Why the Future Matters for the Church

This article was originally written for a magazine that focuses on the ministry of church Deacons, but could very easily stand as an overview of why I feel thinking about the future is so incredibly important for today's church.  The article, written in March of 2008, is now in publication but was heavily edited for space in the actual magazine.  I have been given permission to republish the article here, in it's entirety.  Due to the editing it is a very different article than saw print and, per the editor-in-chief's request, should not be associated with the originating magazine.  I am very thankful for the opportunity to publish the article in it's entirety here.
The day-to-day responsibilities of a Deacon can change from church to church.  Some deacons may be involved in benevolence, while others may be making administrative decisions.  The Deacon Handbook for First Baptist Church, Garland, Texas (pdf), lists three of the most important responsibilities a Deacon might have:    
  1. To lead the church in the achievement of its mission
  2. To minister the Gospel to believers and unbelievers
  3. To care for the church's members and other in the community
One underlying element to these responsibilities is the need to not only take care of the needs of the Church and her people today, but their needs for tomorrow and the years to come.  To fully appreciate the responsibility of deaconship, one must consider that the church will always need leadership and must think about how today's missions and ministries will impact not only your congregation, but the generations to come. The trouble for many church leaders is finding productive ways to anticipate the future.  We know the ending - the Bible contains a wonderful book of prophecy for end times - but the time between the resurrection of Christ and His second coming is full of years and advances the disciples never anticipated.  The fact that I can download the Bible over a cell phone network (nevermind the fact that I can readily read one or purchase one) would have confounded even the writers of the letters that make up the New Testament.  The availability of the Gospel is exponential to 2000 years ago; as is the indecency of pornography, the villainy of murder and the diversity of world religions. And yet, the writings and inspired truths of the New Testament speaks to us even today.  The works and morality thereof were timeless.  The seeds sown 2000 years ago were written not only for the present but also for the future.  The question that follows then, is simple: what are we doing today to prepare for the future? Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, writes of his concern for Christianity's lack of concern for the future in his article, The Next 1000 Years of Christianity:
In a fast-paced time when the future overruns the present every day, when the young spend more time inhabiting what is coming than what is happening, when every corporation and secular institution has a future strategy, the only large entity lacking alternatives for the future is the Christian church. It is still surrendering the future to science fiction authors, corporations, new agers, technologists, and all who understand that we make the future by inventing it.
If we have the freedom to consider what Christianity and the world might look like for our children, should we not consider our children's children?  Our great-great grandchildren?   According to research by David Aikman, former Beijing Bureau Chief for Time Magazine, "at the present rate of growth in the number of Christians... it is possible that Christians will constitute 20 to 30 percent of China's population in three decades" (Jesus in Beijing, 2003, 287).  Taking that number the next step, Kelly clarifies that "given the speed of church growth in Korea and China, and extending that another 500 years, by the year 2500 the world might identify Christianity as primarily an Asian thing" (2007).  In other words, given the current trends, in just a few short generations Christianity will be completely different. Two of the leading thinkers in the area of studying the Future are Dr. Peter Bishop and Andy Hines, editors of "Thinking about the Future."  In their text, Bishop and Hines explain that
the purpose of looking to the future is to understand the possibilities ahead in order to make more informed decisions in the present.  Good futures work reduces the risk of being surprised or blindsided.  It can build momentum towards more favorable pathways and away from unfavorable ones (2006, 29).
Bishop and Hines have a clear goal for their futures studies - to help make a better today.  Can we as church leaders make a better today by considering tomorrow? Bishop and Hines, as a part of the Association of Professional Futurists, have outlined a fairly robust method for considering the future and applying it to the present.  The first - and perhaps most important step - is the framing of the topic of study.  This article has, so far, been mostly framing a perspective about the need for Christianity and the future.  We can consider now that Christianity will change within the next 500 years and, hopefully, we see a need for understanding the impact of those changes today. Being a part of the framing process is one of the most influential responsibilities to culture that a Christian can undertake.  Many culture shifting conversations and issues are handled by niche strategists and specialist in their area, defining questions and issues to any topic before it become mainstream.  Years of research proving the cloning was feasible we undertaken before the reality was ever covered by Time magazine.  GLBT groups were fighting legal battles for decades before MTV launched the LOGO network.  There are conversations that are nearing public consumption today (pedophilia, cybernetic enhancements, the church of Scientology) that many Christians are oblivious to and have not been involved in.  By not being a part of these conversations - by not protecting the future 20 years ago - our lives are impacted by the cultural shifts that the church was too late to have any real influence over. After setting up perspectives and research on any given topic to frame it, there are three steps for research to any formal forecasting: scanning, forecasting, and visioneering.  Scanning is the process of putting the pieces together of separate stories.  For example, connecting the rising cost of gas and the geographical locations of churches may lead to planning for a multi-site church campus. Forecasting deciding upon what the possible futures may be for your given topic, while visioneering is interpreting what implications that future might have.  If China becomes the seat of Christianity, what does that mean for America?  If China is still persecuting the church in 2500, will that mean that the majority of Christianity will be a part of the persecuted church?  Are we preparing ourselves and our children for the reality of religious persecution? Finally, a formal strategic document would contain two sections on resolution: planning and acting.  If we determine that the future is one we should be prepared for or should alter, how do we go about doing so?  And, if we have a plan, how do we communicate and follow through with that plan? Enlightened with the idea that we can - and should - think about the future puts a burden on us as leaders in our local church.  What are the plans we have made to impact our community not simply today, but in thirty years from now.  Will you have resigned as Deacon and enjoy the senior adult ministries at your church, or will you have moved on to some other community where someone else is (hopefully) thinking about your future even now?  Will we fear for our children on topics we chose to ignore today when they rear their ramifications in a few short decades, or will we be able to smile at the alternatives we planned and prepared for? Wendell Bell explained the pain of not thinking about the future rather eloquently:
Many human capactities in any society remain undeveloped and unrealized, that is, most people never develop more than a small fraction of their potential for learning and innovation.  They generally fail to see the possibilities for change within themselves.  As adults, people tend to trudge through lifechanged tot he routines of everyday behavior that they have learned, oblivious to the more challenging and desirable alternatives open to them.  This is at least partly because most of them have not been taught to look at the world as it could be.  They have not been taught to search beyond the cultural conventions and manners of their own groups for possibilities either for their own personal futures or for their society's future. (Foundations of Futures Studies, 2007, 77)
If we as leaders are given the responsibilities to lead the church in the achievement of its mission, to minister the Gospel to believers and unbelievers, and to care for the church's members and other in the community, then we must not simply think about today and tomorrow, but of next year and the next generation.  We must continue to strive to search beyond "cultural conventions" and look beyond our "own groups" and find, and prepare, a future for the Church and her members.
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Considering the Microsoft Surface (for Ministries)

