On average, church attendance is dropping in the majority of the congregations in many denominations. Some denominations, such as the Pentecostals are gaining ground, and some congregations are healthier than others within denominations. But the overall trend is that the older members are dying off and they are not systematically being replaced. Millennials, for example, are replacing evangelical churches with other spiritual satisfactions in increasing numbers.
With such glum news about the future of the church, I wish that something could be done to bring the Millennials back to reconsider their church and to make their voice heard regarding what they want and do not want, such as too much politics and antagonism toward all minorities, especially the LGBT community.
The church can be relevant, meaningful and important and we must be able to share this with the world. As I ponder such issues, I realize that I am a product of a "cloud of witnesses" who have gone before me to light the way for me to be in the church and be a leader within the theological academy.
There is the "cloud of witnesses" who have been nurtured by such organizations as the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE). This year, FTE is celebrating 60 years. As a part of celebrating 60 years of faithful service, FTE invited church and academic leaders, young adults and doctoral students to its national Christian Leadership Forum to have the opportunity to cultivate a culture of abundance. Held June 4-7, 2014, in Chicago, this event gathered 200 participants to have a time of sharing, fellowship, discernment and mentoring. It was a time to celebrate the rich legacy of FTE and to explore how the next generation of Christian leaders can make a difference in the world through the church and academy.
During the Christian Leadership Forum, there was much excitement as young people, ministers, doctoral students, church leaders and scholars gathered to share, fellowship, study, brainstorm, worship, and reevaluate theological education. The well planned and thought out FTE meeting was a powerful, energetic and enthusiastic event.
As an FTE Advisory Board Member, I was able to attend, observe and participate. What I witnessed throughout the week was encouraging, challenging and uplifting. It was inspiring to see so many youth from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities who are struggling to discern their call to ministry and what shape of ministry they will be entering. They are full of energy, dedication, enthusiasm and joy.
Rev. Emily McGinley, who is a Presbyterian associate pastor at Urban Village Church (Hyde Park - Woodlawn) and an FTE Advisory Board Member shares,
"Personally, it is always deeply encouraging and uplifting to spend time with others as passionate about living out their call as I am. It is hard, uphill work to do these things and when I came to the Christian Leadership Forum, I was reminded that I'm not alone in God's economy of building life and radical hospitality. Additionally, it is a gift to fellowship and connect with other Asian American leaders in this respect. I was able to leave the event not only encouraged, but inspired to continue in my work and invite others (especially younger folks) into partnerships that equip them to carry it on in their future ministries."
It is delightful to see young people who will be shaping and molding the church bring so many gifts to the table. As we observe negative trends and statistics, watching the youth at this FTE gathering brought new hope and life, countering the glum church statistics.
I was able to engage in dialogue with many who are working in diverse ministry settings. Being in dialogue with those who are not doing traditional ministry reinforces the notion of the priesthood of all believers and of the bi-vocational ministry. Many churches are so small and poor that they cannot afford to pay a minister and therefore the minister is left with the option of being engaged in bi-vocational ministry. These various ministries are helping reform, redefine and reshape the present reality of church, ministry and God's engagement with the world.
As the doctoral students were engaged in their cohorts, it became evident that they are energetic, wise, intelligent and gifted. The selected FTE Doctoral Fellows and students bring much hope to the church and the academy, that diversity is not an accident but key to the future of the academy. With diverse voices and theological understandings, the richness and wisdom of the different voices will lead and provide new visions as we walk through the wilderness. As the academy is forced to welcome diversity, they will come to understand that this is the way of the future and the voices of the marginalized will only deepen our spirituality, theology and ministry.
FTE has been shaping the landscape of theological education in a proactive way during the past 60 years. As we celebrated FTE's 60th anniversary, it became clearer to me that it has had a long tradition of advocates as well as witnesses! It has had 60 long years of faithful leaders who have paved the way for theological discourse and understanding for the generations to come. Today, many people stand on the shoulders of these giants who had vision: prophecy and legacy of justice, spirituality and theological re-imagination.
Lee Hinson-Hasty who is the Presbyterian Church (USA) Coordinator of Theological Education & Seminary Relations and Vice-Chair for the Forum for Theological Exploration encourages us by stating,
"When people of justice, truth, vision, and leadership come together, focus efforts, and move in the same direction, no matter how small, crevices in what before appeared before to be permanent develop into cracks... and the entire landscape changes."
We all need to join in to work together to shape the future of the church.
As I engaged with students, ministers, scholars and FTE staff, I knew I was among the "cloud of witnesses" who will continue to witness and counsel the church and the academy. The future does not just happen to us, we need to be engaged and shape the future so that God's presence will be felt in our family, community and world. For us to continue to live among the "cloud of witnesses", we must allow the Spirit to come and fill us, and add advocacy to our role as observers.
Spirit is the energy, life-giving power of God, which exists in all living things. We need to continue to seek the Spirit to come and fill us--renew us and energize us to become the faithful leaders of the church and the academy to help us engage in the good fight. I left the Christian Leadership Forum with renewed strength to fight the good fight and be empowered to use my gifts for the reign of God. As Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman preached at the event's closing worship, "When God Reigns, It Pours" (Acts 2:16-21).