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Forecasting the Future in World Mission

by Dr. David B. Barrett, Oct 15, 1987

dbarrettIn this paper, world-renown mission specialist David Barrett brings the work of futures research to bear on future planning for Christian mission, raising important questions for how mission agencies make their projections for the future. He also raises challenges for missiologists about how they approach the future.

IN THE YEAR 1883, the Second General Conference of Protestant Missionaries of Japan met and announced: “Japan is now embracing Christianity with a rapidity unexampled since the days of Constantine . . . Japan will be predominantly Christian within 20 years.” But one hundred years later, Japan still remains with less than 2 percent of its population as Christians affiliated to churches. The history of world mission is full of pronouncements similar to this in which confident, exact predictions have been made, only to come unraveled within a decade or two. Forecasting the future in world mission would seem a hazardous undertaking.

The Rise of Futurology

Over the past hundred years, however, an entirely new factor has entered on the world scene: the emergence of futurology as a professional discipline at the levels of university, industry, commerce, science, research, government and other spheres. Futurology, also often termed futuristics, refers to the serious study of the future.

During the 20th century, many countries have founded learned societies and research institutions devoted to this subject. In the USA, in 1966 the World Future Society was founded in Washington, D.C. By 1987, it had 23,000 members, including scientists and many churchmen, clergy, theologians, missionaries, mission executives, and even a number of missiologists. Its monthly review of the 60 or so newest books on the subject, Future Survey, is an indispensable guide to the vast range of secular issues being dealt with today. By the late 1980s, futurology has become a recognized profession, an international science, and a multidimensional art of proven value in many walks of life.

Literature and Sources

Futurology nowadays can call on a vast body of secular sources and materials. The literature and other kinds of documentation on all future periods are immense as witness the many specialist bibliographies on the future now available. Among publications in 1987 are a volume that includes a selected bibliography of 130 modern classics of futures thinking (Marien & Jennings 1987), and another which includes an annotated list of 340 futures-relevant periodicals (Future Survey Annual 1986).

The present analysis draws its examples mainly from English language literature. It must be noted that, in addition, there exists also a vast and growing literature on the future in French, German, Italian, Portugese, Russian, Spanish and a number of other major lingua francas of the world.

Futurology and Mission

Studies of the future face of Christian missions have likewise mushroomed over the past hundred years. A recent survey entitled “Evolution of the Futurology of Christianity and Religion, 1893-1980” showed that, of the 280 distinct titles of books and articles listed, some 10 percent included the word “mission” in their titles or subtitles (Barrett 1982). Many were published in missiological journals. Around 140 items, or 50 percent of all titles, dealt with the future of mission in one sense or another.

Soon after its founding in 1912, the International Review of Missions began publishing regular articles on the future face of missions in China, India, Iran, Burma, Africa, Islam, and so on. The first in this century’s spate of titles dealing with the whole subject was F. S. Thompson’s article “The Future of Missions” (IRM 1933). Similar titles were taken by other missiologists (Paton 1942), including a book of essays, The Future of the Christian World Mission (Danker & Kang 1971). Even Lesslie Newbigin, prolific writer on current mission issues, has written on the subject (1977).

With this history of concern, it is not surprising that the entire issue of the IRM for January 1987 was entitled “The Future of Mission,” containing 21 articles related to the subject. One of these articles, using the same title, foresees that “the church of the future will be a minority church in most parts of the world” (Shenk 1987:61). In similar fashion, the January 1987 issue of the journal Missiology was entitled on its cover “Future of the World Christian Mission.” And our global forum, the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS), with its journal Mission Studies, has announced as the theme of its Seventh General Congress in Rome in July 1988, “Christian Mission Towards a Third Millennium: A Gospel of Hope.”

The subject of this article has thus become a central concern of all persons committed to the Christian world mission.