I recently had the opportunity to play with the Microsoft Surface.  The unit was just running all the basic tech demos that have been show here and there, but even still just touching the unit maade me see what all the hype is about and let me know that I was touching what will someday be as common as the television set... continued
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May I talk about Robots? (Spoiler: the answer is "No")

This post will set the tone for the next two years of my life.

But first, I have to say how much I appreciate the team over at threadsmedia.com.  They are doing a great ministry over there, trying to be honest about faith and life and trying to sort out what it means to be a Christian in today’s world.  They’ve let me play in their sandbox as an almost “adjunct” team member going to (some) team meeting and posting my thoughts on the blog.  I always want to add to the conversation and add to their ministry, never detract from it.  And that’s why I’m OK with this:

A blog post of mine was recently taken down.

The official reason is that it was off-topic from the direction the blog has been heading.  I’m ok with that.  The post (which we’ll get to in a few lines) was definitely an experiment and, honestly, not my best work.  It is more the kernel of an idea… the thoughts that I’m struggling with right now.

The intent of the blog at threadsmedia is to talk about our reactions to things that happen in life.  My post was my reaction to something I read that really hit home with me and I thought would be a great way to open up a new conversation for the readership of threadsmedia to discuss.

Ironically, I did not put the post on this blog for two reasons:

1)      I wanted to start diversifying my writing between what goes on here, threads, and my readingthebible blog.

2)      The post was written with the threads audience in mind, introducing them to my struggles in life with a topic that most people who know me personally (i.e. the readership of this blog) probably already know.

