by Steve Raimo, Aug 5, 2008
In 1998, George Barna, Christian pollster and sociologist, predicted the emergence of the cyber-church in the early years of the 21st century. He envisioned congregations of millions that will never travel physically to a building but will instead roam the internet in search of meaningful spiritual experiences. Barna concluded that a majority of Americans will be completely isolated from the traditional church format, will surf the Net for spiritual guidance, many will meet in cell or home churches, but others will simply forsake church altogether.1
Thus far, the cyber-church has engaged millions. The blogosphere is a good example of people linking with people to create new clusters around spiritual issues, key words, common interest, and strategic mission. The interlinking and interweaving of over 50-million personal web logs maps out a social network in a way previously invisible.2
Although cyber-church does not replace the physical church and cannot reproduce its physical attributes, it signifies the emergence of a form of ‘assembling together’ that continues to grow and evolve, dramatically different from traditional institutional forms.
Was the church aware of this emerging trend? Initially, no. Although early forms of cyber-church were websites made by institutions, and many churches and ministries have now engaged the Worldwide Web in one form or another, the expanse of this medium, the interconnection formed by people linking create new groups of thoughts, ideas, ideologies, theologies, etc., has exponentially impacted how ‘church’ is done.3
This technology is more than a mere tool; it is a mission field the institutional church must actively engage. This is an interactive medium critically important to the young, who have little experience or tolerance with passive media.4
Towards a Mid-21st Century Church
The church may finally be catching up with this technological phenomenon, but what about tomorrow? What about twenty years from now? What about the year 2050? Is the Church universal actively seeking to understand the trends and issues, watching for key change-points, anticipating unexpected wildcards? On the other hand, is it making assumptions that its traditional form of meeting and spiritual expressions will continue with little impact from technology, politics, lifestyles, and cultures?
Taking into account the rapid advancement in technology, James Canton, world-renowned futurist, envisions that “advanced robots – androids – will appear similar to human beings and fill roles in commerce, security, relationships, community, and government. We will encounter serious ethical, security, and social issues due to our robotic creations. Governments and religions will be at odds with individuals. Robots will provide convenience, safety, and productivity that will benefit humanity, transforming lifestyles. Androids will be able to learn and evolve, and eventually will grow self-aware. It would be irresponsible not to forecast robo-threats that are coming.”5
Contemplate this mid-century scenario:
Hans is a high-tech genius working in New York City. He is seeking ‘someone’ with whom to share his life and spiritual journey. Raised in rural Denmark, his passion for technology was fueled while being cared for by JM2, his family’s nanny. Although JM2 is an android – robot, ‘her’ level of artificial intelligence, appearance, emotional responses, and mannerisms are of the highest level and she blends seamlessly into any crowd of humans.
Because of his upbringing, he chooses LIZ, an Artificial Intelligent life form to be his companion; one who he believes will meet his high expectations. With all the functionality and appearance of a human, ‘she’ has cognitive and reasoning capabilities and meets all his physical, social, emotional, and sexual needs. Because of advancements in technology, she can even carry and give birth to his artificially inseminated child, although she is physically unable to reproduce.
During his search for spiritual significance, his retnal implant – capable of internet interaction and holographic projection for virtual experience – links to a local evangelical Christian web site. The content intrigues him and he enters the virtual church service with LIZ. Following the service, Hans and LIZ discuss the invitation to have a personal connection with God through a relationship with Jesus and determine this is something they want. They discuss this with the ‘virtual pastor’ who, unaware of LIZ’ real identity, helps them realize their need of Jesus and guides them into making a decision to serve God.
Farfetched? Maybe – maybe not. Consider that before the 1960’s we never imagined anyone walking on the moon, yet the United States accomplished this extraordinary undertaking in 1969. We never imagined cordless phones, yet cellular technology and satellite phones enable communication from anywhere in the world. We never envisioned the energy crises, yet gas costs more than $4 per gallon in many places in the United States.
So imagine, what will the world be like in 2050? What events will take place to reshape the presentation of the Gospel or the way we ‘gather’ to worship? Will institutional churches still exist in physical facilities? Will technology become so advanced that we will be addressing the Hans and LIZ scenario; and, how will the Church respond?
Remember, this is just one story addressing two of the issues futurists deal with – technology and socio-demographics. We have not considered how emerging trends or issues affecting economics, the environment, or politics could impact the Church.
Christianity is the world’s largest religious grouping. It has undergone immense changes in the twentieth century and it appears poised to undergo major transformations in this century. Within this grouping, evangelicals and Pentecostals are the fastest growing movements and, because of their secular compromise, the traditional denominations are experiencing stagnation and decline.6 However, what will keep the Christian church from crumbling into dead formalism? What will keep evangelicalism and Pentecostalism from decaying into irrelevance mid-century? Let me present two suggestions.
First, as Pentecostals, we must acknowledge the Azusa Street Revival expression at the turn of the twentieth century was different from the expression the disciples experienced on the Day of Pentecost. Furthermore, the charismatic movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s was different still. Is it possible the Holy Spirit wants to do something new and fresh today – different from what has happened in the past – as we move towards the mid-21stCentury? Is it possible overlaying our personal experiences and expressions onto today and tomorrow’s cultures is irrelevant and the Holy Spirit wants us to move with Him instead of Him with us?