A Typology of the Future: 10 Periods

Before we start thinking in any detail about forecasting the future face either of missions (the organized missionary enterprise) or of mission (the whole Biblical concept of God’s commission to the church to serve the world), we need some overall scheme to enable us to get a grasp on the entire secular discipline and its wealth of materials. I have attempted to provide one approach to this by creating a tenfold typology of the future. This divides the future into ten epochs or periods labeled as follows:

  1. The immediate future (up to one year from now).
  2. The near-term future (from one to 5 years from now).
  3. The middle-range future (5-20 years from now).
  4. The long-range future (20-100 years from now, i.e. up to A.D. 2100).
  5. The distant future (100-1,000 years from now, i.e. A.D. 2100-3000).
  6. The far distant future (over 1,000 years hence, i.e. after A.D. 3000).
  7. The megafuture (after A.D. 1 million, up to the end of our solar system).
  8. The gigafuture (after A.D. 1 billion, up to the death of all stars).
  9. The terafuture (after A.D. 1 trillion, up to emergence of a final supermassive black hole).
  10. The eschatofuture or exafuture (after A.D. 1 quintillion or 10×18 years, up to end of the Cosmos at A.D. 10100 years).

We will shortly be examining these periods, the literature they have generated, and their relevance to our own subject.

Forecasting in Mission

Forecasting has now become a major scientific profession with widespread applications and methods. There is an International Institute of Forecasters, which publishes a learned quarterly, The International Journal of Forecasting. Subject matter majors in econometrics, and most treatments are heavily mathematical often based on complex computer models.

Forecasting in mission, as we are using the phrase, is not the same as prophecy, prediction, predestination, fortunetelling, foresight, prevision, clairvoyance, divining, soothsaying, horoscopy (drawing up horoscopes) or crystal ball gazing. What forecasting is, as understood here, is a range of ways of looking at the future embodying at least the following ten elements:

  1. Identification of current or contemporary trends, issues, and concerns in missions (as exemplified in Future Trends in Christian World Mission, Knipe 1985; also Motte 1986, 1987; for secular issues management, see Coates 1986).
  2. Extrapolation into the future from current short-term mission trends (such as the annual decline in number of recruits for many mission boards).
  3. Listing all likely secular/scientific/ technological imminent or forthcoming breakthroughs/discoveries/inventions and their implications for mission.
  4. Drawing up possible scenarios of mission at specific future points such as A.D. 2001 (Buhlman 1986).
  5. Extrapolation into the future from current long-term mission trends (Snyder & Runyon 1986).
  6. Theologizing and missiologizing about available secular short-term and long-term forecasts and scenarios.
  7. Analysis of literature relevant to the future of mission, both specifically Christian or theological writings (e.g. Ramsey & Suenens 1971, Rahner 1974, also secular or scientific literature (Dicus 1983), and also the whole realm of serious science fiction (Nicholls 1979).
  8. Analysis of the vast range of extrabiblical Protestant and Catholic prophetic literature about the future (e.g. Nostradamus 1555).
  9. Attempts to foresee what kinds of totally unexpected and unpredictable discontinuities or quantum leaps in the practice of mission are likely to emerge.
  10. Consideration of the 90 or so miniscenarios which compose the biblical end-time schema, and how they relate to the biblical “signs of the times” as discerned by Christians in the past, present and future

In all such forecasting, it is necessary to strike a balance between caution and exaggeration, conservatism and undue boldness of thought.

Alternate Futures or Faces of Mission

The main approach to futurology that we set forth here is therefore that espoused by this discipline known as futurology, futuristics, future studies, future thinking, or futures research-namely, the approach of forecasting using alternate futures. That is to say, we draw up not one single scenario but a range of scenarios taking into account the various possibilities that might emerge. Rather than giving one single forecast for any particular future situation in mission, this method sets forth a range of possible alternate futures.

Future Scenarios

The creation of scenarios has become a major aspect of forecasting. A scenario to the futurist is a detailed fleshing out of all the implications of a particular specific forecasted situation-either an event, or a date, or an era, or a subject such as medicine or computers, or a topic such as the future of the church. A scenario considers all the various possibilities and then weaves them into a well-rounded whole. Usually, a scenario needs two or three book pages, or a minimum of 500 words, to depict its subject. (An example is found in O’Brien 1980:5-7, which is a 500-word mission scenario for A.D. 2000). What I am calling a miniscenario is much smaller and more concise, in its form as an entry in a chronology, it averages 20 words only. There is great value in both these longer and these shorter deliberate exercises of the imagination concentrated on a single point or period or topic or situation in future time.