 Without further ado, the lost post of Aaron on threadsmedia.com:

***  May I talk about Robots? It was recently announced by Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp and Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Doyle that, starting in September, there will be a congressional caucus to learn about robots.  This… could be big. As robots get more and more pervasive in society, it’s important that we begin to try and figure out what the ethics and morals are for them.  Eventually, their artificial intelligence will match/exceed our own.  As robots move past being our vacuum cleaners or pets and become integrated into society, life as we know it will quickly change.So, now that the American government is waking up to the realization that there is something to discuss here, shouldn’t we as the church begin to sort out our thoughts? What happens to us, morally, if someone write some bit of code that gives robots true feelings?  Are we morally obligated to them? What happens when some software is finally written that doesn’t need to be rebooted and can stay on forever, learning and thinking… do we have a right to take out its batteries?  Are we to hold true to Asimov’s three laws… or does that essentially make these robots little more than slaves? I don’t have any kind of answer for any of this yet.  But I want to explore it.  Shouldn’t the church and all our visionaries begin to enter this conversation?  Is this something that we need to be involved in, or do we trust that this is some subject the government can handle on it’s own? How do we as Christians begin to work through our morals and spirits to something so absent of life yet so full of potential? ***

So… it’s not my best work nor is it a fully-realized document at all.  To me, the ideas presented there are more like saying “hey, there’s a thing called an iceberg” moreso than studying what’s a mile or two deep into the iceberg… let alone 100 miles deep.

This conversation, however, is so far off the norm for typical spiritual conversation that it looks odd and out of place on the threadsmedia blog.  Like I said – I’m not at all upset, wounded, or disappointed with the choice to take it down.  I get it.  I understand the reasons and fully support it.  I’ll keep on writing for the blog and be honored and amazed that they even let me have a login.

My struggle is coming down the line, though.  I’ll be seeking people to have these kinds of conversations with and I’m not sure where to have them.  I’m genuinely concerned for the Church of America that is blind to what’s happening around us in regards to science, biology, culture and, well, the future.

And so, this August, I will begin working through the University of Houston’s Studies of the Future Master’s Program under the tutelage of Dr. Peter Bishop.  I hope to join the conversation of contemporary futurists and help shape culture there.  I hope there’s a place for me in the conversation of the Church to figure out how we are to react to changes in culture that are coming.  I pray that I’ll still be loved an accepted by my Southern Baptist brethren as my words and ideas might be new.

I know that there are struggles coming for me.  It’s going to be hard to walk the line between being informative and helping change lives with my studies and not sounding like an eccentric sci-fi author.  Taking this new knowledge and translating it into some kind of text or study will have to be prompted by the Holy Spirit because I don’t know how to approach it.

I want to talk about synthetic life and what it means for Creation.  I want to talk about gay bomb warfare and what it means for sexuality.  I want to talk turning off DNA, installing auditory nerve implants and I want to talk about whether or not turning off robots is morally ok for a Christ-follower.

I’m excited to start the futurist program at UH as it will give me an opportunity to have these conversations and, just maybe, gleam some insight as to what it means for us spiritually.  Maybe one day God will grant me some nugget of wisdom worth imparting so some listening audience, somewhere.  And perhaps, just by chance, I might get to talk about robots.

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Q: Kevin Kelly | Christianity in the Next 1000 Years

Kevin Kelly.  I took three pages of notes from this man.  His talk steamrolled through the future.

Some of you might know that I’m in the opening stages of writing a book.  There are so many things he said that fall right in line with the stuff that I’ve been working on, that it was a huge encouragement that I’m heading in the right direction.  The hesitation for me is to question how my voice can even begin to matter when someone like Kevin Kelly is saying similar things… he’s going to do it bigger/better with a larger audience… so there is this fear of why should I even try?

I think for me the key here is that while I ate up his stuff, while I thought it was phenomenal, while for me just hearing this one session was worth the cost of admission… looking around I saw a lot of people that just didn’t “get it.”  The issue is a matter of what voice do you bring to these conversations.  I may not have as much experience as Kelly, but I have my own, unique voice.  Perhaps people might resonate with my sentence structure and vocabulary more than they can with Kelly.  Perhaps have do have some new and unique perspectives.  Perhaps there is room for me at this table of conversation.  But after listening to this man just throw out idea after idea that each are so revolutionary that (in my opinion) Fermi needs to consider having a full-fledged futurist conversation, it’s a bit intimidating.  But I digress.

