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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A Life-Changing Presentation

In April of 2007 I attended the very first Q Conference, and got to listen to Kevin Kelly's presentation on Christianity in 1000 Years. Sitting here a mere 18 months later, I can confirm that the message I heard on that day was truly life-changing for me. The talk gave me a focus on being able to appreciate the thrill of today, but also to think about how my choices and interests will effect not just my family but the generations to follow after me. Thinking about the future has helped me to realize just how small I am in the scope of human history - but also just how far reaching and impactful my daily life might be. I bring this back up now because Q has decided to release the talk into the wild, for free. You can check it out be going here: http://www.qideas.org/talks/ and then selecting "Christianity in 1000 Years." If you have any interest in the idea of being a futurist or if, for some reason, you want to better understand my thought process or, if you just want in on one of the few things I can honestly say was "life-changing" for me, check it out.
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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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