“The future of the church … ” This phrase often stirs up anxiety. We associate it with declining numbers, financial issues, and a long list of unknowns. These all have some truth, and we shouldn’t ignore them, but like Pastor Pam talked about last week, we should also look for opportunity, for God’s abundance. Today, I want to frame “the future of the church” with hope, drawn from our First Corinthians reading.
This passage is well-known. It describes the necessity of all people’s roles in the body of Christ, links us all together, and reminds us of the many kinds of spiritual gifts we’re given. It sounds like a loving community where everyone matters and is able to use their God-given gifts for the sake of all.
It’s easy to turn this into an idyllic dream without recognizing that actually living this way takes hard work. We also might miss that this vision of the body of Christ isn’t just a nice suggestion -- no, Paul is telling us that “unity in diversity is a reality without which the church cannot live.”(1) In other words, we need all of us, all of our unique selves, to live fully as the body of Christ.
Listen to this Word of God again. “14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If a Woman would say, “Because I am not a Man, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make her any less a part of the body. 16 And if the Child would say, “Because I am not an Adult, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make him any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were White, where would the Africans be? If the whole body were Big-Picture Thinkers, who would manage the Details? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The Lutheran cannot say to the Methodist, “I have no need of you,” nor again the U.S. Citizen to the Immigrant, “I have no need of you.” … the members are to have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with her; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with him.”
Ok, so I changed the passage a little. I think it helps us to name real characters and attributes in this text. The point is that we need everyone’s voices and uniqueness to be lifted up for the sake of the gospel and for the strength of the church. If we can do this, then we have great hope for the church’s future.
The problem is that this unity in diversity is rarely lived out. We confuse unity with uniformity. We want to stay comfortable with people who think and look and act like us. We’re willing to let different people in our community, but ultimately want them to assimilate to how we are.
We’re missing out on a lot by not living fully into this call as the body of Christ. We’re missing out on a lot of rich stories, relationships, and ways of being Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
When we don’t live out this unity in diversity, it hurts all of us.
For example, I have a few friends who grew up in congregations that didn’t allow children or youth to participate in worship roles, like lectoring, ushering, greeting, music, and so on. In this way, they learned that they were less-than full participates in the faith community. They learned that their age was a problem, and that it was best to just watch the adults handle everything. It also hurt the adults because they were missing out on passing on teaching and on deepening connections with the youth.
I think that’s pretty awful. Think about how here at Faith-Lilac Way students lector, greet, play music, usher, help with communion … right alongside adult members. This is a real gift. It shows kids and youth that they’re just as much a part of this church as anyone else. And relationships are strengthened as adults and students serve in worship together. Everyone benefits from this inclusive approach.
We also miss out when we deny people’s gifts and contexts, when we reject something based on stereotypes instead of giving it a chance. For example, dance and rap music don’t easily find a home in some parts of Christianity. While dance is less of a problem, some still consider it inappropriate for church. Rap faces a stronger refusal, carrying baggage of trashy lyrics and images.
Dance or rap isn’t the issue. The issue is how people use them.
For a couple years, I attended Redeemer Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis. If you’re not familiar with this congregation, it’s located in the Harrison neighborhood and has worked very hard to become a church of and in support of its community, listening and tending to the gifts, struggles, and stories of its people. Most of the kids who attend their Wednesday after-school program and who are picked up for Sunday school and church like to dance and many of them also like to sing and to rap. Instead of rejecting these things, Redeemer has lifted up these gifts.
Sometimes the kids write raps in the after-school program and perform them in church. There are also junior high and high school boys who get together to write and to perform, and I can tell you that the lyrics and the messages they share in church are full of God and truth. While this expression might not be authentic everywhere, it is very authentic for these students, and instead of rejecting rap and dance based on stereotypes, Redeemer has allowed these gifts to flourish and to glorify God. Everyone benefits from encountering God in worship through their words and their praise.
Finally, we also miss out when we don’t do the hard work of getting to know one another and building each other up. The history of racism and hatred of other cultures and ethnicities in our world is long and painful, and it continues today, especially as people talk about immigrants and refugees. Even if we are welcoming and understanding, sometimes we stop at that and don't build deeper, lasting relationships because it just seems too hard. People just seem too different.
The strongest example of working together in unity across these lines of race and culture that I know personally is the Protestant hospital that my husband’s parents work at in Cameroon, West Africa. This Protestant hospital - and a few others in Cameroon - exist because of the partnership of the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cameroon, and the Malagasy Lutheran Church. Over the last two decades, my in-laws have served at a few of these hospitals as medical missionaries. The Malagasy Lutheran Church provided my in-laws as medical missionaries to help meet the needs the Lutheran Church in Cameroon saw for their hospitals. Cameroon also raises up leaders for the hospitals as well as workers. The ELCA is called upon, primarily through Global Health Ministries in Fridley, to help provide the necessary medical equipment. There are also ELCA congregations in South Dakota who have helped my in-laws with medical training during their visits to the United States. Here you have three different countries, three different peoples, three different churches working together in a common mission to be the body of Christ. No one is rejecting to work with another because their race is different, their theology is different, or their culture is different. They work together and take advantage of the gifts each has to offer in the unified service of the hospitals. Of course there are struggles and challenges, but those are worked through, with God.
I’ve given three examples of trying to live as the body of Christ in the way Paul describes in First Corinthians. But what does all of this have to do with the future of the church? Well, contrary to how we usually think of it, as something a few decades away, the future of the church starts now. The examples I named are only a few of many sources of hope and of unity in diversity. The future of the church is forming as we speak, and we have to lift up these examples of working together, of allowing differences in gifts and backgrounds to flourish. The future of the church is together, is this body of Christ that Paul describes.
Times may be changing, and the center of Christianity has shifted from the West to the Global South, leaving places like the United States wondering what’s next for our congregations, but God has not stopped moving and acting and lighting our way.
We just have to be willing to let go of our fears and anxieties and let new things take place and shape the Church as we work with all kinds of people. The more we can work together and hold each other up, the more hopeful we can be. Our congregations won’t always look and feel and exist the way they do today, but in these times of wondering about our future, we’ve got to heed this message from Paul -- the only way forward is together, with all of our unique voices, histories, and gifts fully honored as Christ’s body. Amen.
(1) Brian Peterson, Commentary on 1 Cor 12:12-31a, Working Preacher http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2733.