“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.”
– Genesis 45: 7
With the decline of Christendom and ever-dwindling numbers of people in the pews, many of us lament what we perceive is the deterioration of our position of influence in the world. There is a lot of anxiety about the future of the Church; both on the congregational and denominational level. We gaze at aging buildings with looming mortgages, we crunch the numbers, we worry about what is next. How will the church survive? What will become of us?
I feel this strain too. It is very real for me. As I await call as a pastor, I am troubled by a nagging fear that I have chained myself to an institution that is essentially a botched experiment.
And in reality?
The institution of the church is imploding. And I could spend time in this piece outlining my thoughts on how exactly that happened, or conducting an (albeit slightly premature) post-mortem. But to be honest that has been done. And I’m bored.
Instead, I would rather focus my energy on the future of the church that is not really the future at all. It is the present. It is the past. Like so many mystical, holy things, it is now and soon and has been, all at once. All throughout history, even and especially in the bleakest of moments, God has lifted up for us witnesses to God’s timeless power breaking in through the here and now.
There is no future church. Because it is already here. It is now. The future church will continue to be found in the places where the most faithful remnant has always been – on the outside. We do not, as Official Church People ™, have to create it or strategize to make it happen. We do not have to figure it out and spell out the plan. If we want to see where the Right Now of the Church is in this moment, all we have to do is look to the places where the Spirit is already at work.
In the anarchist mutual-aid group.
In the self-defense collective of Black trans women reimagining safety.
In the multiplying love of the polycule.
In the children baptized in the fire hydrants of the streets in the heatwave.
In those dancing on the grave of How-Its-Always-Been, singing freedom songs.
These groups might not call themselves the church. So maybe we shouldn’t either. But places like these are the best expressions of God’s liberating love that we have. They are resilient, creative people. People who the world has tried to stamp out and yet God has delivered, as a remnant.
They are not a fantasy of the future. They are here and now, in flesh and blood, in grit and glitter, in pain and in power.
If we want to know what God is up to, if the Church wants to move into the future, that’s where we should cast our lot.
Image Description: A Photo of Elle Dowd smiling against a brick wall, with the ELM logo along with the words: Future Church
Elle Dowd (she/her/hers) is a bi-furious recent graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Elle has pieces of her heart in Sierra Leone, where her two children were born, and in St. Louis where she learned from the radical, queer, Black leadership during the Ferguson Uprising.
She was formerly a co-conspirator with the movement to #decolonizeLutheranism and currently serves as a board member of the Euro-Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice, does community organizing in her city as a board member of SOUL, serves on the Clergy Advocacy Board for Planned Parenthood, writes regularly as part of the vision team for the Disrupt Worship Project, and facilitates workshops in both secular conferences and Christian spaces. She is publishing a book with Broadleaf, Baptized in Teargas, about her conversion from a white moderate to an abolitionist which will be released on August 10 and is available for pre-order now.
Elle loves spending time with the people she loves and on weekends when there isn’t a global pandemic, she tours the city of Chicago in search of the best brunch.
To get in touch with Elle and to keep up with updates, you can visit her website www.elledowd.com and subscribe to her newsletter.
You can also see her online ministry via Facebook.com/elledowdministry
or follow her on Twitter/SnapChat/Insta @hownowbrowndowd
or on TikTok @elledowdministry
And pre-order her book Baptized in Teargas: From White Moderate to Abolitionist here https://bit.ly/2YICjBf
Dear Church, I’m the young adult you say you want. And I’ve got to admit this: Church, after waiting 18 months for a call because I’m queer, you came so damn close to losing me. I know that the Church as she is, is dying and that something new is being reborn.
So what do I think the Future Church looks like? Honestly, I think it looks like the mission congregation I’m serving today: The Dwelling, Winston-Salem. At The Dwelling we’re focused on two main things: the sacraments and living into God’s active story among our community.
The entire life of The Dwelling is centered in the sacraments. In addition to gathering together every week for a service of Holy Communion, we also eat together. A lot. We’re working on being able to host community meals every Sunday- and we’re halfway there. We gather together not only to receive grace through the meal of the eucharist, but to receive grace through communion with each other.
