What’s Next?

What’s Next?

These Three Remain…Faith, Hope, and Love

Thinking theologically about the way forward

By Bruce A. Barkhauer

Rev. Bruce Barkhauer

A global pandemic. Civil unrest. A society divided. A church struggling to find its place. These seismic shifts make us feel like we are on shaky ground. Our familiar church lives have been disrupted. Many of us don’t know when we will be able to participate in face-to-face worship again. Camps and conferences have been canceled. Sunday school and youth groups are meeting online, if at all. The routine elements of pastoral ministry such as meeting with parishioners in homes, hospitals, and the church office are different or nonexistent. Face-to-face board and committee meetings are not happening or are cautionary tales. How do we prepare a way forward when we don’t know exactly what to prepare for?

While right now the amount seems more than we can manage, it is important to remember that change has always been with us. The North American twenty-first century church is not the church of the first century—nor the fifteenth, the eighteenth, nor even the twentieth. We are the “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor 4:1) for this time and this place. But regardless of the circumstances and changes we encounter, there are some biblical and theological certainties in which we can trust and that can calm our anxieties.

  • God will go with us into the unknown. From God’s promise to Abram to “go to a land I will show you” to Jesus’ words that “I will be with you to the end of the age”, we know that whatever the landscape of the church looks like in the near or distant future, God will be there. This is a good time to remember that the words fear not appear over 150 times in the Bible. Even in the wilderness God provided, and can be trusted to do so again and again.
  • The body of Christ will not die. The Judeo-Christian tradition is based in communion with God and each other, beginning with Genesis where God declares that it is “not good to be alone”, to Revelation where it is prophesied that the nations will walk together in the New Jerusalem.
  • The true mission of the church will remain relevant. When Abram receives the invitation to be blessed by God it is not only for him individually, but for the legacy of his progeny—by whom all the nations will blessed. Jesus echoes this love in John 3:16 that God so love the world and in Matthew 28:19 that the gospel message was for all corners of the globe. Our hurting world needs the church to practice the healing balm of grace, love and mercy. We are not finished until all are whole and no one is missing.

Even though they may look different in the future, our faith practices are based on these certainties:

Worship – the Celebration that God is Faithful

The worship and praise of God is our delight as a part of the Divine creation. An important expression of that worship takes place as a gathered body. Right now, churches need to consider what the challenge in Hebrews 10:25 “…that we should not give up the practice of meeting together” means in a twenty-first-century context. Many congregations have engaged in new technologies—some grudgingly, but some with open hearts, minds, and imaginations as to how the church can witness to God’s faithfulness in new contexts and with new audiences.

There are particular challenges for communities of faith where worship is centered on the Eucharist.  What are the ways we can give expression to the living of presence of Jesus in the church today?  What other symbols can express the unity of Christ? Are there other practices that can allow us to experience connection while we remain physically distant? These remain important practices and this unique circumstance gives us room for novel experimentation which can breath new life and meaning into rituals to which we may have grown dull prior to the disruption of our regular routines.

Moving forward, regular engagement in church worship may actually increase with wider availability of access and increased familiarity and creativity with technology. A continued telling of compelling stories of the faithfulness of God will remain essential in or out of a global pandemic.

StudyWhy are we Hopeful?

What does it mean to believe?  What does it mean to be a part of a faith community? What shape does my life take when I am called to take on the likeness of Christ within my own character and being?  How do I account for the hope that is in me?  Why should I be hopeful in difficult moments?  Is God trustworthy? What does God expect of me?

However the church is changing and whatever it will look like in the future, another thing that remains true is that we will have to offer and engage in meaningful study of Scripture to understand what we believe, why we believe it, and how to practice that belief.  It is the method through which we set expectations, create community norms, and establish an identity. The way of Jesus is a journey that requires learning and encounters with the stories that tell Jesus’ story.  The need to teach the faith will always remain with us so that we not only can have hope, but so that we can bear witness to the hope that is in us.

