A friend of mine recently recommended a book to me called “Community: The Structure of Belonging” and shared this quote as a summary of what the book was about:
“The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time. And we start with the room we are in.”
She shared this with me the same week we rearranged our “room” (the sanctuary) for the season of Lent and before our first gathering in that room. It struck me as I thought about the path that we recently embraced at our annual meeting where we committed to becoming the “leading edge of the Lutheran church” as it might be in the year 2046 (the date some have predicted as the end of the ELCA if current trends continue). What if what we are up to at Bethlehem is not just the rearranging of furniture? What if we are really creating the future of the Lutheran church—starting in our little room? Could God, through us, be bringing about something bigger than us?
There is a concept in theology called “prolepsis” that helps me think about how all this might work. It was developed largely by a theologian named Wolfhart Panneberg, whose writing I find nearly impossible to decipher, but was made clear by my teacher Ted Peters in his book “God: The World’s Future.” The basic argument goes something like this: most of us think of time in a “one way street” sort of way. God created the world (in the past) and it is a straight line from there—which eventually will end in one way or another. People argue about whether and how God might intervene in time, or what the end might look like, but the basic idea is that God created something that keeps on going. In this way of looking at the world, Jesus came to get us back on track when we’d gotten off of the generally right direction we had been on. In this sort of view of the world you build something (say, the church) and then try to keep it going as long as possible. If you build something right, and maintain it properly, it ought to keep on going forever.
Prolepsis looks at time a bit differently. In this way of looking at things, the first thing that God did was to create the future—the end or “fullness” of time. Rather than pushing us from the past, God is calling us from the future and pulling us towards his dream for us and the world. It’s not that the world is getting worse and worse until God finally pulls the plug (which is how many Christians see history) but rather, God is guiding us into the future he has in mind for us. In this way of looking at the world, Jesus is not a corrective in the flow of time to get us back on track, but really is a bit of the future fullness right in our midst (a foretaste of the feast to come). Jesus came to show us what God’s future looks like so that we could quit resisting it and allow ourselves to be drawn ever more closely to it. The church, in this way of understanding time, is meant to catch on to God’s future and begin to live it here and now—as we help each other live more fully into God’s reality.
I spend a great deal of time in prayer and thought about what the Lutheran church of 2046 might look like. I know that many of you plan to be frolicking with the angels by then, but I’ll turn 68 that year and I wonder about the church that will (or will not) be around for my children’s children. We live in a time where it looks like many Christian communities (including this one) could well die off once the 65+ age group is no more. Nearly 47% of Bethlehem’s membership falls into that category, and many of us are actually in the 75+ age bracket. And we are not alone. Churches—Lutheran and otherwise—across Spokane and across the country are dealing with similar demographics and have not found ways to really connect to the folks who are under 40. Ten years ago we were wondering how to connect to folks under 30, twenty years ago under 20. That means in ten years we’ll be wondering how to reach people under 50, and in twenty years under 60. If we keep on doing what we’ve been doing, it looks as though there won’t be a church for my grandchildren. In a linear way of looking at the world we’ve failed to keep the church going—do we want to be remembered as the generation that let the Christian faith die with us?
But I find great hope in a proleptic way of looking at the future. Perhaps the reason things haven’t been working out so well for us is that God is calling us to a whole new future as the church. Perhaps God has a dream for this congregation, for Lutherans, for the Christian faith that we haven’t even imagined. What if God was calling us to live out that future now—by allowing ourselves to be caught up in God’s dream for us and the world? And what if we could get a sense of what that future might look like and begin to live it out now? What would that mean for the way we worship? For the way we teach our children? For the way we live out the Gospel in the world? What sort of room might we be called to build in God’s future? What sort of gathering? What part do you play in God’s future-centered dream for our church? For the world? Could God, through us, be creating the future? What are you waiting for? Let’s live it out together now.