August 4, 2015

Future Proofing the Church

Much has been written about future proofing the church over the past decade.  And quite frankly much of it has been misguided, and plain wrong.

You know what I mean by “future proofing” don’t you? Here’s an unashamedly Wiki definition:

“Future-proofing is the process of anticipating the future and developing methods of minimizing the effects of shocks and stresses of future events. Future-proofing is used in industries such as electronics, medical industry, industrial design, and, more recently, in design for climate change.”


Anyway here are some of the central tenets of future proofing:

1.Do not promote deterioration – do no harm

2. Extend service life (hope in church that doesn’t extend to service length – Ed)

3. Stimulate Flexibility and Adaptability

4.Fortify against Extreme Weather

5. Incorporate Local Materials and Labour

Now there’s a whole bunch of easily digestible bon mots about how to do those things with church, but I’ll leave that to some other clever wag. My question is: What is the basis for our hope that the church can be future proofed?

Important question – and often with some rubbish answers.  To be honest I’ve read enough books about the church over the past ten years to say that the quality of ideas can be pretty ropey.  Many popular perspectives guaranteed no future for the church other than assimilation. Though it took a few years for well meaning types to realise this. Many have since jump back on board a ship that, surprise, surprise, hadn’t sunk during their abandonment. Others, tragically, have continued to row blissfully, and naively in a locally sourced, recycled and ethically manufactured gluten-free row boat over the Niagara Falls of post-modern gibberish.

So is anyone still putting forward those once heady ideas, ideas such as not being so theological, or dumping our foundationalism for a healthy dose of perspectivalism are the future?

Well yes, since you are asking. As usual the mainstream media caught onto this program late. How late? Well just as I was using funkily titled and theologically thin books for landfill I start to come across articles such as this in the The Huffington Post on a regular basis.

You know the kind of stuff, suggestions for church progress that has wiped out many denominations over the past fifty years and, even as I write, is enervating and castrating emergents/post-evangelicals at a rate of knots.  But hey, don’t let that stop us going for another round. Perhaps  publications such as the Huffington Post are on the payroll of some foundation set up by silent partner Richard Dawkins. Either way, they haven’t a clue about how to future proof the church.

Fortunately I found a great text about how the church can be future-proofed, right this very morning.  And it’s Ephesians 3:1-13.  (But, but, that’s riven with foundationalism – horrified Huff-post reading Ed).  The passage is not for the faint-hearted.  And for us today it’s a call to not blink in the face of the array of options for how to keep this thing going for the next fifty years – maybe more!

Here’s some stuff I saw in Ephesians 3:1-13. You might find more.

1. God Has Future-Proofed The Church Already

Verses 1 and 13 form an inclusio.  Paul, the writer, starts off with the startling news that he is a “prisoner for Christ” for the sake of the non-Jewish church.  In other words, the church was birthed into a hostile culture. It has not caught God unawares, and it did not catch Paul unawares.

Now how does Paul end that section?:

“So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering of you, which is your glory.”

There you have it – suffering and glory.  The two key elements for understanding how the church plays out its time in this present age.  Suffering for the sake of the gospel is normative in this age, and glory will not only be normative, but guaranteed in the age to come. In fact the Bible knows no other way of living a godly life other than suffer now, glory later.  That’s God’s way of future-proofing the church.  He has a glorious future for those who are suffering in this age for his name’s sake.  And that suffering takes – and will increasingly take – all sort of guises.  The more we realise this, the more we will stand firm in the face of an increasingly hostile culture.

If you take a good look at what the likes of the Huff Post tell you what will future proof the church, guess what?  It’s all glory now!  It’s all lining up what the world values and imposing that over the church.  I happen to firmly believe that the alternate to “suffer now – glory later” is “glory now – suffer later”, but I am sure there are few Huff Post journalists and a few theologians who can band together and shoot that one down.

Paul, however, is completely confident in God’s ability to future proof the church.  His confidence is revealed in verse 8: “God who created all things”.  He uses God’s absolute rule and reign over everything as his proof that the same God who creates all  for the church in Christ can keep the church from all things in Christ. Look what he goes on to say in v10:

“So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known  to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

It isn’t just to the visible world that God intends the world to demonstrate his rather foolish wisdom, but to the invisible world also.  He’s got this thing!

