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Exploring Christian Futures

by Dr Jay Gary, Nov 4, 2002

pine-lRecently I took a journey up Pikes Peak, American’s mountain of inspiration. Situated where the western plains meet the Rocky Mountains, it was here that Kathryn Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful.” An Aussie friend had come to see Colorado Springs for the first time, and I was showing him around my community for two days. As we were ascending the Peak on the cog-rail, the tour guide pointed out a huge Bristlecone pine right at the edge of tree level. This tree was 2,000 years old. It had survived on that hillside since the days when Jesus had first preached that the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed. But this pine was not like those towering Sequoias of California, it was stout and a mere 50-feet tall. As the train approached this ancient tree, it appeared to be a barren trunk. But as we passed it, one could see green emerging from the midst its trunk system. For the past 500 years this new growth had emerged from its very center. This ancient pine was not only surviving, but parts of it were thriving, even in that rugged rock-strewn landscape at 11,000 feet.

Like that ancient witness of God’s creation, the church draws its life from the rocky soil of this world. As much as that tree has survived through ice, climate change, fire and pestilence, the people of God have survived. The ancient prophecies of Isaiah ring true, “But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land” (Isa. 6:13).

As Christian leaders, we operate on memory and anticipation. We look back in faith to what God has done in Christ, and then we look forward in hope to what God will yet do in our generation. Like that ancient tree, we draw sustenance from the past and cast that forward into the future, to bring forth God’s will.

Given this dynamic, how do we live in a way that opens whole new possibilities for faith? How will our communities draw sustenance from God’s light in Christ, given they are planted in hard soils of secularization, global consumerism, or religious persecution? Is there a way for evangelicals not just to be tossed about by the tsunamis of change, but to also create waves of witness, that cover the earth as the waters cover the sea?

Helping the Church

Evangelicalism is best known from its Wheaton stream, anchored in the Reformation, piety and holiness movements of the last 500 years. Over the past twenty-five years evangelicals have been hit with contrasting winds, both artic cold and equator hot. What began as a cold war “battle for the Bible” among evangelicals has now been extended into a battle for our culture. Cautious “traditionalists” and hot “reformists” have staked out territory in evangelicalism. Traditionalists insist on protecting “the received evangelical tradition” against all adjustments. Reformists emphasize the need for innovation to deepen and widen the evangelical world.

Beyond the creative tension of an evangelical right and left, this crisis in evangelical theology has widened the gap between conservatives and progressives. Younger evangelicals are now faced with a false choice between embracing tradition or innovation. This fault line even divides the generations, with the 30-something and younger leaders talking change and post-modernity, and the 60-something or older Christian leaders focusing on protecting ground they took through the culture wars.

Is there a way that we might become more biblical in our theology by embracing a both/and, rather than an either/or faith? How can the church of the 21st century build on both memory and anticipation—on both tradition and innovation? Simply put, How can evangelicals become a better church for the 21st century by being more deeply formed by the first-century?

Back to the Future

The only way forward is backwards. Global Christianity needs a theology of the future that goes beyond the modern impasse of progressivism or apocalypticism. And that biblical theology of tomorrow needs to spring directly from the New Testament, in the same way that the book of Romans fashioned the Reformation.

Apocalypticism, classical dispensationalism in this case, was a direct product of the deep philosophical divides of the modern age. As faith walled itself off from reason, fundamentalism emerged. Through this milieu, John Darby and the codification of the Scofield Bible produced a remnant theology to save the church from “apostasy.” Cultural pessimism became the context out of which the church would endure until the end.

Equally molded by Cartesian thinking, Progressivism enthroned human reason as a societal directive. Reason replaced revelation among religion, as higher criticism produced Christology-free churches such as Unitarians. This push toward universals in science and religion eventually produced the religious mainline. Liberalism embraced the official story of the modern age, with its doctrine of human progress.

Despite the Left Behind books sales, classical dispensationalism no longer under girds evangelicalism today, in terms of innovation in biblical theology. And while a strong post-conservative movement among evangelicals is afoot, it has broken with the philosophical assumptions of liberalism. In this post-enlightenment context, evangelicalism has emerged with little more than pragmatism as a working theology of the future.

Even in missiology, the emphasis is on technique and technology, rather than ministry springing from the life and setting of the New Testament. The 20th century emphasis on the kingdom of God has not extended the ability of the church to situate itself wisely in local ministry contexts with a 5, 10, or 20 year future horizon of stewardship.

The Meaning of the Millennium

In Christian thinking, eschatology has been that field of theology that orients the church to its future. Over the centuries, however, a wide range of millennial thinking has characterized Christian theology, leaving the church fractured in its approach to redemptive thinking about the past, present and future.

