Posted in church, future

The future of the church

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

You have no doubt heard someone at church say, “We must have a strong children’s and youth ministry.” Why? “They are the future of the church!” Many hours are spent discussing how to attract younger families with children. A United Methodist congregation in Grove Cottage, Minnesota decided to shut down one of its campuses and relaunch that church to reach a younger demographic. Part of that process included asking the current members, most of whom were older, to attend another church for twelve to eighteen months. The approach and the reaction made national news.

The many different sides of that story does prompt the question, “Who is the future of the church?” I think it depends on the context. While children and youth may be the future of the Church, they are probably not the future of our church. You see, they grow up, go to college and move to where they find employment. We pray that they will be a part of the Church at large, but they will not grow up to be a part of our congregation.

Many of the people moving to Florida and our community are older. They are retired. They are tired of northern winters. And they are the future of our church. They are the new members, leaders, voices and teachers in our congregation. Yes, there are young families who move to our area, too. It’s an affordable place to live. But they are not necessarily the majority of the folks who come to visit and join our churches. That’s just the way it is here.

That is not necessarily a negative thing. In the pages of scripture, we find God staking the future of the church on a variety of people of different ages. Abraham was 75 when he got the call to move. Samuel grew up in the church. Moses was 80 when he was told to go to Pharaoh. David was a young shepherd when anointed the king of Israel. Josiah ascended to the throne when he was eight years old. Jeremiah had a job before he was born! Noah was 500 years old when he built the ark.

I love the babies, children and youth of the church. Yes, I am in my element when holding the infants, playing with the toddlers, teaching the middle schoolers, serving alongside the high school youth and praying the graduates off to college or the military. But I am also grateful for those who come with a lifetime of managerial, financial, educational and musical experience that fund, lead and drive the ministry of the church.

It’s ironic that some churches with a strong youth emphasis shuffle their young off to nursery and children’s church. It’s also ironic that those who want young families in church get irritated when the little ones get squirmy, noisy and leave Cheerio crumbs in the pew. Don’t you know how Jesus responded when the disciples tried to keep the kids away?

The future of the church will always be the gathering of people who need to hear the gospel, receive God’s forgiveness and be equipped to take that blessing back to their world. There are no age, height, income or experience restrictions on that experience.

Actually, the future of the church is “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-11).

Posted in future, Ministry

What is your vision? Idk.

One of the hardest questions for me to answer is, “What’s your vision for the church?” Variations on this theme: “Where do you see the church in five years?” “What are your goals for this ministry?” “What direction do you envision for the congregation?”

When I am confronted with the question, I usually hesitate. I have to admit, I have no broad vision for the church. I have no idea where the church headed. I have no idea what we’ll be in five years.

I think I have a hard time answering this question because I easily fall into the trap of responding in a quantitative way. For example, I envision a 25% increase in worship. Or doubling the number of our small groups. Or increasing the size of our Sunday School. Or increasing our mission giving by so much.

To tell you the truth, my vision is much more modest than that. I simply want the gospel to be clearly proclaimed in our worship. I want our parents to raise their children in the faith. I want the Sunday morning worshipers to live out their faith over the next week. I want those who gather for worship to forgive, serve and show mercy to others in school, at work, and in their neighborhood.

Those goals don’t sound like much. Those goals don’t affect our bottom line. They aren’t mentioned in the “fastest growing churches” magazine articles. They aren’t presented in “best practices” conferences. They aren’t impressive at all.

Before I decide what to bet, I need to look at the cards I’ve been dealt. In other words, I need to wait and see who God has added to our congregation before I know what direction we’ll take next.

Many of our newer members are not parents with children. They are grandparents with grandchildren who live far away. Many of our newer members are just retiring from their careers. They will serve the church much differently than they did when they were working and raising a family. Some of our newest member bring with them a wealth of wisdom, experience and wealth to our church. But they have worked hard and love the chance to be “retired.”

What if the future of the church isn’t the young, but those who are older? While we certainly want to bring children up in the fear and knowledge of the Lord, there are time when He builds His church with a much different demographic. Age is an asset, not a liability, in the church.

My vision for the church? Give me a moment or a week or a year. I need for fiddle with the focus and see what God is up to.

