Where are we going? What’s Next?

God’s People in a New Era

What “future” is before the churches?

We are already prognosticating. We’re taking out the crystal balls, listening to the trend oracles and looking into the tea leaves to predict what’s next for the church. Already, conferences are planned (on line of course) around such compelling themes as “future church” where thought leaders are going to tell us what’s ahead and, therefore, how to plan. Some are telling us that the digital church is here to stay. It’s now the new customer base for anyone who wants to be “future-proof”. I’m not making this up. These are some of the ways we are now running fast to catch the future and be prepared. Hogwash!

As we sense a light at the end of our long tunnel there comes this urge to figure out what’s next. The vaccines will give us some kind of normality. We start to wonder what it’s going to look like when the pandemic is declared over and we rush back to some new normal. Some tell us everything will have changed, others hope there will be a return to normal (Sunday worship, packed coffee shops and pubs or the chance to go shopping again. Many things will likely be different after Covid. A lot of small businesses won’t start up again. An economic upsurge is anticipated. Jobs will return. Money piled in savings will be released in a massive spending spree.  

Yet, so much damage has been done. There will be massive debts. The poor will be poorer. Renters and homeowners will feel very vulnerable. Parents and children will have to confront the erosion of hope and the capacities to socialize that the isolation of lockdowns is producing. There will be those who aren’t recovering from covid and we’ll want to push them aside so as not to be reminded of our vulnerability. Some churches will be full again, for a bit. A lot of others will have fallen off the cliff. A lot of clergy will be so disoriented and confused about what’s happened.

A lot of people are hurting. Government  financial policies are keeping many from foreclosures and the inability to pay rent because of job loss. A new  migration is happening. Many who can no longer afford to live in expensive cities are leaving. Cities are confronted with massive infrastructure and neighbourhood challenges. The result has been a breakdown of basic social belonging. Loneliness and isolation have contributed to the worst opioid crisis we have ever witnessed. In the midst of this damage, we are experiencing a profound erosion of trust in our institutions. This is particularly so with our tribalized political and economic systems run by people whose incomes and investments have exploded.  They seem unaware that in the bottom half of our populations the fear of poverty is ever present. What this pandemic has done is lay bare again the class and racial divides. Talking about some future church or becoming “future-proof” in the midst of these realities is pornographic. It utterly misses the way of Jesus. That’s the tragedy. 

In this time of musing, predicting and prognosticating, we want to know:  What’s next?. This predictable desire to see the future is raising its familiar head. Like all organizations, churches want to know what’s ahead for them. They want to know what’s going to happen in the coming months and years. They want someone to read the data and name the trends so they can plan. This call to imagine a post-Covid future church is wrong headed! It misdirects us from discerning what the Spirit is doing amongst us right now in this profound unraveling. 

What’s Next? 

In February 2020, the Journal of Missional Practice (JMP) had just completed a new edition addressing exactly this question: What’s Next?. We’d been energized by conversations with leaders from the UK and NA around the mission of God in disruptive change.  We weren’t trying to prognosticate but address the unraveling of western societies in dialogue with Tom Holland’s book, Dominion Our question was “What’s Next?” because we thought Holland had raised some important questions around the direction of the West. From the vantage point of one year later our question completely missed what was coming let alone name future trends. 

Covid 19 was the unseen and unexpected future. Even as word filtered in about a virus in Wuhan, across western democracies there was little sense it was something we had to attend to. A few virologists saw what was coming but the futurists didn’t. Even as we prognosticate about trends, telling people to go where none have gone before in the digital docetism, disruptive change happens. It’s very much outside our ability to predict. Mark Lilla who teaches at Columbia University in New York wrote about this reality last Spring in a NYT essay. He wrote: “The best prophet, Thomas Hobbes once wrote, is the best guesser. That would seem to be the last word on our capacity to predict the future: We can’t”. He goes on “But it is a truth humans have never been able to accept. People facing immediate danger want to hear an authoritative voice they can draw assurance from; they want to be told what will occur, how they should prepare, and that all will be well.” The reality is as it has always been, the future is what we are shaping today in the ordinary interactions of our lives in the local. There are no augers that will give us predictive abilities to manage our outcomes. There is no future church beyond the church we are becoming right now where we dwell. 