More specifically, eschatology is the study of last things, defining heaven, hell, the second coming, the last judgment, the resurrection, and the age to come. It is noteworthy that the church of the first millennium convened seven ecumenical councils, but not one council dealt definitively with the doctrine of the millennium. Providence may have left that task to the church of the third millennium.

Many Christian leaders embrace an eschatological agnosticism, or “pan-millennial” thinking—that it will all pan out in the end. This aversion to critically clarify the church’s doctrine of the future has allowed chaos to reign. Over the past 300 years, evangelicalism has been tossed to and fro by every kind of headwind, from postmillennial confidence to premillennial alarm, amidst amillennial ambivalence on the “conflict of the ages.” This field of inquiry has been forwarded the past twenty years by comparative books on Christian millennialism by Robert G. Clouse or Darrell L. Bock, but much more is needed in respect to relating these insights to Christian faith.

How can genuine biblical renewal come in this area for the 21st century? Recent insights from the study of Jesus in relationship to his generation can provide a good start in reassessing our theology of the future. Especially helpful in this area is the work of N.T. Wright, including his magisterial book, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 1996). Wright’s work forms a host of “third quest” Jesus studies. Placed against the backdrop of kingdom of God studies of the 20th century, they give us new clarity on the “already, not yet” understanding of redemptive history and what role the fall of Jerusalem played in the theology of Paul and the early Christians. A number of evangelical apologists, including R.C. Sproul, have been rethinking eschatology in the context of Second Temple “restoration” theology and how Jesus created his understanding of the future in that milieu. The outlines of a new rooted millennialism is beginning to emerge.

The quest to develop a theology of the future must always emerge from biblical theology, rather than from conflicting millennial maps of systematic theology.

The meaning of Christ in history and the relationship of God’s New Covenant to the future of humanity can no longer be a subject for just specialists or enthusiasts. It must become a subject for anyone who deeply cares about the “healing of nations,” i.e., the healing of whole persons and communities, the future of our planet and the destiny of humankind.

Faith and the Future

Rethinking our approach to the future is like asking a codfish to reexamine the sea. We breathe air or take in time with about as much thought as a fish takes in water. Rarely do we organize our thoughts around the past, present or future.

What is the nature of faith in view of the human future? For much of the past 400 years, science rather than religion has been extending the long-term horizon. In this context, Christian fundamentalism has focused faith on the next world, rather than this world, as if our lives were more related to eternity than to time.

Given this mix, Dr. Alex McGrath asks in his book, The Future of Christianity (Blackwell, 2002), “Will Christianity survive? And if so, in what forms? And what might be its impact on culture? How does its past affect its future.”

Does faith in this corporate sense even have a future? How will our faith shape the future—that is, what happens over the next 100, 500 and 1,000 years?

Consider God’s word through Isaiah: “Remember no longer the events of the first time, no longer consider the things of primordial days! Behold! I am doing a new thing It is already springing forth, do you not perceive it? This time I am making in the wilderness a new way and streams in the wastelands” (Isa. 43:18-19).

What hopes do you have for your church? Your ministry? Your school? Is the next ten to twenty years something you can shape and make?

Looking Forward

It used to be that the way our churches, colleges and agencies did ministry today would be the pattern for tomorrow. That constant has changed with the arrival of the post-industrial society. Alvin Toffler called this acceleration of change “future shock.”

Australian author and educator, Richard Slaughter, claims “foresight takes on added urgency during periods of rapid change and uncertainty.” He compares the need to focus on the future to the demands of highway driving. Given that braking distances increase with driving speed, “one must look ahead, focus and try to anticipate situations as they appear: speed, direction, momentum, road surface, weather, braking distances—all in split seconds (The Foresight Principle, Praeger, 1995, p. 56).

Webster’s defines foresight as an act of power of foreseeing; prescience; an act of looking forward; a view forward, or prudence. By inclination, Christianity has been better at cultivating hindsight, rather than foresight. While hindsight looks backward and foresight looks forward, both are needed in a changing world to navigate swift currents of culture.

Even though the gospel never changes, as “Jesus Christ is the same today, tomorrow and forever,” the ministry that communicates that “good news” constantly changes. Very few evangelists do campaign evangelism like they did in the 1950s, today evangelists are more likely to host family festivals in the city park, rather than run a tent meeting.

The same is true for congregations. The world in which they live has changed, and the parish must change also. Towards that, church leaders are experimenting with leadership and vision, small group programs and outreach. They are endeavoring to move the church from a social pattern of affiliation to an intentional pattern of worship and service uniquely created by a local assembly.

