Not long ago the British newspaper The Telegraph ran a piece that highlighted the jobs most at risk from new automation technologies. The news is not good if your livelihood involves data entry, processing photos, preparing taxes, sewing by hand, doing legal research or repairing watches. It isn’t much better if you are a model, credit analyst, insurance appraiser, sports umpire or a bridge/lock tender. What is safe? Well, the good bet seems to be on work like occupational therapy, mental health, audiology, managing disasters and doing front-line repairs and installation of mechanical equipment. I couldn’t find pastor on the list, so my own future is fuzzy.
Changes like these have happened since whenever it was that people started dividing up labor. Someone set out to spend a lifetime chipping arrowheads and lost out to someone else who learned to work metal. Someone repaired wagons and ran out of work unless they learned to repair cars. I can remember colleagues who earlier in their careers had been hired to run machines that graded multiple-choice tests or duplicated documents. When they started that was more-or-less specialized work. After a few decades they became obsolete. It’s important not to make light of how difficult such changes are. To have trained for something and become highly proficient at it, only to learn that your skill is no longer needed . . . . that would, I imagine, be deeply painful. It would be hard to not think that it wasn’t just your skill that was no longer needed, but your very self.
I hold out hope that life in the church is different from life in the marketplace. Our communication tools might change. The specifics of how we care for the vulnerable might change. The precise institutional form of our mutual support might change. However, the basic gifts each one of us brings to the community of faith do not become obsolete. A church community will always need prophetic voices and it will always need those with administrative skill and those willing to serve others in a host of ways. The church community will always need young folks and old folks. It will always need people of varying backgrounds and differing stories.
Many churches have bought into the assumption that the people who do the work of the community are those who are paid to do it. I wonder if anything could be further from the truth. Without the active contribution of the entire community, a church is not a church. Or, if it is a ‘church’ in some contemporary sense, it isn’t the church in the sense envisioned in the scriptures. Here’s another thing: in a competitive labor market like ours, what our congregants need from each other is not so much expertise and task-based excellence as it is the willingness to show up authentically, humbly and fully present. Many churches have bought into the assumption that the people who do the work of the community are those who are paid to do it. I wonder if anything could be further from the truth. Click To Tweet
Being a ‘member’ of the body, as Paul describes it in Ephesians 4 or I Corinthians 12, should never involve becoming obsolete. No new technology will make the insightful word or the caring hand obsolete. Hopefully we’ve all been convinced by now that community is important. However, notice that in I Corinthians 12, Paul indicates that what the healthy body requires is not just certain demographic groups, but committed, interdependent individuals. Our churches should be places where people feel that they, as particular people, are valued and have a role to play.
The people in our congregations can’t become obsolete if what the body needs is their unique combination of gifts, relationships, dreams, experience, and history. This irreplaceable level of engagement is something pastors can never provide on their own. If our churches are to be contrast communities, that is, communities not shaped by the economic models and value systems of non-Christian cultures, then pastors must learn when and how to share power. We cannot welcome and value every member of our congregation in their individuality by ourselves. What we can do is encourage the structure and the vision individual engagement requires. The people in our congregations can’t become obsolete if what the body needs is their unique combination of gifts, relationships, dreams, experience, and history. Click To Tweet
At a time when some lines of work are rapidly becoming obsolete it’s the job of the pastor to make sure congregants know that what they bring to the community of faith is in no such danger. Being a member of a church body can’t be automated. It can’t be done by machine learning.
We can, and must, shape communities where each member is needed, not as a head to be counted or as a donor to be exploited, but as active participants—irreplaceable members of one body.