How can the Mennonite Church be future-proofed? I clicked on the link with bit curiosity and no small amount of trepidation. It was an interesting choice of words. “Future proofed?” Would that be possible? Desirable? It turned out to simply be a brief article—with the much less exciting title of “Introducing the Future Directions Task Force”—about a group that was going to be looking at the issue of how to work toward financial sustainability at the conference level. No five easy steps, alas…
I have no particular quarrel with something like a “Future Directions Task Force”—it’s probably a very good and necessary initiative. Our denomination is hardly alone in wondering how to address shrinking budgets, declining attendance numbers, fewer young people, decreased giving/commitment to conference structures, etc. I think that those seeking to understand a challenging and unpredictable post-Christian cultural context and identify a way forward for the church are to be commended. Theirs is no easy task.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about those two words… “future proofed”…
I spent this afternoon in a hospital room with a family member recovering from surgery and then with another family planning a funeral for a recently deceased loved one. In one case we are looking ahead to a full recovery and many more happy years. In the other, there are goodbyes to be said, memories to be shared, stories to be told. Both, in their own way, offered the stark and simple reminder that nothing can be future-proofed. Whether it is a human life or a denomination, nobody knows what lies ahead. We are all waiting for what will be to be.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we sit passively by and fatalistically await our future. We take care of our bodies as best we are able and we do what we can to contribute to the health of the church we are a part of. But we don’t future-proof. God only knows what our individual futures might hold—whether it will involve suffering and trial or joy and comfort or, more likely, some combination thereof. We might have specific plans and ideas and hopes and dreams for the days ahead for ourselves, our children, our families… But no amount of scheming and planning and preparing or even praying will guarantee this or that outcome. Our lives are precarious at best. So much does not turn out as we expected it to. So often we look back and think, “huh, I never would have imagined I would end up here…”
The same is true of the church. God only knows what our future might look like—as a Mennonite Church, specifically, or the broader Christian church in general. Are there dire warnings and endless prognostications of doom and gloom? Sure. Are the demographics troubling? Sometimes, yes. Is the way forward uncertain and a bit scary? Probably. Many of us look ahead and see a church that will look very different that the one that nurtured our faith and helped shape our identities. We may lament this or celebrate it but, again, there is no amount of analysis and strategizing that is going to “future proof” the church. A quick glance at church history will quite quickly yield the conclusion that God’s kingdom and God’s people move forward (and sometimes backwards) in very unpredictable, unexpected, even undesirable ways. And who knows? Perhaps God’s vision for the future of his church might look very different from the one we are seeking to preserve.
Whatever the future might hold, and however many and varied are our ways of preparing for it, the fundamental task of the church does not change. We are to love God, love our neighbour, and always point to Jesus. If God is who we say God is, we should do this joyfully and enthusiastically, regardless of how grim our cultural context might be perceived to be. A God who can bring life out of death can presumably be entrusted to preserve and sustain his church, in all times and in all places.