To a great degree, the discipline of missiology, or the study of the church’s mission, has guided leaders as they seek to lead ministries, particularly across cultures. Within this domain, the entire field of church growth arose in the ‘70s to share best practices of ministry.

But church growth and missiology have not been flexible enough to help extend the church’s horizon into the future. Christian leaders need something more if we are to serve our society with creativity, vision and leadership.

Where Ministry and Futures Meet

In the late 1980s I was very involved in helping Christian leaders evaluate the prospects for world evangelization by the year 2000. During that time I worked closely with Dr. David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia on scenarios for the 1990s. As we were creating global decadal forecasts for the church related to 2000, Barrett told me that there would be no future to AD2000 thinking apart from futures study. I didn’t fully comprehend this at the time, but I took his advice and joined the World Future Society.

The World Future Society is a professional association of 30,000 people. It had its start in the late ‘60s as social scientists began to ask what policy changes should U.S. society make in view of the emergence of the post-industrial society. Over the past thirty years the World Future Society has functioned as a clearinghouse on “futures” thinking and change agent methodologies.

All throughout the 1990s, as most evangelicals were “targeting the year 2000” as the only future for world missions, I had this background music in mind, that we must widen, not narrow our focus. By hanging out with futurists, I learned a host of things, including:

—that society is very complex, and its “future” is not controllable—but as leaders we could influence it.

—that we could not predict what will happen, but we could hold up, side by side, a range of three or four alternative future scenarios and examine how our strategies intersected with them.

—that most people of faith start with a very meager vocabulary with respect to a forward view of life, but that we could become bi-lingual with tomorrow’s trends,

—that professional futurists have a whole range of systematic tools and methods for forecasting the future, improving the ministry decisions we make today.

Could futures study help evangelicals close the perennial gap between an unchanging gospel and a changing culture? In other words, how does a congregation, a Christian college or a mission agency throw light on its own context in order to improve its ministry?

In the late-90s I looked around and saw very few “Christian futurists” helping faith communities cultivate foresight. There were exceptions. David Barrett was clarifying mission statistics worldwide with an eye to futures extrapolation. Pollster George Barna was doing something similar for U.S. churches, taking the pulse of U.S. culture. Tom Sine, author of the The Mustard Seed Conspiracy (Word, 1981) was helping people recover from “future shock” to develop alternative lifestyles to consumerism. And Drew University’s Leonard Sweet, was helping emerging leaders reach a post-modern generation with a host of books, including Soul Tsunami (Zondervan, 1999) andAquaChurch (Group, 1999).

In spite of this work on behalf of the Christian movement, there was no developed body of “Christian futures” thinking or best practices. Perhaps the closest thing in theory might be the book FuturesHuman and Divine (John Knox, 1978), by Lutheran theology professor, Ted Peters. In that book, Peters seeks to compare Christian eschatology with secular futures planning. The sacred approach has been defined by eschatology, the civic approach by futurology. As Peters sees it, these two approaches can be distinguished by the Latin terms adventus and futurumFuturum is “the future actualization of potentialities already existing within things.” Peters claims an oak tree is the acorn’s futurumAdventus, in contrast, “is the appearance of something new.” It is the future than cannot be anticipated and its arrival is not depended on present possibilities.

As Carl Braatten stated in The Future of God (Harper Row, 1969), “the future in secular futurology is reached by a process of the world’s becoming. The future in Christian eschatology arrives by the coming of God’s kingdom. The one is a becoming, the other a coming” (p. 29, cited in Peters).  Any emerging field of Christian futures would need to theoretically embrace both human and divine horizons. The future is not just an extention of the present. God is present and can do new things.

A Cord of Three Strands

In order to recover hope, we need to look backwards, inwards and forward. This involves hindsight, insight and foresight. This will require a three-fold worldview based on eschatology, millennialism and futures.

In studying biblical Eschatology, we look backwards at what God has done in Christ. Redemption is best understood in the context of God’s covenant. Through worldview analysis, we look inwards – we study history to see why the West has not entered its redemptive rest. This requires us to be fluent with cultural and church history, to compare how previous generations have understood millennialism and the kingdom of God. Then we look forward, prepared to create a future in keeping with God’s will.

Jesus’ whole ministry was about helping people recover sight. The gospel of John tells how Jesus healed a man born blind. He spit on the ground, made some mud and put it on the man’s eyes. He then told him to go wash. Some Jewish leaders did not accept this healing. Jesus said in John 9:34, “I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Following Christ is about recovering our sight, through hindsight, insight and foresight. It is about discovering a whole new world that can be made possible through grace.

