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A sermon delivered by The Rev. Phil Hart, June 10, 2007 at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio.

The Future

Recently I was asked to deliver a talk on the future of the UCC. And so I did what we do these days when we're faced with a new a topic: I Googled it.

Now, when you Google "The Future," you'll find things like taro cards, science fiction stories, and so on. But a particular article caught my attention. It was a paper called “A New Theory of Forecasting.” There are different types of forecasting. This happened to refer to forecasting of finance and economics. I want to read you the summary of what the paper was about because I think it gives us an example about how easy it is to forecast or think about the future:

"This paper argues that forecast estimators should minimize the loss function in a statistical rather than a deterministic way. We introduce two new elements into the classic economic metric analysis of subjective guess on the variables to be forecasted in a probability reflecting the confidence associated to it. We then propose a new forecast estimator based on a test of whether the first derivatives of the loss function evaluated at the subjective guess are statistically different than zero. We show that the classic estimator is a special case of this new estimator and that in general the two estimators are asymptomatic equivalent. We illustrate the implications of this new theory with a simple simulation, an application of GDP forecast and an example of mean variance portfolio selection."

Now to me, I just read words. I have no idea what they mean. There are probably a few of you out there who understood them. You may have even read that paper! But I think it clearly illustrates the difficulty we face when we think about the future.

Think about it in your own life. How many of you sitting here today would say that you ended up doing and being exactly what you thought you would do and be when you were a child dreaming about your future? (Sometimes young people raise their hands to this question. Not many older people.)

The fact is, we oftentimes meet with what one author calls "black swans"-- or unexpected events. For many years we thought all swans were white. Then we discovered that some were black. It is very difficult to know when black swans will come into your life, but it’s these black swans that have more of an impact on us and our future than the things we do daily. How many times have unexpected events set us upon a different path? Sometimes a better path. Sometimes a more difficult path. But a change in our path nonetheless.

When we talk about the future of the church, we are talking about a subject that has more importance and meaning today than it has had at any other time in history. The future is happening faster and faster. Within ten years we are going to be experiencing a world we cannot even imagine today. It is estimated that, in 2029, technology will surpass human capabilities. (Now some of you say “Technology surpassed my human capability 20 years ago.”) But it’s estimated that, by 2029, technology will be able to create itself. A little frightening isn’t it?

For most of human history – when you think of how long we have been here on this earth – for most of human history we have lived and experienced life in the very same way. If you watch the Discovery Channel, when they talk about the different types of human beings that existed they will say, “This tribe existed for 10,000 years.” And, for 10,000 years, they pretty much experienced life the exact same way. It has only been in relatively recent history - since the industrial revolution - that things began to change dramatically. Today, with the rise of technology, things change even faster. What the church must do – what is essential to our health and well being – is to figure out how to adapt. We must be able to speak the gospel to every new generation in a way they understand and in a way that impacts them.

That is a very difficult thing to do. We often can’t even do it with little things. For generations and generations, parents taught their children everything they needed to know in order to live successfully, work successfully, and have a happy life. But we have come to a point in history when parents can no longer do this. We are not going to be able teach our kids everything they need to know because, in ten years, life is going to be absolutely different than it is today.

Change is happening faster and faster – yet we, the institution of the church, are standing right here. I don’t know if this is a big surprise to you, but, by and large, the church does not adapt very quickly to change. What was it? About 10 years ago, the Catholic Church apologized to Galileo. “Oh, you were right about that whole sun/earth thing. Sorry.”

When we think about the future, we can either see it as a dangerous black swan coming our way or we can see it in the light of the gospel lesson that we heard today. Scripture says that Jesus came to a funeral procession where a young man had just died. His mother was a widow and the young man was her only son. Jesus knew that a widow with no son was going to have a very difficult future. So Jesus brought the young man back to life. I love that passage in the scripture. “He gives him back to his mother.”

One of the things we have to do in the church is realize the difference between the meaning of what we talk about, preach and believe - and the forms of how we express that. Because often, in the church, we get stuck on form. How many times have I served in churches where we had knock-down, drag-out arguments about changing some small part of the service, or changing the color of the carpet, or something else like that. We spend so much time on the form of how we do things, we overlook out the true meaning of who we are.

Probably the most important thing I learned in seminary was the difference in cultural anthropology between meaning and form. There are certain things every culture does. But each culture has its own form - or way of doing - the same things. If you focus on form, you would assume people are doing different things when, in fact, they are simply doing the same thing in a different form.

One example is play. Every culture plays, but not every culture plays in the same way. In an average household with children, you’ll have kids playing games that neither the parents nor the grandparents played. I remember my first Atari. The game that came with it was called Pong. There was a little block over here and another over there and this ball that bounced back and forth. We would ooooooh and aaaaah at this game. It was so high tech. I remember my dad wouldn’t let us hook it up to the TV because he thought it would somehow mess up the TV. So we would play it for a little while and then go outside and play out in the barns and the fields. Now it's all so different.

