Emerging from the 1990s is a technique many churches have borrowed from the business world: every church needs to have a vision statement. Just like Nike has "Just Do It" or Coke has "Life Starts Here" or AT&T "Your World, Delivered" every church needs to have a succinct statement that encapsulates its raison d'etre in a catchy wink. Such a way of trying to capture the church's purpose in a way that is palatable, memorable and purposeful is definitely a commendable exercise. However, what has gone awry is that these pithy statements are often fashioned by senior pastors who function more like CEOs than Gospel-centered servants of God. As a result, they have domesticated the entire church to follow after their dictated agendas which are often nothing more than ego-boosters and quick-get-rich plans. Guised under the pretense of following the Great Commission, church members are then asked to work to feed the senior pastor's greed of moving the church's membership from 1,000 to 10,000 people. Often masked under the ersatz teaching that the more you give, the more you will be blessed, church members are also coerced into financing the pastor's expanding waistline for more first class "preaching" trips across the world and undisclosed six digit salary packages.
Most damaging is that those who deviate from the church's so called "vision" are deemed to be living without destiny and purpose. Unless a Christian devotes all his or her time, money and talents into fulfilling the local church's narrowly defined vision, everything else is inferior, paltry and even prodigal. Just as with every erroneous teaching that doesn't have the Gospel as its center, there is often a hefty price tag attached. And such a hefty payment comes in terms of two forms of instalments: first, as a result of such manipulation, many Christians think that unless they are engaged in the some form of church ministry, everything else is insignificant. Thus, many have abandoned their own vocations, gone into seminary, incurred an overbearing student loan and only to find out that they are not really cut out for full-time pastoral work. Second, others who have been able to see through the schemes of these CEOs clothed in a pastor's garb have left the church with a bitter after taste. Some have thrown away the bath water with the baby by isolating themselves from any institutional religious work altogether.
Such a problem, relatively speaking, is still at its nascent stage. Thus, creditable resources that speak into this issue with Biblically wisdom are still developing. Filling such a lacuna with lots of insights and wisdom drawn from Scripture is Skye Jethani's latest release "Futureville: Discover Your Purpose for Today By Reimagining Tomorrow." Before we go on to expound upon Jethani's ideas as presented in this follow-up to his hugely popular "With," it is worthwhile knowing a little about Jethani. If you are smitten by Jethani's ability to present his ideas in an arresting manner, it is because Jethani is the executive editor of the Leadership Media Group at "Christianity Today." On top of his position, he is also a regular contributor to "Relevant" and "The Huffington Post." Moreover, his blog (www.skyejethani.com) was awarded second prize for best Christian blog by the ECPA.
"Futureville" is not a book about the future but about the present. Jethani's thesis is simple: what we believe about the future will determine how we live today. If we believe that meaning stops the moment we breathe your last breadth, then what we do today is of little consequence in the larger scheme of things. If death is the boundary marker as far as human significance is concerned then whatever we do today or tomorrow will eventually be like drawings on a white board. At the end of the day, they will ultimately be wiped off into oblivion. Jethani is therefore right in arguing that our todays are defined by our tomorrows.
Gleaned from the teachings of N. T. Wright from his magisterial tome "The Resurrection of the Son of God" (Fortress Press, 2003), Jethani correctly argues that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is more than just a historical event. Rather, it is epochal marker that gives definition to what the future holds for every believer. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is re-creation all over again. According to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8, the resurrection is God's first step in renewing the entire cosmos. It is through the resurrection of Jesus, we (who believe in Jesus as Lord) are given our passports into Futureville. It's through the resurrection of Christ, "the earth itself will be set free from sin, reconciled to God, and be glorified" (p. 97). And starting with the resurrection, the entire cosmos our will one day be renewed at Jesus' second coming. Jethani writes: "Futureville is the union of heaven and earth into a restored and glorified cosmos occupied by God and his people" (p. 97). In short, Jesus did not just come to save sinners. Rather, he came to rescue all that he has created.
Thus, if the Futureville is far grander and far more encompassing than narrowly defined self serving vision statements, how does Futureville affect our present zip codes? How does the promise that Christ will one day renew the entire heaven and earth have bearing upon the way we live? Such is the burden of the second half of the book. After laboring on the foundations of God's definition of Futureville, Jethani gives us four practical areas in our present life where Futureville has left its imprints.