Then I’ll let you know.

Posted in AI, future, virtual reality

Who can you talk to in a virtual world?

jeremy-cai-1170-unsplash
Photo by Jeremy Cai on Unsplash

Before long, AI will be making phone calls for us. Google demonstrated  this reality a few weeks ago when Google Assistant called and made an appointment with a human stylist. The typical stilted electronic sounding voice of automation has been refined to sound just like a real person, complete with pauses, “ums” and “ahs.”

This opens up so many possibilities and challenges. Previously, we would ask, “With whom am I speaking,” to get a name to refer to later. Now we ask, “Where are you calling from?” knowing that we may be talking to someone in a call center on the other side of the earth. In the future we’ll wonder, “Is this a real person or a computer?”

I can think of a few future scenarios in my own line of work. In the not too far off future, the guest sign in book at church will be an iPad. I won’t have to try and decipher the handwriting anymore since you’ll type in or speak your name and email. Later that afternoon or evening, you’ll get a phone call that sounds like me, but will actually be my digital assistant who has found your phone number and contacted you. On Monday morning when I check my calendar, I’ll have an appointment with that’s week’s visitors, all arranged by AI. I’ll be able to glance over information about you and your family gleaned from your social media accounts, fuel for our conversation. (And yes, my self-driving car will take me to your home so I can download my computer-generated sermon on the way.)

I know, that scenario is out there, but it made me wonder about our pursuit of avoiding human contact. Just think of all the ways we no longer have to talk to a person.

  • I get my cash from an ATM, no longer interacting with a teller inside the bank.
  • I order food or coffee with an app or at a kiosk in the restaurant, and then grab it off a shelf.
  • I do the majority of my shopping online. I rarely see anyone drop packages off at my door. They just magically appear!
  • I ask my phone for directions instead of a person. It routes me around accidents and traffics snarls, too.
  • I wonder what percentage of my human interactions take place via text or email? Honestly, I’d guess more than half.

My experiences only scratch this reality that isolates us more and more each day.

  • Virtual schools now replace some brick and mortar classrooms and flesh and blood teachers.
  • Your resume or application has been vetted by AI long before someone in human resources or a loan officer ever lays eyes on it.
  • How many people diagnose their own ailments and treat their own diseases by consulting online resources rather than going to the doctor?
  • You no longer have to go to the store for groceries, dealing with all those annoying people who clog up the aisles and make you wait in line. Your digital order will arrive later this afternoon.

I love the possibilities of AI, am fascinated by the technology, and love to discover what I can do. But how many have adopted these technologies to avoid human contact? Do those who don’t like or fear their classmates, teachers, and coworkers find refuge in a virtual world? No doubt. What about those seeking to avoid illness, judgment, conflict, prejudice or hatred? Probably. Or if you just want your own way, without having to persuade, convince or compromise, it can be quite satisfying, I guess.

Well, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to infiltrate just about every area of our lives. And even though I tend to be a private person who enjoys alone time, I can’t stay there. Not for too long, anyway.

I get so much more accomplished when I actually talk to a person. A few minutes of conversation can be so much more productive than an endless volley of texts or emails over several hours or days.

Talking to someone in person is the best. Whether it’s a difficult visit or one I’ve looked forward to, face-to-face is always better than my anticipations. I think we’re wired that way.

Laughter, sorrow, anger, enthusiasm, inspiration, and calmness all seem to be contagious. Catching emotion from those around us makes me feel something. It makes me feel alive.

I enjoy teaching. Which means I like being with someone or a room full of students, asking questions, giving examples, sharing experiences, listening to ideas and conveying understanding. Classrooms are alive!

I love music, too. I can sit and play for hours. But it’s so much more fun to play in a band or sing with a group!

I know too many widows and widowers who now have to eat alone. It’s no fun. I know too many young people whose human interaction has been so limited they have a hard time with conversation. That’s frustrating. Too many have surrendered to abusive behavior because they had no one to tell, and no one to teach them differently. That’s tragic. Too many have turned to violence because they knew no other way to relate to the world around them. That is frightening.

Don’t worry, you won’t become obsolete in a digital world. There’s someone who needs you to talk to them. Someone real. Someone just like you.