As a community, we celebrate baptisms, welcoming sisters, brothers, and siblings into the community of faith. And twice a week, The Dwelling’s mobile Shower Trailer rolls out. Our shower trailer is a way that we can share God’s gift of water, and the cleansing, healing properties of water, with our community of folks experiencing homelessness. There are no boundaries around who can shower- if someone wants one, they can get one.
The Dwelling also focuses on finding God active in our community today. No one is barred from entering God’s church at The Dwelling, and we have several folks in active addiction and various levels of recovery. Our leadership team is made up of folks currently experiencing homelessness and folks who have experienced homelessness, but are currently housed. There are no barriers to our leadership team. If someone wants to serve, then The Dwelling finds a place for them to serve.
This type of community- one that focuses not on the brokenness the world names, but on the Belovedness that God names, is the future of the Church. It is a place that acknowledges all are at least a bit broken, and no one has all the answers. It’s a place where folks, even marginalized folks, are leaders of ministry and not solely guests to ministry. It’s a place that listens to the movement of the Holy Spirit and finds ways to join in her dance.
So Church, what will the future look like? My bets are on this.
Rev. Tobi Fleck (they/them) currently serves as the associate pastor at The Dwelling, Winston-Salem, a faith community primarily for people who have or are currently experiencing homelessness. In their free time, they enjoy playing games with friends, reading young adult fiction, and spending time out in creation.
|Rev. Drew Stever, they/he|
I had top surgery four years ago.
It was three months after the US presidential election and four months after I came out as transgender.
I gathered the required letters from all my doctors. I was approved for a surgery that would drastically improve my well-being.
This was in a time when “gender-affirming surgeries” were still considered to be “cosmetic” by many major insurance companies. Thankfully, my insurance covered over half of the bill.
But I was still responsible for over $6,000.
I am not Beyonce, nor am I Lizzo. I could not afford even $1,000.
I was frantic. I did not want the hospital to come after me because I could not pay a bill for something that I needed.
A mentor of mine suggested I do something that sounded so simple, but in practice, felt so uncomfortable: ask for help.
“Tell your story,” they said. Be vulnerable.
I mulled it over for a while and quickly decided I didn’t have any other option. I danced the Carlton dance from Fresh Prince (badly.) I lip-synced to Whitney Houston (badly.) I got coffee with people I love, but hadn’t seen in a long time. I asked for help.
My people are not executives, nor are they international royalty.
Support came in amounts of 5, 10, and 100 dollars. They came from all over the world.
Slowly, we made our goal of over $6,000.
There was no capital campaign. There was no major celebrity spokesperson. There was no feature on the news.
Everything I needed was right in front of me – in my relationships.
Dear Church: Everything we need is right in front of us.
Who we know. Who we love. Who we spend our time with.
The scarcity mentality of the church is one that is rooted in the inability to be creative. It is rooted in empire, white supremacy, heteronormativity, capitalism and ableism.
We have come to believe that we are alone in our own liberation from that which separates us from God – be it depression, addiction, privilege, racism, internalized homo-/transphobia, anxiety. You name it. We believe we have to do this ourselves.
Author and activist adrienne marie brown writes, “E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G—is connected. The soil needs rain, organic matter, air, worms and life in order to do what it needs to do to give and receive life. Each element is an essential component…Nature teaches us that our work has to be nuanced and steadfast. And more than anything, that we need each other—at our highest natural glory—in order to get free,” (Emergent Strategy).
To think that we are alone is to think something that is entirely false. It is to think something that goes against all of God’s creation.
The future of the church is not one that is rooted in “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” but rather, a church, a people that takes off our boots and says, “Hey. I have a huge blister and it’s been there for a while. Could you take a look at it?”
It is risking the challenge of being vulnerable about our deepest needs as a community and as people.
What would happen if we just believed that we had everything we could possibly need right in front of us?
Image Description: A Photo of Drew’s eye and the ELM logo with the words: Future Church
Rev. Drew Stever(they/he) serves as Lead Pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Hollywood, California. Drew likes to take strolls – not too fast, and not too slow. He is a novice front yard bird watcher and is a big fan of Mary Oliver.