Defining Futures Fluency

In her 1995 dissertation on “Futures Fluency,” Wendy Schultz identifies five proficiencies that defined a person’s leadership, creativity and vision with respect to the future. In summary, these cornerstone activities are:

1. looking for, and monitoring change
2. critiquing implications
3. imagining differences
4. envisioning ideals, and
5. planning achievement

This template is a good starting place for Christian futurists. Activity one, “Identifying and monitoring change,” relates to studying change, rather than just being disgruntled by it. It means looking at links between issues and probing for underlying cycles and trends. Public policy groups practice this skill through “emerging issue analysis.” They examine the past five years of public concern and legislative developments and then qualify those issues that have a high probability of coming from the back to the front burner over the next five years. Another way of looking for change involves considering “wildcards.” Wildcards are low probability, high impact events. Wildcards in religion could be any number of surprises, such as contact with extra-terrestrials, human life-extension, collapse of human sperm count, creation of self-aware machines, or asteroids hitting the earth. Each of these phenomena would come “out of the blue” and change the way society operates.

Just keeping an eye on change is not enough. Schultz claims that critical to creating the future is the second task of evaluating change. We need to ask, What impacts are these changes having on our day-to-day life? Who is newly advantaged, who is disadvantaged by the advent of change? What trade-offs will society make as a result?

The third future fluency is “imagining differences.” This involves identifying various scenarios or alternative futures that might come into the play, down the road. When South Africa was in transition from minority white rule to a newly representative government, citizens got together and developed the Mont Fleur Scenarios. They imagined various courses negotiations could take. If they failed to reach a settlement, the minority government would end up like an Ostrich, stuck in the past. If they reached an agreement, but didn’t act decisively to shift the power, the government could become a Lame-Duck, and society would be marked by a long-painful transition. If the new government were to aspire to economic distribution, and have little restrain, they could become like Icarus, the ancient Greek mythical figure who flew too close to the sun, only to have the wax holding his wings melt, and fall the ground. Or they could band together, and take off slowly, as Flamingos do over a lake. This fourth scenario would require compromises all around, but gave promise that the new South Africa would fly high, and stay on course economically. The Mont Fleur Scenarios did not solve the problems. They did give citizens an alternative way to think about their future, other than in apocalyptic visions of civil war.

Schultz’s fourth future fluency is “envisioning ideals.” Christian futurists are much more fluent in this area than the previous four, as our ministries focus on mission statements and ideals. We move in this realm anytime we ask, What are God’s intentions for this community? or What values of the kingdom of God are not being expressed in this conflict? Futurists call this visioning a “preferred future.”

The final component of futures fluency is “planning achievement.” This involves strategy, planning, organizing ministry to reach a preferred vision that has been articulated. Steps 1-3 of future fluency deal with forecasting, steps 4-5 deal with planning. Both are needed in order to turn our churches and ministries towards tomorrow’s challenges.

Over the past few years several friends and I have organized a “Christian Futures Network.” We are an ad-hoc group of believers who want to encourage each other in our growth as professional futurists. We have hosted various consultations and keep in touch via cyberspace. Our focus is to “help faith communities cultivate foresight.”

On July 20-21, 2003, in San Francisco we hosted a one-day invitational consultation on “Christian Futures,” just following the annual meeting of the World Future Society, “Is Your Ministry Ready for the Future?” We gathered a critical mass of Christian leaders, both those who have written in this area and those who are practitioners, to chart an agenda for the next two years of how to develop this field further. Our mission is to re-examine the church’s approach to time, history, future, culture, society and fulfillment in the midst of change. An outstanding group of theologians, historians and futurists have indicated that they are ready to work on this track: Tom Sine, Robert Clouse, Todd Johnson, Scot McKnight.

This inaugural meeting will be followed by other meetings at networks such as the Society of Biblical Literature, the World Evangelical Fellowship and the World Future Society. Grants will be solicited in order to carry out this conversation on other continents, including Europe and Asia.

Over period of two-years we will collect “best practices” in strategic leadership from congregations, colleges and mission agencies. As we grow in our shared understanding, we will publish annotated bibliographies, sticking-point questions, futures methods training and occasional papers/books. If you have an interest in the work of this “futures track,” please contact me at: Christian Futures.

Leslie Newbigin once wrote, “For the church to call for a new kind of society, she must herself be a new kind of society.” Of all institutions, the church has the potential to shape society’s future. This potential will not be unleashed apart from finding a new center and new horizon for ministry. My prayer is that the field of “Christian Futures” might help us to this end, for the greater glory of God in generations to come.


Dr. Jay Gary is president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years Jay has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

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