The prophets of the Old Testament were gifted at knowing what was about to happen. But not so gifted at predicting the future.
The difference between the two is simple to parse. Given the environment and knowledge of the world, culture, and the divine dream, they did an astounding job of knowing what would happen. They could really see the future.
When they tried to predict what was going to specifically happen on a certain day or to name or command the way things would be, they were much less accurate.
I wonder what would happen if we focused, not on what is coming next, but instead on what will be. What if we stopped trying to predict the future and, instead prophesied? We have incredible contemporary prophets, from Richard Rohr to Brian McLaren to Shane Claiborne. Prophetic truth-tellers with a great depth of spiritual wisdom who can see what is happening and what will be.
I was speaking to a friend yesterday about the future. We were really talking about the future of church and the identity of clergy in the midst of a congregation. I love these conversations, but I sometimes forget that I’ve been thinking about this for well over a decade, devoting my life to embodying a certain way of being. Not everyone else is doing that. So I am a passionate, and challenging, conversation partner.
The conversation was about priests and congregations and authority. The context included decline and congregations being able to afford clergy. And in the midst of it, we stumbled into my favorite prophecy. The one I rarely share, or at least share without such clarity.
This time, however, it made sense. It wasn’t about what will happen, but who we will be.
There are three historical things we have to consider for this to make sense.
Our priests aren’t priestly
Rather than having priests like those described in the Old Testament or even the Apostles in Acts, we’ve made our priests/pastors the universally-gifted professional minister. They are responsible for virtually every aspect of ministry in a congregation. We expect our leaders to not only have a hand in every aspect of ministry, but to do so with dignity and skill. Many priests joke about wishing they had taken a class in fixing toilets in seminary or how the “other duties” section of the job description would be three pages long if actually articulated.
I’ve never found those jokes funny.
There are so many ways in which this is wrong and dangerous but I will name two.
- Even the apostles recognized that they couldn’t do it all as leaders, so they ordained others to share the load and be more effective. And by modern standards, what they gave up was a huge part of the job.
- We need our leaders serving out of giftedness while building up a whole community of leaders. Lifting up the Jack-of-all-trades-do-it-all-for-us leader is the exact opposite symbol of a healthy church community.
About 1,000 years ago, the church split in half. It was a dark time for the church. Made darker by the previous several centuries of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the near collapse of the church. Out of this time, came the rise of singular authority. Not just in the form of a single man for a church, but a single man for the whole of churches. And we split because not everyone liked that idea.
That single authority started to splinter and the people didn’t know how to deal with singular human authority (particularly when they had three different humans claiming the mantle of GOD’s chosen human authority figure). So 500 years ago, we turned our attention to the Bible. And bestowed upon it the authority humans couldn’t handle.
Then we learned to read it. And we learned about our planet. And we learned about human beings and evolution and the cosmos and the Bible no longer seemed authoritative in that particular way. In that way that the Bible can tell us what to do or how to see the situation.
And because we never really dealt with our obsession with singular authority, we just moved it toward an object, we are left with a split sense of authority. We have human decisions and spiritual direction. But to us, still, we rely on singular authorities. We are those Israelites in Canaan demanding a king when GOD has given a divine community.
Building responsibility at the base for participatory authority
That divine community of shared ministries: that is our next great incarnation. The role of priests and pastors will seem to diminish, not because they aren’t important, but precisely because they are that important. My own word for the priest is convener. As in the one who convenes the party. She doesn’t need to chair the meeting or cook the meal or craft the invitations. She needs to bring the party together and make sure it goes off. She hosts and helps us have a good time, but isn’t necessarily responsible for the people’s fun.
This is, by the way, the very reason I reject the shepherd metaphor for clergy, because the people aren’t dumb sheep, completely and utterly vulnerable and stupid (which is how I hear it). People are strong, capable, and responsible and we need people to become even more so in the church.
Parties rely on the strong gifts being used and the personalities mixing. They rely on performers to tell stories and get the group to sing silly songs and the quiet builders to construct a safe space in the corner of the room for the introverts to survive the night. They rely on the givers to make sure everyone gets enough and the hopeful make sure everyone is feeling good.
The best parties are the one in which you never notice that the host is even there.
The future church
In short, the future of the church and of our social character will be seen in a more connected and empowered group, a less multi-tasked clergy, and a community more geared toward a shared sense of responsibility to building authority as a whole. The community will be far less individualistic and myopic (what’s in it for me?), far more collaborative (how can we do this together?), and increasingly interdependent (what gifts are we lacking?).
This is who we will be. Not tomorrow or next week. For most of us, this is not who we will be in our lifetimes. But this is our future.
I know this because it is, also for many, their present. We can see it in action in some of our communities. It is what’s next for Christianity: the next big thing.
Call it emergence, emerging, emergent; call it fresh expressions of church or ancient-future faith. Call it whatever you want, but the next big thing is about community leadership. It is the response we’re already finding to the problems we have with an organization built around a singular authority, and yet, we still need (demand?) some kind of singular authority to guide us. But the guide doesn’t need to decide for us and we don’t need to be helpless. We just need to start working together as one, rather than a collection of ones with a special one doing the heavy lifting for us.
Perhaps you don’t believe me. I would understand. But I absolutely know this is true. This is our future. Our faith connected. Physically, virtually, and with shared authority and responsibility in new, stronger communities of faith.
It will look so different from the experience most of us have. And it will also be so fundamentally and liturgically connected to our ancient practices that we will know, together, that this is church.
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