Advent of the ministry of the future

Lessons from his grandmother, a Christian and traditional healer, root Patrick B. Reyes in community and culture as he looks forward to new ministry opportunities.

Advent is about welcoming something or someone special. My grandma did it better than anyone I know. She placed a brown-skinned woman in her rose garden to honor her ancestors and grandchildren. The garden welcomed the annual migration of hummingbirds and butterflies. The smell of fresh tortillas, beans and nopales (cactus) filled the air. Icons, artwork and family photos covered the walls, and every room reverberated with the laughter from nephews and nieces, siblings and cousins, tíos y tías. Mariachi music played from the backyard. The house rhythms stopped only so the family could welcome newcomers with hugs and kisses. My grandma’s sole hope was that her home would make space for future generations.

The sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feelings of Grandma Carmen’s house – the love she shared with our community – formed my first interaction with lived theology. She was Indigenous to her land, a fact that always spurred my deep curiosity about my grandma’s faith. Grandma Carmen participated in the Cursillo movement, an organization focused on love and friendship within the Catholic church. Her crowning achievement was serving as a eucharistic minister for a Mass at which Pope John Paul II presided. At the same time, Grandma Carmen was a curandera, an Indigenous healer. She kept alive and passed on her healing traditions, despite colonization and rejection by the church. She never spoke of mujeristas, of being Latino/a/x/e, or of liberation theologies — all terms, movements and thinkers that have shaped my work as a theologian and scholar. However, every time we gathered in community or I witnessed her healing practices, I knew I was in the presence of a liberator and healer of our community.

My grandma’s charge to me was always the same: go, get ready. For what? It did not matter, really. The intention and preparation for what was coming, whatever or whoever it was, was all that mattered. She could mean to get ready to receive a new guest from the neighborhood. She could mean preparing for some healing ritual for a family member or friend; the ingredients always included flowers, herbs, vegetables and oils. Getting ready could mean cleansing my body — sometimes as simple as washing my hands and changing my clothes to honor the occasion. Go get ready.

I hear her now in my work. Go get ready … the ministry of the future is coming. For generations on this continent, the dominant theologies and religious practices have proven unable to heal what the church has been complicit in eradicating and erasing. Black, Brown and Indigenous communities have suffered deep cultural losses. For generations, pioneers within our church have attempted to make more inclusive spaces within the limitations of the mainline church’s practice, knowledge and history. To address the rising tide of minoritized bodies, rarely does any church that preaches reconciliation actually practice the art of healing and restoration that is necessary to welcome something – or someone – new.

We live in a time when Grandma Carmen’s healing practices and faithfulness are desperately needed. Something new is coming, but how we welcome it and whom we welcome matters. It is not lost on me that the Advent story tells us of a Brown family being exiled — with children being labeled as problems to that generation’s leadership.

Advent: What future?

We have ushered in the ends of the earth. The land, air, water — all are polluted. Where I live in the high deserts of New Mexico, the effects of climate change are felt every day. The seasons have shifted. The droughts are longer. The rivers have run dry. Fires burn through communities. Climate change refugees move across landscapes. The numbers of migrating hummingbirds and butterflies have diminished.

Due to humanity’s insatiable desire to control, build and dominate the world’s resources, we have seen species of plant and animal life disappear at an unheard-of rate. According to the World Animal Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund, we are losing species at 1,000 times the natural extinction rate — and that is a conservative estimate. Plant life is disappearing from our forests, cities and oceans.

My family and I mourn this loss. I cannot go more than a few days without crying about this loss with my children, magical humans who deserve to inherit the best possible future. Yet I have not attended any vigil or wake for the planet.

Future generations are being marked for death. Every war is a war on children, and we have found new forms of warfare. On Jan. 6, 2021, my children watched with the rest of the country as an armed insurrection rocked the nation. They have witnessed riots across the country through news coverage and on social media. They see armed conflicts across the globe, fanning the flames of violence. They see stories about children in cages on our borders, children separated from their families, and children in poverty, most notably in Black and Indigenous neighborhoods. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 21%, 17% and 24% of Black, Latinx and Indigenous persons, respectively, are experiencing deep poverty in this county. My children watched other Brown and Latinx children and their teachers shot down in Uvalde, Texas. Meanwhile, psychological warfare is growing on social media, poisoning and damaging the social and spiritual well-being of an entire generation, who are reporting greater numbers of mental health challenges and feelings of isolation.

Cultures are being erased. The Language Conservatory estimates that in the next 100 years, we will lose 90% of all the world’s languages. Right now, 2,900 languages are endangered. Efforts to reverse this loss are not about recovering the dominant languages such as English, Spanish, French or Mandarin — languages of cultural, colonial and financial capital. Rather, these lost languages represent the loss of Indigenous culture: ways of knowing, practicing and being in the world. We have erased ways of knowing the world by losing names indigenous to the planet. We have erased or forgotten the names of our nonhuman brothers and sisters. We have “unfriended” the planet that gives us life. How can I call you my friend if I cannot remember how to say your name?

Is this the advent of the end of the world? Or does our Christian tradition have something to say about something new coming?

Advent: Who is coming?

In my work at the Forum for Theological Exploration, a leadership incubator that supports the next generation of Christian pastoral leaders and theological educators, I lament the cultural and relational loss of the next generation. The young adults who are exploring a call to ministry are hungry for a chance to lead. The next generation of Christian leaders and theologians of color want to know how their leadership in the church fits within these larger questions:

  • What are we doing to this planet?
  • What are we doing to each other?
  • What are we doing to ourselves and our culture?