The genre of literature that we call science fiction has become expert at writing far more detailed scenarios, from article length (5,000 words) up to full-length book size (100,000 words). One thinks of classic scenarios such as those in H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds (1898), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and George Orwell’s satire Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Christians have been prominent among science fiction authors from the beginning. In fact, the first description of a voyage to a lunar utopia was a satirical cosmic scenario entitled The Man in the Moone published in 1638 and written by Francis Godwin, bishop of the ancient Celtic see of Llandaff in Wales. In the same year, independently, John Wilkins, bishop of Chester in England, published The Discovery of a New World with a discourse on going to the moon in a flying machine.

The development of scenarios by science fiction writers has reached vast proportions. Standard analytical and descriptive works like Nicholls’ The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979) list and describe something like 30,000 distinct stories, novels, articles and books in the English language alone. Some of these are set in the distant past, some in the present, but the great majority of the 30,000 are future scenarios. Each of our ten periods of the future are described in scores or even hundreds or thousands of these exercises in speculative imagination. At least 2,000 of these published English-language scenarios deal with religion, or with Christianity; with other languages, the total is over 4,000. Hundreds of these scenarios handle, or relate to, the subject of the Christian world mission. No one investigating the future faces of mission can afford to ignore this staggering quantity of thought-provoking material.

Three Types of Forecasts

From another point of view, there are three main types of forecasted futures: possible futures, probable futures, and preferable futures. The future is not predestined or deterministic; to a considerable degree, we can control the future. Catholic futurist Marry Motte, FMM, even writes of us “creating a future in mission” (1987). A detailed example of this whole process of forecasting leading to present action will shortly be given under the year A.D. 2000.

We turn now to examine in detail our typology of the future, and the future faces of mission it contains.

Ten Periods of the Future

After each title below, a phrase in parentheses defines the title. A number of illustrations are given from Cosmos, Chaos and Gospel: A Chronology of World Evangelization from Creation to New Creation (Barrett 1987) where a further 800 future miniscenarios (averaging 20 words each) will also befound.

1. The immediate future (up to one year from now)

Everybody is interested in this first period. An old Japanese proverb is said to state: “He who can see three days ahead will be rich for three thousand years.” Probably all of us engage in this kind of personal planning, whether for the three days ahead or by keeping a one-year diary of future engagements or activities.

Literature on the future of the next twelve months is plentiful. The American Forecaster 1987 (Long 1986) is the fourth annual edition of a popular paperback series reviewing the future prospects of everything from jobs to space exploration during 1987. Inter alia, it forecasts that 100 USA banks will fail in the next twelve months. Is your mission agency aware whether its money is banked with any institution on the list of likely or possible failures?

What we have to remember also is that, as recent years have abundantly shown, even a twelve-month period may bring a number of new and unanticipated sociopolitical developments and scientific-technological discoveries which may drastically alter the praxis of mission. For example, Lumen 2000, the Catholic global television evangelism agency, anticipates the launching in July 1987 of a first six-language direct broadcast satellite (DBS) and the related sale in 1987 of 12 million 24-inch portable receiving dishes costing less than US$600 each. Shortly after, an 800 toll-free telephone call will then instantly deliver your personal messages to any other DBS-equipped home on Earth. Can your mission agency afford to ignore such a development?

Among other breakthroughs that some experts expect very soon are: pocket minicopiers, pocket telephones capable of reaching any individual without knowing wherever he may be on earth, multilingual instantaneous language interpretation, voice-activated speech-recognition typewriters and word processors, electronic tutors offering programmed instruction by telephone on any subject at any level of difficulty, the chemical transfer of knowledge (CTK) via pills and injections, and so on. All of these are likely to have immediate impact on the future face of mission.

2. The Near-Term Future (from one to 5 years from now)

This is the future period which probably interests your organization the most. A vast literature has emerged dealing with organizational and global five-year plans or assessments (e.g. Coplin & O’Leary 1987). Many church and mission bodies nowadays have produced one or more five-year plans relating to this period. By this they hope to mold the future face of their own mission. Some Christian futurists call this “anticipatory planning”; evangelical futurist Tom Sine has developed this approach extensively (Sine 1987). It must be heavily data-based; that is, based on all available secular and religious data, and with a constant stream of new data coming into the system every week and even if possible every day.

On the broader Christian scene, this period will certainly see a large number of major Christian conferences. All the largest confessional, ecumenical and evangelical bodies have already announced plans and dates and themes for major world assemblies before 1992. For many of these, including the Vatican and the Charismatic Renewal in the Mainline Churches, this will incorporate plans and goals for what they are increasingly coming to name the Decade of Universal Evangelization, that is the period 1990-2000.