Unfortunately,  that is not how we tend to respond in disruptive times. Even as CV19 remains virulent, this promised light at the end of the tunnel is creating a new church industry that offers its readings of the entrails and predicts What’s Next?. Future questions are back. Church leaders are signing on for conferences in the hope these predictors will give them the capacity to manage what their churches need to become. Getting a handle on the trends holds out the promise of planning strategies for tomorrow. The promise reduces our anxieties, intimating that predicting what’s coming means we can design the right actions. We can get ahead of the curve, we can become”future-proof” and be “congregations of tomorrow”.

The need to know the future is as old as humanity. The Delphic Oracle was sought after to forecast and offer counsel on how to act and lead. This desire remains. The belief that there are persons and methods that can tell us about the future remains strong. Rather than dependence on oracles connecting us to the gods, modern future thinking is shaped by methods of analysis, data collecting, algorithms, etc. Seeing the future has taken on a “scientific” rather than “religious” bent. With the  right data or probability analysis we can create scenarios that let us plan for and manage the future. The future can be pried open so that we can manage the outcomes we want. The trouble is, we were never given this kind of Faustian control. As Paul said, we see through a glass darkly. When we are drawn by these sirens of the future, we fail to see it is only in the present that the future emerges.

These beliefs that we can predict and plan for what’s next are profoundly problematic. A well known example of such prediction was Paul Erlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Erlich used massive amounts of data analysis to predict that population trends were a time bomb driving us to a doomsday apocalypse. Despite the fact that Erlich’s futurism proved wrong he had a huge following and received numerous awards. People want to believe they can see the future. Futurism is at the core of the modern imagination because it promises we can predict what’s coming and, therefore, manage the present –  see the trends so you can plan for your future church. Naming what’s next? becomes the basis of how we lead. A lot of institutions work this way. Experts are paid to name the trends coming toward us, to present data that predicts futures. Because these notions of future and next are so firmly established in our cultural imagination, many church leaders believe they have to know the future in order to address the unraveling of their churches in the present. The lure of a “future church” conference is strong. We don’t need much convincing to buy the invitation. Like our  reflexive need to click our iPhones, we’re conditioned to believe we can plan for what lies ahead and manage the unraveling. This is not the way God is present amongst us.

Another Way: Leadership, God’s Agency and Disruptions

To be shaped by this future narrative is to be misdirected as God’s people. There is another way. But it is all but lost amongst God’s people. In the book Joining God, Remaking the Church, Changing the World, I named a series of defaults crippling our ability to be God’s people right now. Several of them were: ecclesiocentrism, an enthralment with technical rationality, the need to manage outcomes, and a clergy-centric church. I proposed these were examples of a deeper crisis in the church and its leadership. These methods and models are all about human agency. It is not that God is absent from the life of the churches but God has become a secondary agent, an important backstop, to our planning. God is called upon to bless our analyses, strategies and future planning. Human agency drives our churches. It’s all about data, trends and our management of the future. We want God to bless our agency. 

There is another way. Mark Lau Branson and I have just published  Leadership, God’s Agency and Disruptions. It addresses the heart of this question of how we lead as God’s people in disruptions by proposing an alternative way of being church from this obsession with the future. We engage Biblical texts that point to how God is the primary agent in disruptions. Discerning God’s agency has nothing to do with seeing the future or planning scenarios. We point out how the categories of modernity have almost erased our sense of a theological understanding of how we lead God’s people in disruptions. In this a-theological context we default to trends, we hunger for those who can tell us what’s next. In so doing, we have lost our capacities to discern what God is doing among our people and in our neighbourhoods. In our massive disruptions, it’s understandable for leaders to be anxious and seek solutions. But we will not lead our people into God-shaped mission by hungering after some future church. We will offer a hopeful alternative to our society when we discover how we become a people discerning together what God is already doing among us in the present. Our unraveling present is the womb wherein the Spirit is gestating the future. We don’t need gurus pointing to some future. We need to release one another into the ordinariness of our neighbourhoods. Leaders form people who ask: What is the Spirit gestating amongst us and in our neighbourhoods so that we can join with God. This is the leadership so desperately needed right now. Leadership, God’s Agency and Disruptions is about the why and how of this leadership. We invite you to quietly lay down anxieties about knowing and planning for a future. There is much in Scripture that tells us this isn’t the domain of God’s people nor the work of leaders. In the book we carefully develop the ways Scripture invites us to lead in this space between where we can’t see what’s ahead but we find the generative spaces for discerning together what the Spirit is forming. It is by discovering how to discern the Spirit in our communities that we live into God’s future.

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