Editor’s note: This column is another of several EthicsDaily.com will carry from an initiative from Great Britain called “Beyond400.net – Baptists Imagining Life After 400 Years.”
Although no one other than God knows what the future holds in any comprehensive way, this does not release us from our responsibility to understand the forces that are shaping our future, or a commitment to plan toward it in a more informed and creative way.

On this side of eternity, Christians live in a perpetual state of the “now and the not yet.” 

We, more than others, are called to live in a state of preparedness/readiness for both the kingdom to come and the life we live. 

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins also outlines the importance of preparedness and the consequences of the failure to act.

Church leadership in the 21st century involves making numerous decisions about the future of ministry, frequently against a backdrop of rapid change and poorly understood but increasingly challenging circumstances.

For example, at the beginning of the 21st century, a number of churches are either in decline or (by contrast) are experiencing significant numerical growth. 

Churches are facing major decisions as to whether to sustain or expand their present facilities, continue to minister in the same way, relocate to another community, disband or even sell their property and facilities. 

Austerity measures and declining budgets further compound these issues.

Critical decisions are also required concerning the future of mission, both in its narrowest and broadest sense.

These range from appropriate approaches to evangelism in contexts of multiple ideologies to the kind of activities we should be planning for and engaging with in order to promote the well-being of our communities and society.

Increasingly, church leaders are also expected to grasp knowledge well beyond their field of expertise (e.g., legal, social, political, demographic and technological) resulting in spiraling levels of stress, overwork, fear, discouragement, low morale, sometimes even entrenchment and lack of creativity.

Without a fresh approach to reflective practice and strategic decision-making, leaders are sentenced to unsustainable activity and increasing levels of dissatisfaction, not to mention fatigue and ostrich-like vision.

Entering into a process of discernment regarding future patterns of church, ministry and mission requires multiple levels of awareness and a reflective approach capable of embracing a world of increasing diversity and proximity. 

Increasingly, the social, racial, cultural, generational, ethical or even theological issues we used to sidestep through “group-think” will find their way to individuals in a confusing plethora of multiple perspectives.

For a world already said to be changing at “warp speed” (i.e., literally too fast to “catch up”), the biblical image of new wine for new wineskins in Luke 5:36-39 expresses our desperate need for creative reflection (in another new era), born of strategic thinking and multiple level awareness (i.e., new wine), together with new structures offering greater flexibility and capacity (new wineskins).

However, Jesus himself cautions regarding the power of prevailing paradigms. Interestingly, he suggests that entrenchment is not necessarily related to new wineskins (i.e., structures/vehicles) but to new wine, “… And none of you, after drinking old wine, wants the new, for you say, ‘The old is better.'”

In short, we may already (and subliminally) consider well-worn paradigms and “our way of thinking about things” unassailable (superior) thus hindering our ability to seriously consider the possibility of attempting very different approaches.

I am advocating for prophetic church communities who seek to comprehend and apprehend a future already in the making, no longer sentenced to react to unseen and unanticipated forces. 

This will call for more than mere guesswork or a view of the prophetic reduced to simple prediction.

This calls for an informed and inspired attempt to read the signs of the times, together with an effort to make the large-scale internal and external forces driving the future of our churches, communities and society in different directions, sufficiently visible to enable better decision-making today.

This activity can only occur by consciously shifting our reflective processes significantly away from the immediate need to solve specific problems (as pressing as they may seem in the current climate), and to consciously invest more energy on the longer-term opportunities and possibilities that might affect the nature and validity of our future ministry. 

Single-focus options would need to give way to multiple-focus options, which could be deployed depending on the direction the future takes.

Finally, and most important, a truly prophetic church would always consciously trust such a discernment process to the light, wisdom, guidance and disturbance of the Holy Spirit who, after all is said and done, guides us into all truth and enables and equips us for what is yet to come.

Kate Coleman is chair-elect of The Evangelical Alliance Council and a former president of the Baptist Union (2006-07) with interests in leadership, mission and diversity (especially race, culture and gender). This column first appeared on “Beyond400.net – Baptists Imagining Life After 400 Years.”

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