When we are considering making forecasts in this period, or indeed in any subsequent period, it is essential to incorporate realism with regard to developments and also with regard to the opposition that the Christian world mission has faced down the ages, is facing at the present, and will continue to face in the future. The future face of both mission and missions will constantly be confronted by negative factors both internal and external-hindrances, obstacles, hostility, corruption, administrative failures, management fiascos, ecclesiastical crime, losses of nerve, tragedies, catastrophes and the like.

3. The Middle-Range Future (5-20 years from now)

During this period of the future we can expect to see the flowering of the Information Civilization. This will be based on the knowledge explosion, in which the sum total of human knowledge increases phenomenally every year. Whole new information industries emerge. Again, the secular literature is enormous (Ferrarotti 1986), because Periods 3 and 4 are the hunting grounds par excellence of most futurists today. The third period might well become termed the Final Thrust of World Evangelization; that is, the period of western Christianity’s last chance to obey Jesus’ great commission under its leadership and on its own terms. After this period, a number of scenarios see zeal and responsibility for world evangelization passing from the West to the massively growing charismatic movements among Chinese, Koreans, Arabs, Latin Americans, Indians, black Christians and the other third-world indigenous Christians.

This period contains the increasingly quoted final year of the 20th century, A.D. 2000. (Note in passing that the first day of the 21st century is not January 1, 2000, but January 1, 2001. Note also that some secular futurists are now calling for the abandoment of the Gregorian calendar and the global introduction, on that very day, of the new Constant Calendar in which dates always fall on the same week). Over the past 700 years, so many predictions have been made about this date that we will now take time to examine some of them, to construct in detail our own forecast, and to show at length how alternate scenarios can be drawn up.

The year A.D. 2000 has long been considered the most likely terminus ad quem of God’s plans for our world. Of history’s 300 distinct plans to complete world evangelization, those referring to A.D. 2000 have numbered at least 70. Fifty of these are still alive today. Think about:

  • the Protestant radio plan entitled “The World by 2000” (sponsored by the four international broadcasting agencies TWR, FEBC, HCJB and ELWA), with its aim “to provide every man, woman and child on earth the opportunity to turn on their radio and hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in a language they can understandÉ by the year 2000.”
  • its Catholic counterpart, Lumen 2000, which aims (through worldwide evangelistic TV coverage using direct broadcast satellites) “to preach the gospel of Jesus to the uttermost parts of the earth, spreading the love of Jesus around the globe” (based in Dallas, Texas, with Vatican Television in Rome).
  • the Every Home for Christ (World Literature Crusade) plan called “Into Every Home by 2000” which aims to place Christian literature in every home on earth by A.D. 2000.
  • the Catholic Charismatic Office in the Vatican implementing “Evangelization 2000,” whose published goal is: “to give Jesus Christ the 2,000th birthday gift of a world more Christian than not” (usually abbreviated as 51% Christian), or “To give Jesus a 2,000th birthday present of a billion new believers.”
  • the similar goal announced by the worldwide Charismatic Renewal in the Mainline Churches, as emblazoned on the top left corner of their official journal AD 2000: “To bring the majority of the human race to Jesus Christ by the end of the century.” The goal of its 1987 North American General Congress on the Holy Spirit and World Evangelization held in New Orleans in July, is stated as “1.5 billion new Christians” between 1987 and 2000.
  • the most formidably organized of all these plans is the USA Southern Baptists’ 1976 plan “Bold Mission Thrust,” now in its twelfth year. Its overarching objective, first published in 1976, was “that every person in the world shall have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ in the next 25 years,” now phrased as “to preach the gospel to all the people in the world by 2000.”

We ask the question therefore: are any or all of these plans likely to get anywhere by A.D. 2000? What is our own forecast, today, as to whether or not these projects are likely to reach their goals?

We can analyze this situation by reverting to the three main types of forecasted futures mentioned earlier: possible, probable and preferable futures.

–Possible Futures. First, do these plans have any possibility of succeeding? The futurist must be ruthlessly realistic here. With regard to the radio/TV plans, after 66 years of existence the organized international Christian broadcasting agencies today transmit in no more than 200 of the world’s 7,000 languages by radio, and only in 50 languages by television. It would be logistically impossible for them to even double these to 400 radio and 100 TV languages over the next 13 years.