I could spend 10,000 words pouring through the wisdom that Kelly spilled onto the Tabernacle floor.  I think these notes will be something I return to several times.  Let’s just try to get through a couple of the more “key” concepts and things that really set off stuff for me.

First of all, the future is not that far away.  By looking at birth records, Kelly finds that we need only go back 13 generations to reach 1000AD, 30 generations to reach Christ, 60 to reach Moses.  That means thinking about Christianity in 1000 years really means thinking only 13 generations out.

13 generations ago, the church was dealing with these hot issues:

·         Catholic Indulgences

·         Is the Holy Spirit from the Father or from the Son (people were killed over this argument)

·         Marriage for Priests?

·         Can we take a leavened Eucharist?

·         Will there be an Emperor Pope?

·         The Crusades

That was only 13 generations ago.  How will 13 future generations look back on our struggles?  Will things like musical style be that important then?

We’ll reach 2040 in one generation – or, really, ½ of a generation.  The social issues we’ll be dealing with in 2040:

·         End of the Boomer generation

·         Shrinking world population due to currently falling fertility rates in every country

·         Age-lust; youth is precious because it cannot be regained

·         China will be largest economy, outgrowing America

·         30% of China will be Christian

Perhaps one of the more interesting ideas is that of discerning what possible futures exist and what are impossible.  Kelly makes a great (and EXTREMELY controversial) point: every interpretation of the apocalypse has been wrong so far.  It simply hasn’t happened yet, but every generation interprets the scriptures to say that it will happen in their generation.  Kelly suggests that we realize that the apocalypse happening in our timeline is just a possible future.  And that it happening in the next 1000 years is just a possible future.  But that it hasn’t happened yet… so we need to think past it.

Denominations are growing and splintering at a rapid rate.  The number of denominations:

·         1800: 500

·         2007: 40,000

·         2100: 260,000

The current fastest growing denominations are Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness, and the Amish.  If current trends continue, the future “Christianity” will be a para-Christianity.

The last thing I’ll hit for now (I’ve skipped like half of his talk) is the dangers that a falling world population bring.  The world has always been growing in prosperity and the population has always been growing.  Futurists fear this dip in world population because they’ve never seen it happen before; the human race has always previously replenished itself.  The U.N. charts on fertility predict the human population will peak in the year 2050, and then dip down.  And that’s a conservative estimate, based on fertility rates alone – no major famine, war, etc is taken into account.

In the talkback session with Kelly later, he talked a little more about this issue, and the cause of it: People are having smaller families because of TV.

The U.N. conducted studies in Indian counties, tracking what the effect TV had on the population as it entered the areas county-by-county.  They found that as TV entered a county, the fertility rate dropped dramatically.  The culprit?  Soap Operas.

It was found that soap operas have changed women’s perceptions of their role in society and what they want for their children.  Previous to TV entering a county, a woman would want for her daughter to have a large family.  Once they began to watch soap operas, however, they same the glamorized life that smaller families had.  Smaller families meant more money, which meant better opportunities for the children.  Thus, the mothers wanted fewer children so that their children could have a more glamorized life.  TV is the best birth control, doing for countries what planned parenthood and laws couldn’t.

And yeah, I skipped a ton of stuff.  I think the key thing to glean from his talk, if none of that stood out to you, is that we must be thinking about the future generations.  They aren’t that far off.  We also need to be observant of future trends.  If a Christian publishing house is based in America, they must be actively seeking entry points into the growing Chinese economy.  We don’t simply need to be hiring Spanish-speaking employees and a Hispanic marketing expert… that’s the sort of things we should have been doing 5 years ago; America is already there.

We need to be researching the market in China.  We need to figure out how house churches utilize materials.  Do they even have a budget?  Do we even produce materials that make sense to their culture?  How do you produce a Bible study that doesn’t contain the Bible, since we don’t want out customers to die simply for having purchased our materials?

…are American Christian publishing houses, these great institutes of wisdom, these treasures of gifted writers and designers and managers who help America better understand the scriptures, our lives and our culture… are American Christian publishing houses even thinking about China?  Should they be?

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