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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One Response to “Why the Future Matters for the Church”

  1. Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!

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