I once applied for a job at Methodist Church House and was asked to prepare a presentation on the world in 2030 and the Methodist Church’s place in it. It was a fascinating exercise in its own right but also revealed the lack of research on future trends being sponsored by churches or theological institutions. I was able to discover all kinds of information about future energy use (e.g. Saudi Arabia will, by 2030 use more energy in air-conditioning than it currently exports in oil and gas) population growth, potential battlefields and economic development. But the information about religious life and more importantly the future contribution of faith communities in public life was much harder to discover. If it weren't for the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life, I would have struggled to find very much at all.
Yet, at the same time, most mainline denominations are busily investing large amounts of effort and money in strategies for evangelism , increasing recruitment to ordained ministry, and church growth; their sights are very clearly set on the future. There is much talk about the future of the church and the church of the future, but the question remains about what these strategies are based on? What analysis has been done to chart the macrotrends of our lives twenty plus years from now?
In my preaching, I spend a good deal of time encouraging Christians to look to the future. I love that phrase in the book of Hosea that talks of God ‘wooing his people into the future’ (Hosea 2:14). If the gospel is about anything, it is a message to all of us that, rather than be defined by what we have been we are given the chance to defined by what we are becoming. What is made possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a vision of a world remade in love and justice and peace and we are offered the chance to be part of that reshaping and to find a place in that world. In short Christians are people with a future.
I am perplexed that it seems so little attention is played by the church to discover what the future might look like. Is it, I wonder, a reaction to a century and more of decline experienced by most Christian denominations in the West , that we are afraid of the future because all we can see is our own demise. So much of our discourse, certainly at a local level, seems to point to a ‘golden age’ in the past where churches were fuller, Christmases were whiter, people were kinder, things on the whole were better. But how are we to reconcile that golden age thinking with the God revealed in Jesus Christ as one who disrupts and challenges and offers a vision of a future that is incomparably better to all that has gone before?
I am genuinely interested in hearing from, and reading, the work of people who are the Church’s futurists. I want to learn from those people who are scanning the horizon in order to guide our feet into the next stage of our pilgrimage. Where are the 21st century Calebs and Joshuas, and the other ten cautious spies (Numbers 13:1-33)? Do such people exist!? And if they do, where can I find them?
I feel sure that God is calling for scouts to go on reconnaissance into the Promised and. There are people who have been given the gifts and talents and insights to do the job, and I want to encourage them to use them. We need to hear the reports of all twelve, helping us to understand the challenges as well as opportunities. For we are not promised a future that will be easier or where we will be better off or more comfortable, but one that is better, because it is the place where love and justice reign supreme.
“If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:15-16)