Plenty of trends look tough for the future of the church.
We read about the rise of the “nones” who have no affiliation with a faith tradition, much less a church. We see the decline in attendance across mainline and evangelical churches.
We wonder, “Will giving hold up enough for congregations to continue ministries, staffing and caring for aging facilities?”
It’s enough to depress anyone.
There’s also a lot of thought and research going into the shape of the future of the church.
Will people return to worship services after a year of streaming, pajama-wearing attendance? How will churches approach ministry in a post-pandemic world?
So much of the church of our generation has left a bad taste in people’s mouths.
From judgmental attitudes toward our LGBTQ brethren, to condescending pronouncements about particular theological beliefs, to enthusiastic participation in partisan politics – many have rightly written off the church as irrelevant at best, and hypocritical and destructive at worst.
But, dadgummit, the future of the church is going to be just fine, and I’m convinced it’s going to be full of laughter.
How can I retain such optimism in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
We are people of the Spirit – and the Spirit is notoriously unpredictable and mischievous. Right now, the Spirit is up to something. I guarantee it.
And we are followers of Christ. The same Christ who turned water into wine, who traveled with a bunch of skeptics and dense-headed disciples, who used witty parables to teach Pharisees deeper truths and who insisted on spending time with prostitutes, adulterers and greedy tax collectors.
For some reason, people Jesus touched tended to look in the mirror and decide to do better in spite of their flaws and scars. And God surely smiled and chuckled.
Then things got serious. Jesus is chided, beaten, whipped, convicted and nailed to a cross, and he is killed.
It is horrible, unfair and wrong. Everyone who is oppressed, used, abused and treated like dirt understands.
Then, God’s love brings Jesus back to life. God’s love laughs at the worst the world can bring, which can be horrific. God’s love laughs. Jesus lives.
It makes no sense, and yet here we are. And that’s the story of the church.
The church is often a hot mess. We have done harm. We have been silent and turned away when we should have acted.
Of course, the future of the church isn’t something I can see. I don’t know how ministries will work, worship will happen or bills will get paid.
But I am convinced our laughter will lead us forward.
Laughter at being together over a meal. Chuckling at bad jokes.
Giggling at the faces our children make while playing. Finding joy in springtime flowers, in the beauty of a lake, in the friendship of neighbors.
We know joy and will find a way to share it. Even the stones will cry out!
Fear not my friends, the church will survive.
It will look different and include all kinds of people different from you and me.
But it will be full of laughter. Laughter that the world desperately needs.
God is not as weary as we are. God is shaping a better future and beckoning us to join the work.
Be glad and have hope. Joy will win the day.
President of Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Georgetown and Louisville, Kentucky, and the founder and president of Faithlab. He can be heard on the weekly Faithelement podcast.