to Jesus as Lord result in a devotion to learning that is characteristic of a close friendship. Friends are attentive to each other. Friends discover preferences and share dreams and fears. It is disappointing to find church leaders who are more self-assured than humble learner – can we really afford to behave in ways that contradict the words of Christ while claiming to act in the name of Christ? By learning I don’t mean academic learning. Instead I mean a willingness to face one’s self and one’s context with the realization that knowledge is incomplete and perspective is always limited. The most effective leaders I know live transparently as learners – they constantly work on relating to their world authentically. Their congregations don’t run into ruts but race toward a powerful vision. Learning means constantly looking and listening for what the church needs to fulfill its vision in a constantly changing social context.
Commitment 2: Undiluted and transparent conviction is essential to saying anything important.
In a day when pluralism is emphasized as a social necessity (respect for people who hold opposing views or differing cultural perspectives is essential for a civil society) it also unfortunately acts as a barrier to real communication.
Pluralism means several different things. In common terms it describes the reality that ethnic, religious, political differences identify groups of people as distinct from one another. Sociologically it defines a policy or theory that minority groups within a society should support their cultural differences and share overall political and economic power. Philosophically the term describes the theory that reality is made up of many kinds of being or substance and (1) may not be definable or (2) that a plurality of realities actually exists. Each of these nuances is used in various ways when people talk about pluralism.
For this discussion pluralism can be categorized in two schools of thought; identist (all religions are oriented toward the same religious object) and differential (religions promote different ends – different salvations). In this definition it is safe to say that evangelicals generally define pluralism differentially i.e., we recognize that different ideas of salvation or the need of salvation exist but that Jesus claimed a unique status and a single reality in the midst of these differences.
Here is the challenge. There are those who consider any unique conviction to be a denial of pluralism (a loss of respect for any other view). My contention is that without clear convictions communication cannot take place because without clearly stated convictions there is no opportunity to agree or disagree there is simply an artificial truce that goes nowhere. Luther, who was not known to hold back on his convictions and opinions, describes a Christian’s basic conviction this way:
The chief article and foundation of the gospel is given you …when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend…to have a proper grasp of the gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God….This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means. This is why such preaching is called gospel, which in German means a joyful, good, and comforting “message”….
The good news of God’s great love and goodness as revealed in Jesus Christ is at odds with certain religious and social views. This does not cut its universal application – it affirms humankind’s universal dilemma i.e., the quest for meaning and the diagnosis that the lack of meaning stems from separation from God. In the biblical view there is no exception to this diagnosis (Rom. 3:23 and 6:23).
This clear conviction does not need to be reduced to unbending bias, cultural/ethnic hegemony or squishy acquiescence of one’s deep convictions. If the church is going to say anything important today it has to be honest and transparent about its assumptions and beliefs and to allow for the scrutiny of its convictions with the confidence that God really is at work in the world around us. An example of this kind of conviction occurs in Paul’s defense before Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26 (see vs. 24-28).
Hans Küng carries the idea of conviction further. The way the church lives out its attributes determines its credibility and authenticity. There is a point at which the clarity of difference summons a decision to believe or disbelieve.
“That the world may believe” (Jn. 17:21) depends entirely upon whether the Church presents her unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity credibly in accordance with this prayer of our Lord. Credible here does not mean without any shadows; this is impossible in the Church composed of human beings and indeed sinful human beings. Credible does mean, however, that the light must be so bright and strong that darkness appears as something secondary, inessential, not as the authentic nature….
One implication I find in Küng is that authentic living does not need “spin”. If being credible means that the light need to be stronger than the darkness then I understand this to mean that being credible is not only living out one’s conviction but admitting when one’s behavior does not align with one’s convictions. In our experience in business admitting mistakes or errors and working with our customers to find a solution creates far more credibility and customer loyalty than trying to cover things up. Isn't the same true for the church?
Make a Contribution
Commitment 3: Contribution to the world around us in measurable meaningful actions is the earmark of grace.
The church father Cyprian summarized what is sometimes missing in more esoteric theological reflection on the nature of the church. Cyprian wrote in more concrete terms about the nature of the church i.e., how should the church behave? The third commitment may be framed as a question, how does the behavior of a congregation impact its neighbors?
In conclusion, my dear brothers, the divine admonition never rests, is never silent; in the holy Scriptures both old and new, the people of God at all times and in all place are stirred up to works of mercy…’Share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house. When you see the naked, clothe him; and do not neglect the household of your own family. Then shall your light break forth in due season and…the glory of God will encompass you.
I love Cyprian’s insistence that the impulse to contribute to the world around us is divinely motivated and never at rest. When I look at the unknown future I find courage in the fact that if our company continues to be stirred up to works of mercy i.e., to contribute to real needs we will never end up in ruts that look like graves and lead to demise. The same is true for the church.
There may well be other important aspects of facing the future but it seems to me that if we engage in conversation with those around us and do it with honest convictions with the goal to make a real contribution then the future does not present itself as a threat but as an opportunity. Will there be such a thing as the church in 20 years? Yes. I am more confident to assert that if we keep up a commitment to conversation, conviction and contribution the as expressed in congregations and in business will offer a quality and vital impact in society. What does your conversation, conviction and contribution look like? Does it lead unmistakably to Christ? Or, is it muddled, muddied and misleading? Join me in making a measurable difference by being a living demonstration of what it means to be a believer.
 Ed Stetzer and Thom S Rainer. Transformational Church (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2010), 3.
 Paul S. Minear. Images of the Church in the New Testament (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2004), 25.
 Martin Luther, “A brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed, Timothy F. Lull ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 95.
 Hans Küng. Structures of the Church (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982), 27.
 Cyprian. “On Works and Alms” in Documents in Early Christian Thought, Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer eds. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 210.