2. God Hasn’t Got a Plan B

I haven’t seen a book on church called “God’s Plan B” yet, but I am sure someone will eventually have the gall to write one.  However look at what Paul says in v11:

“This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realised in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It was God’s unrevealed eternity past decision and his now-revealed eternity future plan to showcase a multi-racial, multi-cultural church that was centred in and created in Christ.  I guess we sorta know that when we turn to Revelation 7 and see that great crowd before the throne.  But sometimes we need to take stock of that when the stats are so often trotted out about how the church is failing and what it needs to do to get right.

Paul rightly nails our problem outside of Christ and his church in v12:

“In whom (Christ) we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.”

If I had a dollar for every time someone wrote how the gospel is NOT centred around how our broken relationship to God can be repaired in such a way that we can access our Creator’s presence without being toasted, but is in fact centred around something else – which their book will explain.

And if I also had a dollar for every time the Scriptures unequivocally declare how much of the gospel IS centred around that one fact…

Let’s face it, if you gave that “here’s how to fix it” list from the Huff Post to anyone in the Third World Church, or the persecuted churches throughout the Middle East they would either laugh with scorn, or cry with despair at how it could come to that.  Surely if anyone has a conviction about God’s plan being what Ephesians says it is, it’s the suffering church. If it isn’t then bring on Plan B, because anything would be a better option than the fierce opposition to Christ and his Church that they are facing.

Incidentally I hope we are humble enough to learn a lesson from our Developing and Third World brothers and sisters on this one and practice suffer-now, glory-later with them, whatever form that will take for us into the future.

3. If Christ Is The Future, Then the Church Is The Future 

In all of the noise about what the church is supposed to be doing if it is to survive, here is one thing that cannot fall off the radar, but, so often and so tragically has  – Christ!

Yep, that right!  How astonishing that Christ himself seems so small in so many of the futures being devised for the church.  It’s as if people have had a good long look at him and decided, “Meh, we’ve seen all there is to see”, like a whistle stop tour around France in a bus: “Eiffel Tower? Check. Mona Lisa?” Check. French Quarter? Check.”

And now we do it with Christ. “Love of Christ demonstrated at the cross? Check.” His glorious risen rule and reign?” Check.  Now how we sort out those placards/church flowers/angels-sitting-on-heads-of-pin arguments we’ve been obsessed with (cross out which ever does not apply).

But not for Paul.  Not for the churches he plants. Notice what he says about the riches of Christ in v8?  They are “unsearchable”, or “unfathomable”.  In other words we cannot plumb their depths.  Paul’s apostolic task is to start to unpack that to the Gentiles, and show how God, in Christ, has swept up the Gentiles into his eternal purposes, along with the Old Testament covenant people – the Jews. And then to encourage the church to start doing now what will take them all eternity to exhaust.

See what this tells us?  Christ’s riches just won’t run out! They don’t run out for us now as we run to him for grace and forgiveness and a steady heart to serve and love the unlovely.  They won’t run out for us in the future, when we are lost, lonely or dying.   And they won’t run out for us in the age to come when, with all sin and sickness and death done away with, we will be free to search Christ’s riches to our heart’s content!

 So if the church is in Christ we will never run out of opportunities to search the unsearchable, to fathom the unfathomable.  One of the things I ponder is whether, in our modern attempt to ensure that there will be enough to keep everyone interested in the new creation – (yes, of course we will work, yes of course we will have the arts and engineering and identifiable places to visit, of course, etc, etc), we have taken away the true goal of heaven – to see Christ!  And not only to see him (Seen Christ? Check – Rubbernecker Tourist Ed), but to keep searching and marvelling at his unfathomable riches.

Do you want to future proof your own church today for whatever shifts and turns the culture makes over the next thirty years?  Start searching the unsearchable Christ, start fathoming the unfathomable Christ.   By the time you pop your head up, the future might well be here.

I am actually going to write some nuts and bolts “how to” articles soon on this topic, but without this foundation, they’d be a waste of time.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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