Study challenges and shapes us.  While best done communally, it can be done individually and opportunities for asymmetrical leaning should not be overlooked. Stewardship education is a natural part of our faith formation.

Service to others – Loving what God Loves

Another thing we can count on is that in whatever the new normal, sharing the love of God in tangible ways will continue.  The very qualifications for seeing the Realm of God that Jesus gives in Matthew 25 indicate that food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, care for the sick, and a witness for justice and compassion continue to be the cornerstones for mission.  People will need to be equipped and “sent” with the supplies that give tangible expression to God’s concern for people in need. Whatever form this takes will still need to be funded and resourced.

As an act of discipleship and response to a loving and grace-filled God, followers of Jesus will still need to faithfully steward their time, talents, and resources to sustain the common good.  Ongoing awareness of how to do this, establishing opportunities to commit to this process, and celebrating and dedicating these commitments will still be a part of our future.

PrayerThe Desire for Faith, Hope, and Love

Prayer is at its deepest level intimacy with God and with others.  It is individual and communal. It is speaking and listening.  It is a desire to seek to know the heart and desires of God and to be set free to do these same things. To learn how to pray is fundamental to spiritual formation.  To pray regularly is a part of spiritual discipline.  Prayers can be our own extemporaneous words or those of another disciple of Christ from across the centuries. Both have power and efficacy.

Prayer may not change the circumstances, but it can change the one who prays.  We cannot pray for the well-being for others without soon realizing that we must act on their behalf as well. To be for the other in advocacy is to share with the other in rejoicing and in suffering.  When you pray for your enemies, their number may grow surprisingly small.  Prayer petitions God for the Realm to come and that we will be fit for its arrival. When we have deep need, sometimes prayer is the only refuge.  The church, in whatever form its future takes, will pray. It will pray to discern, and it will pray to act.  In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus left a road map we might follow.   Prayer gives voice to our desire to know faith, love, and hope are real and available in this moment and the moments to come.

We do well to remember that the gospel of  Luke and the Book of Acts teach us that before any significant thing happened, be it in the ministry of Jesus or the witness of the church, prayer preceeded it.  Both to discern what is next and how we should act, we will still need to pray.

Stewardship – the Expression of Faith, Hope, and Love

If worship, study, service, and prayer are elements that comprise faith formation and give shape to the life of discipleship, then surely stewardship is the full expression of living into our calling.  When God gave dominion of the “fish of the sea, over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gn 1:28)  to humankind, we were called implicitly to be stewards.  To rule in the world as God rules in the cosmos, for the benefit of all things, requires living as a steward.

The Sabbath reminds us that God provides enough so that we can work six days and have enough for seven. It (Sabbath) represents, like manna, God’s providential care.  The work of the steward is to be certain that resources go where they are needed.  There is no reason for anyone to lack food, shelter, clean water, or wellness.  When scarcity exists, it is a testimony that we are not fully living into our calling.

The church of the unknown future will still need stewards.  It will need to voice a concern that we have a responsibility to care for that which God said is “Very good!”  The church of the unknown future needs those who will steward the mysteries of God—the essence of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God loves the world and the church of the future must both remember and tell that story.

We travel toward a destination we cannot see and to places we are yet to know, but of this we are certain: There will be a church, because Jesus said so, and that church will have work to do and will need resources to get it done. Inviting people into this relationship with God, to fellowship with community, and to care for the world is the purest expression of the abiding nature of love.  And when that moment comes that our desire is fulfilled and our work is done—the Realm will have arrived.

This is what the future holds; and God will hold us in it until the end.

The author, Bruce Barkhauer serves as the Minister for Faith and Giving for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.  This article appears as an introduction to a stewardship resource entitled “Faithful, Hopeful, Loving: Essentials”; produced jointly with the Center for Faith and Giving and the Ecumenical Stewardship Center.  For more information or to order these materials visit www.stewardshipresources.org