With regard to visiting every home on earth, these number 1,700 million homes today, increasing each year by 30 million, due to the population explosion. Every Home for Christ has so far reached 680 million in the past 30 years. It is at present reaching 500,000 more each month, which is a scant 6 million a year. This means that unreached homes (as understood by this particular plan) number over 1 billion, and the goal of reaching them recedes annually by 24 million. At present rates, reaching the goal is impossible.

A similar analysis can be made of Bold Mission Thrust: to evangelize the 1.3 billion unevangelized of today’s world in the next 13 years means evangelizing 100 million of them every year. Where are the signs that anything approaching a movement of this magnitude has yet begun?

Likewise, the Charismatic goal of 1.5 billion new Christians in 13 years seems even less possible, humanly speaking. An increase of half a billion is certain because it is purely demographic-natural increase in the existing Christian community (new children born to Christian families). But the goal still calls for one billion new converts from outside of today’s Christian world. This could only happen if 77 million converts a year were won out of the great world religions-Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism-together with out of Marxism, agnosticism, atheism and so on.

While futurists accept that virtually anything may be possible in the future, our investigating futurist has some tough questions to pose: Where is this alleged mass movement going to start? Are there any indications that it will? Are the churches prepared for the violent Hindu and Muslim neofundamentalist backlash that such massive conversions are certain to engender? What about concerted retaliation on the part of ruthlessly antireligious communist regimes? Without satisfactory answers, the futurist may well conclude that these plans are, in practice, impossible unless certain extraordinary new conditions are met.

–Probable futures. Second, even if these A.D. 2000 goals were possible, are they probable? Here the futurist asks a set of even tougher questions. Some 250 plans for world evangelization over the past 20 centuries have collapsed or fizzled out within five, ten or fifteen years of their origin. In almost all cases Christians and their churches are directly to blame. Causes included: administrative fiascos, personality clashes, irrelevant doctrinal disagreements, prayerlessness, apathy, shortages of funds, embezzlements, absence of workers, rise of other agendas, diversions to other interests. The overriding problem has been the reluctance of Christians of all confessions to collaborate meaningfully at the global level. So we ask: is there any evidence that today’s set of 50 plans in the 1980s are any better coordinated than the grandiose plans of the 1880s, the 1920s, or the 1950s, all of which fizzled out? If not, it seems improbable that they will fare any better.

–Preferable Futures. Third, even if these A.D. 2000 goals were both possible and probable, are they preferable or desirable? Is this the best that Christianity can offer? Almost all the plans are products of Western Christianity in the USA or Europe (whose total Christians number under 36% of the world’s Christians). The futurist could argue that world evangelization is too important to be entrusted solely to 50 Western plans. It would be far more preferable if third-world and communist-bloc churches (who together form 64% of the world’s Christians, increase by 0.5% each year) took over a dominant lead in this respect.

To sum up, our forecast today might well be that these 50 plans seem barely possible of achievement, that even if possible, the Christian record in the past makes achievement seem improbable, and that even if possible and probable, it may well not be preferable for them to succeed in their present Western-dominated modes. At the same time, we recognize we must provide a range of alternate forecasts: under certain circumstances, some of these plans might well achieve their goals.

What can be done about this unsatisfactory situation? The value of our analysis is that it provides us with ways forward. Having completed our own range of forecasts, we now realize that the major obstacle is the ignorance all such plans have of each other, and their failure to work together, or to mesh in any degree, or to be globally coordinated. A completely new and unprecedented type of initiative is needed which, while recognize the autonomy of all existing plans, overcomes this reluctance by bringing them into close touch with each other in the total global North/South and East/West context.

Such an initiative is in fact currently being considered by up to 200 cooperating denominations, boards and agencies from around the world ranging across the entire spectrum of global Christianity, networking at the suggestion and invitation of the Southern Baptist International Board (also known as the Foreign Mission Board). As its president R. Keith Parks explained in his annual report to the 130th Session of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 16, 1987, entitled “The Cross means World Evangelization”:

Some 200 groups have made contact with your Foreign Mission Board searching for ways of mutually strengthening each other in the task of evangelizing the worldÉ We are taking initiatives in convening other Great Commission Christians to network with them in order to witness to all people more effectively and more quickly. Each group will maintain its own identity and integrity while maximizing all our efforts to share the Gospel more rapidly and more productively with everyone. We must break out of being consumed with ourselves and become more concerned about the souls of a world. We must link hearts, hands and minds with the Christians of this world if we are going to tell everyone about Jesus Christ.

