The National Catholic Review
What should distinguish the future church?
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In his second encyclical letter, Pope Benedict XVI affirms the centrality of hope as a Christian virtue, one that carries those imbued with it to the doorway of salvation. The Christian’s ultimate hope is in Christ the savior. Here and now we carry hope also for the church, Christ’s body, in days to come. What might the church look like, feel like, live like in a future worth hoping for? I propose seven hopes for the future church.

A Church of In-spirited Structures

Church structures are in-spirited, vessels of the divine Spirit, able to inspire believers and potential believers with the living presence of Jesus Christ. In the church of the future, ecclesial structures will be living, open channels of effective, transforming communication. The sacramental principle that is the foundation for such a claim is one of Catholicism’s richest contributions to the Christian tradition: the assumption that created things can carry within and communicate without the transforming presence of God. It is the principle embodied in the seven sacraments, in the church itself as the presence of Christ in the world and in Jesus Christ recognized as the visible presence of God’s unending love of the universe. One of its implications is that the institutional realities that render the church visible and effective in the world are capable of being vehicles of grace, lifting up and celebrating the light of the Spirit within the community.

A Church of Porous Borders

The church of the future should be a church of porous borders. Its frontier will be less a wall and more an area of give and take. We can learn from the borders within living organisms, in our own bodies. Individual cells have their perimeters, their margins, a point at which they are in contact with the next cell. But the very life of the individual cell, and ultimately of the organ and organism of which it forms a part, depends on the fact that the borders of living cells are porous. They live because their margins are permeable. They allow organized exchange. Nutrients enter. Waste products exit. Electronic impulses are passed from one nerve cell to the next, and the next. Their borders are designed for communication, and the communication itself—built into their very structure—is vital to life and growth and strength.

The church of the future will be recognized by its distinctive frontier; but that frontier will be a porous border, because it will be a line of living communication with other Christian churches, with other faiths and with nonbelievers. The church does not need a wall as a border to prevent aliens from entry. If the church of Christ understands itself as grounded in the Scriptures and the ministry of Jesus, there are no aliens. There is no one to fear.

A Church of Servants

In Ephesians, Paul teaches that there are in the church apostles, teachers, prophets and more, each undertaking his or her proper role. But whatever the individual Christian’s distinctive role, all Christians have in common the call to serve. We are called by God to serve one another in the church, and the church as a body is called to serve the world. Every call in the church, even the call to hierarchical leadership, is a call to service. This is the defining mark of the community that bears Christ’s name. It is a community of loving servants, each one seeking not the good of self, but first the good of the other.

A church of servant-leadership embodies two critical truths. The servant stands in contrast to a world in which authority is seen primarily as power over a subordinate. And the servant exemplifies how to live well and effectively, able to accomplish in the present something that will last in the future, by living as a servant of all, beginning with the most powerless. This way of service must characterize the church of the future, a church in which to hope. This is the fundamental identity of the whole body of Christ and all of its members.

A Transparent Church

The church of the future ultimately seeks invisibility in the sense that it will always strive toward transparency. We look toward the church, yes, but only so that we may see the face of Christ. We hear what the church says, yes, because we hear in its voice only the voice of Jesus. Whatever is a barrier to that transparency—property, modes of dress, ways of acting that may bear the imprimatur of centuries of usage or new ways that may be suggested to respond to new needs—each will be examined in the light of a single question: Does this help to make clear and accessible to the world the message and the life of Jesus? There may never be unanimity in the church over the response to that question on a particular issue, but the very fact that the question is posed in all honesty will assure the church that it does not seek its own glory but seeks to fulfill the mission of Jesus.

A Person-Centered Church

The future church will be distinguished by its consistent gentleness toward each person. The value of each person is founded in the individual’s identity as a creature of God, brought into being as a unique person by the will of God, destined for salvation in the house of God. The community of the church values each and every person, particularly those who are least able to assert their own worth. Thus the poor, the lonely, the helpless, the distressed, the homeless, the broken-in-spirit, the children, the unborn, the domestically abused women, the victims of violence and of war (of whatever people or faith)—all of these are the concern of the church community as a whole and of each individual believer. The resources of church life—spiritual and material—are placed at the service of these brothers and sisters. How else could they ever know that they are our brothers and sisters?

The church must be the place where gentle regard for each person is the universal and unbreakable rule. This will be possible only in the measure that the church is true to its own understanding of the inner life of God. Each person of the Trinity is uniquely held, and their unity provides the very ground of all that is. The God we worship is a community of mutually indwelling love. The inner life of God, though only glimpsed through faith, is the everlasting model of what the church is called to be: a community of persons of equal dignity, of equal worth, all with their own proper work complementary to that of the others, united in the perfection of love.

