How Not to Become Obsolete

Last fall 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. Ibreadt 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 first started dividing up labour. Someone set out to spend a lifetime chipping arrowheads and lost out to others who worked with 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. It’s important not to make light of how difficult such changes are for us. 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 disruptive. I imagine that it would be hard to not think that it was ‘you’ that was no longer needed.

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 context like our own, what we need from each other is not so much expertise and absolute excellence as it is the willingness to show up authentically, humbly and fully present.

I’m not convinced that everything in the Anabaptist tradition is worth carrying forward. Anabaptists have had some really dumb ideas. But our traditional assumption that the church is constituted by the full engagement of all its members is something worth repeating. Here is how the congregation I serve puts it:

Believing that God has given gifts to each one of us, and that our gifts are to be used to build up the body of Christ and to equip us for the service of God, we covenant to build our congregation by accepting tasks according to our respective gifts, and by assisting each other.

That might not be an elegant sentence, but the sentiment is powerful. It’s what Paul is getting at in I Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. At a time when some lines of work are rapidly becoming obsolete the things we each can contribute to our community of faith are not. We are each needed, not as heads to be counted, but as active participants, individual members of one body.


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