4. The Long-Range Future (20-100 years, until A.D. 2100)

Leaving A.D. 2000 behind, we move on now to this next period which covers the first century of what we Christians refer to as the Third Millennium. There is a massive literature by futurists on this period (e.g. Taylor 1986). It deals with the new astroculture, space colonization scenarios, ecocatastrophe scenarios, the evolution of planetary conciousness, and so on. There is plenty on religion too. R. Heinlein’s novel Revolt in 2100 vividly describes a future global dictatorship under the guise of a sinister religious cult, the Prophets, a theocracy enforced by watchful “Angels of the Lord.” Under such a regime, world mission as we understand it would soon have been ruthlessly stamped out.

All of this literature offers us a gold mine of ideas and concepts. The challenge to use here is to extract insights from secular forecasting. All such secular forecasts have ethical, logistical, theological and missiological implications that we need to carefully work out and then demonstrate.

Based on secular parallels, it is comparatively easy to envisage future scenarios in world mission. A recent study is Foresight: Ten Major Trends That Will Dramatically Affect the Future of Christians and the Church (Snyder & Runyon 1986). This looks at trends over the next 50 years. It contains the startling forecast that the proportion of all ordained ministers and pastors in the USA who are women, which was 2 percent in 1970, will rise to 25 percent by A.D. 2000 and will probably reach 50 percent by A.D. 2050. Think what this one trend alone-reproduced endlessly as it may well be in U.S.-related churches around the world-might mean for the future face of mission.

A different scenario by another futurist sees Christianity in A.D. 2050 dominated worldwide by third-world Pentecostal-charismatic bodies, spreading like wildfire through unorganized self-replicating media churches. A third such scenario for A.D. 2080 envisages the recently converted Chinese and Arab races generating vast missionary zeal to the point where both launch independent schemes for total world evangelization completely ignoring the remnants of Western Christianity with its history of 300 plans, yet resulting in the converting of the entire world to Christ. The chronology Cosmos, Chaos and Gospel gives numerous similar miniscenarios and combines them all into four diagrammatic future faces of mission-overall scenarios of alternate futures for global Christianity and its world mission over the future periods from 1987 to A.D. 2100.

5. The Distant Future (100 to 1,000 years from now: A.D. 2100-3000)

This covers most of the Third Millennium. Our missiological thinking about this period has recently been given a major stimulus with the publication of a futuristic secular classic by two scientists entitled The Third Millenium: A History of the World, A.D. 2000-3000 (Stableford & Langford 1985). This well-illustrated and convincing book elaborates on the whole range of scientific and sociopolitical possibilities ahead for our world.

Some futurists set out a maxidemographic scenario in which the world’s population mushrooms out of control, doubling every 30 years to reach 1,000 billion by A.D. 2200. This mass of humanity then finds itself crammed into 100,000 cities of 10 million people each, with thousand-storey tower blocks each housing a million people (J. Blish & N. L. Knight 1967). Others envisage numerous cities of 100 million each, and even several with populations over one billion in size. What does all this have to say about the future face of urban mission and ministry?

6. The Far Distant Future (over 1,000 years hence)

Missiologists skeptical on this subject may be surprised to learn that even the staid International Review of Missions has written about this remote future period. In 1949 L. E. Browne, missionary theologian and Islamist at the Henry Martyn Institute, India, contributed an article on “The Religion of the World in A.D. 3000.” In it, he forecasted that no religions would remain for the human race except Christianity and materialism.

Much science fiction gives attention, friendly or hostile, to this religious dimension. Thus R. Silverberg in Up the Line presents the crucifixion of Christ as a popular tourist attraction for future time-travelers, while G. Kilworth’s “Let’s Go to Golgotha” describes all those spectators jeering at the cross as time-travelers from all past and future epochs. Silverberg also wrote a satirical story “Good News from the Vatican” in which disconcerted cardinals discover that they have just elected as pope an android robot. Another biting scenario is contained in his story “When We Went To See the End of the World” (1972), in which jaded time-traveler tourists visit distant cataclysms and spectacular apocalypses in search of thrills.