A Church That Looks Outward

We must understand “church” as a verb. It denotes an action, an ongoing activity. The church, rather than having a mission, is a mission. Defined by the action of Jesus Christ in the world, the church’s orientation is not toward itself, toward its own constitution or the protection of its own assets. The church’s movement is ad extra—that is, directed outward toward all those others, who, unlike the members of the church, have not heard a saving word, who stand in terrible need or terrifying fear, whose experience of the church in the past may have left scars.

The church of Christ is oriented in three fundamental directions, and each one commands the community’s attention. First, the church is oriented toward the world. The Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” insists from its opening words that the church must be concerned about the cares of the world and labor to bring healing to its deep and pervasive wounds. The council asserts as foundational that we, as the church, have been entrusted with the assurance of divine love and that this gift is not only for ourselves, but for us to share generously with all on the planet. This is as fundamentally true as is the statement that Jesus did not rise from the dead to new and lasting life for his own sake. He rose so that we all could share in that rising and in that new life.

Second, the church is oriented toward the kingdom. The church does not live to build up a kingdom of its own, no more than we as individual believers live for our own sake. The church lives as an instrument in the hand of God for the establishment of God’s kingdom. Jesus Christ preaches not himself, but the kingdom of God. The community gathered in the name of Jesus preaches Christ. But the message of Jesus in the Gospels is: “The kingdom of God is among you!” To carry this message requires the community of faith to assess all that we do in the light of that proclamation. Does this undertaking—this commitment of resources, this new project, this renewal of an aspect of the tradition—proclaim the truth that this world, wounded by sin, has been saved, and is destined for greatness? Even to pose this question is to recognize that we as the church do not belong to ourselves; we belong among those who yearn for the fulfillment of God’s reign over all.

This orientation toward the kingdom grounds this truth: our call is to worship God, to praise God together. Not because the kingdom has entirely come. Not because all is well in the church, but because God is worthy of our praise and worship. We give worship and praise because God is God. The church of the future, forward phalanx of the kingdom, is known as the people who constantly open mouths and hearts to praise God.

Third, the church of the future is oriented from the southern hemisphere. The growing edge of Christianity in Africa and South America challenges the church in Europe and North America: Do not give us money alone, as if solidarity in money would fill up what we owe to one another. Rather, listen together with us to what the Gospel of Jesus says to our present circumstances and to our hopes and possibilities for the future. Act together with us to strengthen and expand the community of believers throughout the world.

This orientation of a church “that looks outward” highlights the problem when the church is primarily concerned with itself, consuming energy either in agonizing over the state of affairs inside the church or looking fearfully at supposed enemies “outside.” When it is necessary for the church to concentrate on putting its own house in order, something is wrong in the house. The commitment of energy to inward problem-solving must be made as swiftly and effectively as possible. Why? Because it is in turning attention outward again that the church lives and grows in communion with its founder and guide.

A Joyous Church

The future church is a church of joy. It does not ignore humanity’s pain. But it is a community marked by absolute trust in the presence and faithfulness of God. This church—even when it knows itself to be sharing the darkness of the tomb with a war-weary and wounded humanity— affirms the Resurrection and manifests its joy. The church is eschatological by nature, straining forward with confidence.

These seven hopes for the future church are but an opening, an initiation. Developing this opening and deepening this initiation is the continuing work of all who are and will be the church.

John McGinty is assistant director of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry and interim assistant director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Comments