What will we do spiritually as we think about the future? Are we going to hang on to 1950s forms of thinking and 1950s ways of expressing our spirituality? Or to forms that go much farther back than that? Or are we going to try and figure out how to speak the gospel today?

The church does four things – primarily. I remember them by remembering the church’s WIFE: Worship, Instruction, Fellowship, Expression.

Worship is primarily what we do when we come to church. We come here on Sunday morning. We gather in this awesome place that has so much significance and meaning to us and we worship. But the way we worship today is not the way we always worshiped. There was a time when the preacher would sit and the people would stand. Can you imagine that? And the sermons were much longer. And the church wasn’t air conditioned or heated. So, yes, there have been many different forms in how we worship. My question is, how will we develop these forms going forward -- keeping the things that are important to us, but adding on.

We also do instruction. Throughout the history of the church, experts have stood up in the big boxes, wearing big flowing robes, teaching the people what God wanted them to know. In the United Church of Christ, we take a very different approach to instruction. In the UCC, we say that every person has to come to terms with their articles of faith; that you have to work those out yourself. We ask you to think and come to your own conclusions. In the UCC, instruction is facilitating.

We also do fellowship. We go downstairs. We have our cookies and coffee. But what will Fellowship 2.0 be like? How are we going to continue to interact with one another outside of church? What form will fellowship take in the future? I don’t have answers. I am asking you to think it through because our answers come from the community.

Finally we have expression. How are we going to live out our faith in the future? One of the difficult things about planning for the future is the fact that much of the world doesn’t understand what we do in here now. They don’t get it. They don’t get the language. They don’t really understand why and how we do things. Many don’t know what to do or how to act when they come into church.

I saw this not to long ago when I came into the office for a wedding. The groom and some men had a whole bar set up and they were mixing drinks. I walked in about ten minutes before the service and they said, “Reverend do you want a drink?” And I said, “I do, but I shouldn’t, so why don’t we just get ready for the service.” But they didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to do that. It was a celebration and they has brought their bottles and were mixing drinks.

I was doing another wedding (I had on this robe actually). I walked towards the back and a young ring bearer stopped and looked at me and said, “Oh my God, you’re like a Kung Fu Ninja.” And I said, “Why yes I am. Very much so.”

We expect people to know what we do here, but they don’t. And, are we really surprised, as people grow increasingly less familiar with what we do here, that they would rather be out in their yards having a cookout?

You see, it is incumbent upon us to meet the world – not for the world to meet us. Jesus said, “Go into the world and preach the gospel.” Let me read one of my favorite quotes from Lawrence of Arabia -- because the work we have to do is going to require us to think and dream and vision - which, by the way, scripture says is a sign of God’s Holy Spirit. The quote goes:

“All men dream, but not all equally. Those that dream at night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find it was all vanity. But the dreamers of the day, they are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes to make it possible.”

What is God is putting into our dreams to help us meet the future?

Tony Campolo tells a story about a moment when he met the future. He flew to California and had jet lag and couldn’t sleep one night. So he went to this little greasy spoon restaurant not far from his hotel at two o’clock in the morning. As he sat there, some ladies that had been working came into the restaurant. They got some coffee and sat near him, and then Tony heard one woman say to another, “You know it’s my birthday tomorrow?” The other one turned and said, “Why are you telling me? I don’t care.” Tony watched as the girl’s face fell and she said, “I don’t care if you don’t care, I’m just telling you.”

After they left, Tony asked the owner of the restaurant who the woman was. “Oh, that was Meredith" he said. "She works the streets around here.” Tony asked if she came in every night and the owner said she did - about the same time. Tony suggested they have a birthday party for her. The owner looked unsure, but Tony assured him he wouldn’t have to do a thing. Tony would bring the balloons, the streamers, and the cake – (especially the cake because Tony had sampled the food in the restaurant).

The next night, Tony came in about midnight to decorate. Word had gotten around and by 1:30 the place was packed. About 2 o’clock , Meredith came in. As she entered, everyone sang “Happy Birthday” and they brought out the cake. She blew out the candles and they were about to cut the cake when Meredith said, “Wait, can I have it for just a second? I will bring it right back.” They asked her where she was going and she said she wanted to show it to her mom. She had never had a cake before.

Later, the owner of the restaurant asked Tony what he did for a living. Tony said he was a minister. The man shook his head and laughed and asked what kind of church he belonged to. Tony said that he belonged to the kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at two o’clock in the morning. The man shook his head again and said, “No, you don’t – because I would go to a church like that.”

Wouldn’t we all?

Dream with your eyes wide open.


Copyright 2007, The First Congregational Church