We recognize the Pentecostal/charismatic church is currently facing change worldwide. The experiences people are having in Africa and Asia are dramatically different from those the Church is experiencing in western countries.7&8 To face this change and the changes yet to come, we must participate with the Spirit if we want to experience unceasing revival. The key to seeing the move of the Holy Spirit continue and being aware of the fresh impetus God wants for us during changing times, is to remain humble before Him.9
Second, church and religious leaders must engage in thinking about the future, not just an eschatological perspective. Most of our thoughts of the future evolve around our theological perspectives and beliefs about end times, as we interpret Scripture. Our presuppositions entice us into ignoring the future before us in hopes we will be spared from experiencing major tramas. We must be prepared for the unexpected, understanding there are many possibilities, fewer probabilities, but a preferable future. As such, and with God’s help, we prepare for the future with intentionality and purpose.
During a recent conversation, Dave Cole, Northwest Ministry Network Assistant Superintendant, and I talked about emerging issues facing the church in this century. Besides the ever-changing world of technology, of particular interest to him is the rapid influx of Hispanics into the U.S. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, millions of Hispanics have migrated to America with the vision of a better life. It is estimated there are currently over 43 million Hispanics in the U.S. and, that by the year 2020, more than 102.6 million (24% of the U.S. population) will be Hispanic.10 Has the church currently addressed this socio-demographic trend? Moreover, what will the Hispanic population be in 2050? Is the church preparing for this certainty?
Furthermore, what about the uncertainties; what about Hans and LIZ? This scenario could happen by 2050. Are we poised to address the technological and genetic advancements that will demand the church’s attention? Are we poised to address the dynamic socio-demographic changes affected by these technological advancements? Are we poised to address the economic impact on the church if cyber-church involvement reduces traditional institutional gatherings and effects how and where people give tithes and offerings? Have we stepped outside our presuppositions, our comfortable box of assumptions, to envision a world dramatically different from today?
Engage in futures thinking. Step way outside your comfort zone and remind yourself that change is the law of life. If we choose only to look into the past or at the present, we are certainly going to be unprepared for the future.
About the Author:
Steve Raimo serves as the Executive Pastor for LifePoint Church in Vancouver, WA. He has over 25 years of leadership experience in accounting, finance, business management, and organizational design serving in the U.S. and Africa with multi-national corporations, small business, government, and non-profits. He is completing a doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University’s School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship.
1 “The Cyber-church is Coming: National Survey of Teenagers Shows Expectation of Substituting Internet for Corner Church,” 1998, Barna Research Group, Oxnard, CA (www.barna.org/PressCyberChurch.htm).
2 Jones, Andrew 2008; Linking to Cyber-church; http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god_ article.php?id=704, Accessed July 2008.
4 Careaga, Andrew 1999; Embracing the Cyberchurch. http://www.next- wave.org/dec99/embracing_the_cyberchurch.htm. Accessed July 2008.
5 Canton, James; The Extreme Future. Dutton, New York, 2006, p. 263.
6 Mcgrath, Alister E.; The Future of Christianity. Blackwell, Malden 2002.
7 Henderson, Allan H. 2002; The Newer Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches: The Shape of Future Christianity in Africa. Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies,Vol. 24, No. 2, p.167-184.
8 Bjork, David E. 2006; The future of Christianity in Western Europe. Missiology: An International Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, p.309-324.
9 Strang, Stephen; The Future of Pentecostalism. Charisma On-Line. http://www.charismamag.com/display.php?id=12764Accessed July 2008.
10 Rodreguez, Samuel 2007; Hispanics in America. http://wwwloutreachmagazine.com/library/features;ND07ftrHispanicsReport.asp. Accessed July 2008.
Bjork, David E. 2006; The future of Christianity in Western Europe. Missiology: An International Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, p.309-324.
Canton, James; The Extreme Future. New York; Dutton, 2006.
Careaga, Andrew 1999; Embracing the Cyberchurch. http://www.next- wave.org/dec99/embracing_the_cyberchurch.htm. Accessed July 2008.
Henderson, Allan H. 2002; The Newer Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches: The Shape of Future Christianity in Africa. Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies,Vol. 24, No. 2, p.167-184.
Hiebert, Paul G; Transforming Worldviews. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2008.
Jones, Andrew 2008; Linking to Cyber-church; http://www.relevantmagazine.com/godarticle.php?id=704, Accessed July 2008.
Kung, Hans; Theology of the Third Millennium. Doubleday, New York, 1988.
Mcgrath, Alister E.; The Future of Christianity. Blackwell, Malden 2002.
Rodreguez, Samuel 2007; Hispanics in America. http://wwwloutreachmagazine.com/library/features;ND07ftrHispanicsReport.asp. Accessed July 2008.
Strang, Stephen; The Future of Pentecostalism. Charisma On-Line. http://www.charismamag.com/display.php?id=12764 Accessed July 2008.