Such scenarios are not usually intended as serious forecasts of the future, let alone predictions or prophecies. They are simply exercises in the use of the imagination, presenting possible (but not necessarily probable or preferable) scenarios.

7. The Megafuture (after A.D. 1 million)

This is the sphere of astronomers, astrophysicists, and long-range evolutionists. In the megafuture, mankind has become Homo Galacticus. Wells in his 1893, The Man of the Year Million, envisages them as great unemotional intelligences, large-headed beings retaining no bodily parts except hands, “floating in vats of amber nutritive fluid,” doing little but think. They form a global brotherhood of enlightened supermen living in strongholds deep inside earth whose surface is thickly mantled with ice at absolute zero temperature.

Among specifically Christian thinkers, the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin envisaged his climactic Point Omega finally being reached and consummated at around this general period, to which we have given the round date of A.D. 2 million, with Christ as Cosmocrat and Perfector of human evolution.

8. The Gigafuture (after A.D. 1 billion)

Again, this period is another sphere dominated by astrophysicists, with an enormous literature on the last stages of stellar evolution. In this period, the scientific concept of entropy (more popularly, disorder, chaos, disinformation, decline, decay, disintegration, death) becomes of major importance in the literature describing the future of the Cosmos. Here we are dealing with multiple scenarios which, from the astronomer’s point of view, are largely extrapolations from long-term trends that have been going on since the beginning of creation.

From the Christian point of view, one level-headed scenario envisages the numerical growth of the church of Jesus Christ from A.D. 2000 (2 times 103 years after Christ) up to A.D. 4 billion (4 times 109 years after Christ). Over this period the church grows from 2 billion believers (2 times 109) of Homo Sapiens to one decillion believers (1033 persons, or one billion trillion trillion) of Homo Universalis. This is massive church growth to end all church growth. If you as a church executive were asked to administer such a church, how would you set about it? What is the future face of mission likely to resemble in this period? What meaning would our very concept “mission” be likely to have at this time?

9. The Terafuture (after A.D. 1 trillion, up to emergence of final supermassive black hole)

In the year 1783, English clergyman and astronomer John Mitchell became the first to propose the existence of black holes-collapsed stars and galaxies. Subsequently, science, popular science, and science fiction have all seized on these incredible phenomena, which number 1016 across today’s universe. Astronomers envisage them growing massively in the future and joining up into a number of supermassive black holes, finally coalescing as one monster supermassive black hole coextensive with the still expanding universe.

What have Christians in general, and missiologists in particular, got to say about all of this?

The answer to the question “Why should I bother about the terafuture?” is therefore: Why leave it only to astrophysicists? Has Christianity nothing unique to say concerning each and every future period? Many astrophysicists are, of course, believing and practicing Christians, and in that sense their research and writing have already made a specifically Christian contribution. But have not missiologists also something unique to say about each and every future period? At the very least, we could give some concerted thought, discussion and research to what the meaning of mission itself is likely to be at this remote time, and what the future face of mission then is likely to be.

10. The Eschatofuture or Exafuture (after A.D. 1 quintillion)

This final period is the arena par excellence of cosmology, the branch of physics that deals with the large-scale structure of the universe. The name cosmologists has only recently become an acceptable professional term for those astrophysicists who specialize in data and theories about the beginning and the end of the Cosmos. Every year, thousands of scientific papers are published on the origin of the Cosmos, and a smaller number on its ultimate fate.

The starting point here is for us to become familiar with the mass of materials concerning the divergent scenarios in recent writings on the end of the Cosmos. This has been summarized very concisely in an article in Scientific American by four high-energy physicists/ cosmologists entitled “The Future of the Universe: a Cosmological Forecast of Events through the Year 10100” (Discus 1983). They envisage three alternate end-time scenarios, beginning after 10 x 18 years have passed. Thus either the universe could be (1) open, with insufficient mass to halt the expansion of the galaxies, which thus continues forever; or (2) the universe could be exactly flat, with just enough mass to halt the expansion but not to reverse it; or (3) the universe could be closed, with sufficient mass, especially nonluminous mass-cold dark matter and haloes around galaxies-to halt the expansion and to reverse it. These three scenarios have been more popularly called: the Expansion Heat Death scenario, the Motionless Heat Death scenario, and the Big Crunch of Big Squeeze scenario.