Is the church even the right place to address these questions? At the same time the next generation of leaders are asking these questions, I hope we can all agree that the American mainline church, like all empires, is going through a major decline, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. We see this decline in membership, absolutely, but also in broader cultural significance. The next generation of those pursuing lives of meaning and purpose in the church want the church to address these questions. What does my faith have to do with this planet? What does the church have to do with my relationships to others? What does the church say about my connection to cultures and identities that were often marginalized, erased or eradicated by the church?

What is also heartbreaking is that, in many communities, those who might sit with the next generation to answer its questions are no longer present. In 2022, the church is facing something new: In many cases, it will not be the elders who lead. According to a Statista post from September 2022, COVID-19 has taken nearly a million of our elders (those over the age of 50). Their cultural knowledge and wisdom have been taken far too soon. In many of our traditions, elders brought us into cultural knowledge and practice. My grandma passed her wisdom to me, for example. We, the in-between generations, have been asked to step in, to be elders, far too soon. The practices, traditions, wisdom and knowledge centers of our communities have been lost.

To address these cultural losses, marginalized groups are reimagining, reclaiming and reevaluating their identities. The challenge so many of them struggle with is how to reclaim their cultural losses when the church has been complicit in their erasure, and when those who hold these bodies of knowledge have passed to the spiritual plane. How do we become healers, teachers and dare I say pastors, when the healing powers of our communities have been erased and eradicated?

What should we prepare to welcome? For those of us in this in-between space, between a church that was and a church that will be, what can we do to prepare for the arrival of the next generation of Christian leaders?

Advent of the ministry of the future

We can establish a ministry (or organization) of the future. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2022 novel The Ministry for the Future, is one of my favorite science fiction and speculative climate-fiction (cli-fi) reads in recent years. Robinson writes about a ministry, commissioned by the United Nations, whose sole mission is to care and design for future generations. What if the church established such a ministry of the future? Taking up the three questions of this generation relating to the planet, each other and ourselves, how might the ministry of the future work?

The ministry of the future starts in my grandma’s home. Grandma Carmen existed in deep relation to the space where we grew up. She knew the names of everyone in the community and of those nonhuman family members in the natural world. She knew the names of the animals and plants. She knew how to prepare to welcome the hummingbirds each season, and she knew which plants and oils would cure our many wounds. She had spiritual practices that restored relationships among family and community members. Grandma Carmen did her best to pass on the cultural traditions and practices to a new generation, in order to address challenges she saw coming in our lives.

We need to make the church ready for the future. My grandma knew how to do what Jane McGonigal writes about in her March 2022 book Imaginable: How To See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything—Even Things That Seem Impossible Today, in which she teaches people how to be futurists. As a game designer and futurist, McGonigal creates simulations that help us prepare for the future. Her most famous example was a simulation over a decade ago about a global pandemic caused by a respiratory virus. Her simulations have proven helpful to their participants who seek to design, anticipate and drive positive social change.

The ministry of the future would take this approach, designing simulations and providing guidance for creating conditions in which future generations can thrive. For example, what would you do if you woke up tomorrow and your church or congregation faced dislocation because of climate change? Or imagine your community faced localized violence, and you had no elders or cultural practices to handle the crisis? What would you do? What would you see from your congregation? Take a few moments to contemplate your answers.

The ministry of the future would curate the collective responses from these simulations. Such an organization would take that data, analyze it and make predictions about how the church can address these conditions. An even more interesting finding of McGonigal’s research is that those who go through these simulations show greater preparedness and greater readiness to accept change and identify novel solutions. Novel solutions are not expressions of current addictions to technological or business innovation, nor do they cling to the traditions that got us to this very grim place.

Instead, the ministry of the future looks for leaders who are recovering the wisdom and practice of their elders’ faith, as Kat Armas explained in her 2021 book titled Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us About Wisdom, Persistence and Strength. To prepare for the future, an organization must look to adaptations in the congregations, especially the ways in which existing ministries designed new practices and traditions during a time of incredible death and loss during COVID-19, as Dustin Benac wrote in his 2022 book Adaptive Church: Collaboration and Community in a Changing World. The ministry of the future would look to my colleagues Stephen Lewis and Kimberly Daniel, who write in their 2022 book A Way Out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation about the ingenious survival practices and entrepreneurial ventures of faith leaders of color.

Finally, the ministry of the future would be tasked with outlining and sharing resources, creating simulations, focusing attention on future members of the church and designing with their best interests in mind. Such an organization would be responsible for setting goals, recovering lifesaving and overlooked practices, and developing proposals for the church to create conditions for future generations to thrive.

Many pastors and congregations believe they are the ministry of the future. But I am not talking about a preschool or youth group. I am talking about preparing for a new world. If churches were doing this work, then my grandma’s home – like so many of your grandmothers’ homes – would not need to be the sites of healing they are. We would not have global warming, because the church would have read the signs of the times and set goals to reduce our carbon footprint. We would not have the species and cultural losses we currently experience, because the church would have recognized that we thrive when there is biological and cultural diversity.

The advent of the ministry of the future is really an invitation to the season of Advent. We do not always know what or who is coming, especially in times of violence. The ministry of the future is an invitation to take seriously the world we live in, one that currently follows Herod’s decree to massacre the innocents.

Advent can be a season of anticipation and hope. We know the healers are coming. We know the dreamers and changemakers are coming. Advent is not a celebration, but a preparation for the ministry of the future. I hear my grandma calling from above and beyond — go get ready.