Futureville's Present Zip Codes
First, if Christ has truly made up residents of Futureville, the first bearing Futureville has on our present life is the way we view vocation. Rather, than elevating church-related positions as jobs that truly are significance, if God's vision of the future is the renewing of the entire cosmos, then every vocation is purposeful. This means that in God's purview it is just as significant for a factory worker to punch in her time card as it is for a pastor who takes up his pen to craft his sermon. And this has humongous implications on church leadership, Jethani writes: "This requires a different model of leadership within the church. Rather than a command-and-control CEO model, where the pastor seeks to align every person and resource around the church's institutional goals, leaders should be equipping God's people to fulfill the specific callings they have received from the Lord because these specific callings are a significant way God's work is manifested in the world" (pp. 111 & 112).
Second, residents of Futureville should not do everything in order to bridge the cleavage between social justice and evangelism. If Futureville is about the restoration of the order of relationships that was first established in creation, it means the healing of our relationship between God and people (evangelism) through the out workings of the Gospel. And following such a restoration is the abridgement of relationships between people (social justice). Third, if the future is about a restored creation, then as residents of Futureville we need to appreciate beauty of God's creation "humans deprived of beauty may survice, but they cannot thrive" (p. 144). Fourth, if the Futureville is about God's abundance and sacrifice "to a world shattered by chaos, ugliness, and scarcity - then sharing our resources with those who have less must be part of our worship" (p. 167).
Futureville's Major Event
Though "Futureville" brims with lots of insightful truths, there are a couple of issues that give us some pause for thought. In one of his new songs Southern Gospel artist Gordon Mote warns us not to make an attraction the main event and vice versa. In reading Revelation 21, a passage that Jethani uses to make his case for Futureville, what will be the main event of God's inaugural Kingdom? Yes, it is true that God will bring about a restored creation, but what will be the major event that will be celebrated? I am sure we would be so awed by the renewed Niagara Falls or the Great Wall of China or the Australian coral reefs that it would take quite an effort for us to close our gapping mouths. But is the glorified Niagara Falls the major event of Futureville? I am sure in Futureville, we will be free from poverty and the scarcity of resources, but are the gold paved streets what took the Apostle John's breadth away? Gold might be precious to us; but to the residents of Futureville, it's just pavement. So, what on earth is the major event?
The major event, according to Revelation 21, is the wedding between the Bride (the church) and her husband (Jesus Christ). And much of John's time was spent in utter admiration of the Bride (the church). If the church is the major attraction of Futureville, why was there no chapter devoted in talking about the church? How does the Futureville church affect the way we live out as the church today? And if the wedding between the church and Jesus Christ is what engrossed the Apostle in Revelation 21, why isn't there a chapter on how this major event of Futureville affects us today? In order to truly appreciate Futureville, we need to keep the major event central and the minor attractions peripheral.
Further, as much as one appreciates how Jethani tries to enable us to see how God's future kingdom affects our present reality, one has to be careful of what theologians would call "over-realized" eschatology. In one sense, for instance, there will be the abundance of health, wealth and prosperity in God's future kingdom. But, we need to be careful that not all such blessings are a reality on this side of Jesus' second coming. It is never the promise of God that we would be free from troubles before Futureville becomes a reality (John 16:33). Contrary to what Jethani espouses, scarcity need not be a cause of gripping fear. There are times God may even deliberately impoverish many of us ---- some of us who serve as missionaries may run out of financial support and others of us may lose our jobs because of the Gospel--- and yet it is still possible to be joyous in the Lord (see Phil. 4:10-13). Scarcity need not be the cause of paralyzing fear; rather, it's the lack of a trust in a Sovereign God that is more often than not the culprit.
Nevertheless, despite the quibbles, in a culture where we have so often domesticated God's vision for the cosmos to fit our tiny pithy vision statements, "Futureville" is liberating for the soul. It is a mind blowing book for those who have only thought that the Christian message is just confined within the church walls. And most importantly, Jethani doesn't just draw abstract concepts in the air that behooves the average reader. But through well grounded real life stories and illustrations, Jethani takes our hands and let us feel the bricks and mortars of Futureville.