Rev.Timothy | 8/28/2008 - 10:05am
DEAR BROTHER/SISTER, WE ARE THE MEMBERS OF HOLYLAND MOTHERLESS BABYS FREETOWN, SIRRELEON WEST AFRICA. WE ARE WRITEING TO YOU IN RESPECT OF ON OF OUR LOVLY KID JOHN WHOM THE MOTHER LEFT SINCE 2007, AND WE HAVE BEEN TAKEING GOOD CARE OF JOHN. BUT LAST WEEK LITTLE JOHN GET SICK AND WE HAVE TO TAKE HIM TO THE HOSPITAL AND AFTER THE DOCTOR HAD PLACE A TEST ON HIM AND FIND OUT THAT LITTLE JOHN IS AFECTED WITH BRIAN CANCIA WHICH THE DOCTOR TRYED ALL HE CAN BUT ALL HIS EFFORT WAS NOTHING, AND NOW HE TOLD US THAT HE HAVE TO CARRY OUT AN OPPREATION ON HIM WHICH THE DOCTOR TOLD US THAT IT WILL COST US $4 000.00. FORTHERMORE, WE ARE WRITEING TO YOU ONLY THAT WE DON'T HAVE THIS KIND OF MONEY AND WE ARE HERE ASKING YOU BY THE NAME OF GOD TO HELP US AND TO HELP THIS LITTLE JOHN TO SAVE HIS LIFE. WE ARE ASKING YOU TO HELP US ANY THING THAT YOU CAN DO ANY AMOUNT IS NOT TOO LITTLE, THIS IS TO MAKE SURE THAT WE DON'T LOSE THIS SOUL. TRY FROM THE DEEPET OF YOUR HEART TO TAKE A LOOK AT THIS LITTLE BOY. WE ATTECHTED HIS PICTURE AND MAY THE LORD STILL PROVIED FOR YOU AS YOU GIVE OUT TO THE NEEDY. WE ARE WAITING FOR YOUR REPLY AND HOPE THAT YOU WILL HAVE MARCY ON THE LIFE OF THIS LITTLE BOY JOHN. MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY. YOURS FAITHFULY REV. TIMOTHY
Chris Rakovec | 6/1/2008 - 2:12pm
Lucius and Paul, you are both right on target! I thought the article was good overall; however, I had the same exact thoughts you had when I was reading the article. Lucius, your third paragraph is especially important.
Terry Bell | 5/24/2008 - 4:44pm
"For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and big words Bother me." Winnie The Pooh
Eileen Knoff | 5/23/2008 - 10:13am
If the church really moves in this direction then I will have hope. I was raised in the sixties and seventies to be a very active Catholic disciple of Jesus in a Vatican II church, which seemed to be on its way to renewing the people of God to be the Body of Christ in the world. When the clerical abuse realities of this system rose to visibility for those of us not entrenched with the hierarchy, I realized there were deep problems in this system that demand serious change, and I became an early member and regional coordinator of Voice of the Faithful. I passed that baton on, and I now am happily part of a small group of lay Catholics who meet for our own home-based eucharistic rituals, clear that the Spirit of Jesus is just as much there with us as we pray with sincerity as with a priest in front of a sanctuary altar. I will no longer buy into old theologies that prop up a corrupted hierarchy. I still believe in the people of God as the Body of Christ and the way Christ's Presence seeks to come among us as we seek to be open to that Presence. I seek leaders who live with honesty and integrity and a deep desire to be open to the Spirit of Jesus in their lives, and to honor that Spirit at work in others. I must agree with people like Bishop Robinson from Australia, about to make his way around the country for a book tour, that deep changes need to be made in this system to overcome the way it treats power and sexuality and as a consequence everything and everyone else. At present, the re-emergence of a Roman Catholic hierarchy whose actions reflect an effort to lord over more than inspire, encourage, and support has seriously dampened my hopes and even brings me to wonder if I want to have anything to do with Catholicism of the Roman kind in the future. It is time for a Catholic Church that is not afraid to be the Body of Christ in the world with trust in the presence of God's goodness beyond its own doors. I pray that more and more of us Catholics will come to open our eyes and ears and hearts, and listen to the Spirit in the words of this author and the direction for the Church of which he speaks. McGinty has helped my waning hope stay alive with this articulation of a vision for the future church. Let's not nit pick his words---let's see the big picture here! Eileen Knoff, M.A. Spiritual Director REdmond, WA
Paul | 5/20/2008 - 6:19am
Lucius - you are so right! Please folks cut out the verbiage. We don't need to wallow in academic meanderings which say nothing, indeed they detract from what the Church has and has taught. Clarity and substance please.
LEONARD VILLA | 5/16/2008 - 12:27pm
This essay makes some good points, for example, about the Church in the third world. However its chief defect is verbiage which is so open-ended that the words/phrases cry out for definition and examples: "open channels of effective transforming communication" like ??? What does that mean? This notion of a "Church without borders" sounds like an Anglican ecclesiology with high/low, broad/narrow, all in the big tent of church as verb. Look where that has led that communion: racing towards extinction. The Church will always have borders and defining points. This also touches on the author's distinction between power-authority vs.servant-leadership,as if this was an absolute dichotomy of pagan-model vs.spirit-model. The Church must in the final analyis sometimes have to exercise her authority as servant of the truth to apply hopefully medicinal penalties on those who harm the Church via scandal and false teaching and to deal with the problem of "false brothers/sisters" who have long given up the Faith but seek to transform her into their worldview, some self-generated pseudo-faith. The author mentions fearfully looking at the internal affairs of the Church and "supposed enemeies" outside?? Supposed? There are real enemies both inside and outside and real problems which the Church will always have to deal with in every age. Merely reciting words like "joy" and spirit-filled" does not change that. Both existential states,joy and soberly dealing with an enemy can exist and do exist in the Church. These states are the results of sanctity and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Lastly the author's mention of gentle regard for each person. Yes of course: love the sinner hate the sin. But look how that principle is used to reject or attack the Church when she issues and maintains her moral teaching, labeled hateful or person-rejecting, the Church's teaching on homosexual activity/contraception/pre-marital sex come to mind or correcting a theologian when he/she strays from the truth. Gentle regard for someone does not exclude the hard truth. The truth and charity go hand in hand. Who really loves someone: the one who tells the person what he/she wants to hear or telling the person the truth while continuing to love them? Too often the former is held to be "gentle regard" and "affirming and the latter repressive and hateful.

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