A second mass of materials for us to digest is science fiction related to this period. This is serious material; a lot of it is written by professional scientists, even Nobel laureates. Again, the religious issues are often raised by non-Christians. One such is the prolific writer Isaac Asimov, a rationalist. His 1956 story “The Last Question” deals with our 10th period. As the heat death of the universe approaches, humanity finally builds its own computer-god which aspires to deity and duly creates another universe.

The third mass of materials for us to attempt to organize concerns the Christian eschatological schema of the biblical end-time, the Eschaton. It is estimated that the Bible contains 8,352 predictive verses, which is 27% of the entire total (Payne 1973). These can be summarized under 90 biblical mini-scenarios (Barrett 1987:77-80).

The biblical schema, which centers on the Parousia and the messianic rule of Christ, contains its own future face of mission. Mission places an important role in these biblical scenarios. The whole schema could fit into any one of these ten periods of the future; it must fit into one; or perhaps it fits into all ten periods. The biblical Signs of the Times take place in every era. One way or another, it culminates in the glory of God as Creator and Redeemer becoming fully unveiled at last, when God will have summed up all things in Christ.

How to fit these three masses of material into a coherent whole is a long-term challenge to any serious missiologist.

As mission futurists today, we are not claiming any special insight into these future epochs. We don’t know any better than our nonfuturist colleagues what will happen in the future. But we should know better than nonfuturists what could happen. Rather than overconfidently predicting the exact future face of mission, we ought to be able to forecast a range of alternate future faces of both mission and missions that we feel might be possible, probable or preferable.

Since on our view the future is not predetermined, we can all influence the future, both personally as individuals and collectively as the ongoing church of Jesus Christ. We can create the future of mission. We can have all the satisfaction of personally influencing the first three of our ten periods of the future, some of us the first four, all of us collectively perhaps the first six, and eschatologically in the mystery of the kingdom of God, all of us can influence the entire range of periods up to the Eschaton itself.

References Cited

(Note that a number of science fiction scenarios are referred to the encyclopedia Nicholls, 1979, which lists and describes each author’s entire output, as do, in varying degrees, Clark 1978 and Wingrove 1984).

Asimov, I.
1956 “The Last Question”, in Nicholls, 1979

Barrett, D.B. 1982 “Evolution of the Futurology of Christianity and Religion, 1893-1980” in World Christian Encyclopedia, Nairobi: Oxford University Press, pp. 854-856

_______. 1987 Cosmos, Chaos and Gospel: a Chronology of World Evangelization from Creation to New Creation, Global Evangelization Movement: The A.D. 2000 series, No. 5, Birmingham, AL: New Hope Press.

Blish, J. and Knight, N. L.
1967 A Torrent of Faces, Garden City, NY: Doubleday

Browne, L. E.
1949 “The Religion of the world in A.D. 3000,” International Review of Missions

Buhlmann, W.
1986 The church of the future: a model for the year 2001, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis

Clarke, A. C.
1982 2010: Odyssey Two, London: Granada
1986 The Songs of Distant Earth, New York: Ballantine

Clarke, I. F.
1978 Tale of the Future, from the Beginning to the Present Day: An Annotated Bibliography, London: Library Association (chronological listing of 3,800 titles in science fiction from 1644 to 1976)

Coates, J. F.
1986 Issues Management: How You Can Plan, Organize and Manage for the Future, Mt. Airy, MD: Lomond Publications

Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (Geneva)
1987 “The Future of Mission,” 21 articles in International Review of Mission, LXXVI, 301 (January)

Coplin, W. D. and O’Leary, M. K.
1987 “World Political/Business Risk Analysis for 1987,” 15:1, Planning Review (Jan.-Feb.), 34-40 (five-year forecasts for each of 85 countries).

Danker, W. J. and Kang, W. J. (eds)
1971 The Future of the Christian World Mission, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

Dicus, D. A., et alii
1983 “The Future of the Universe: A Cosmological Forecast of Events through the Year 10100,” Scientific American, 248(3), 90-101. (A technical but very readable paper, for a more popular account by a cosmologist, see Rothman 1987).

Ferrarotti, F.
1986 Five scenarios for the year 2000, Westporn, CT: Greenwood

Heinlein, R.
1940 Revolt in 2000, Chicago: Shasta.

Huxley, A.
1931 Brave New World, New York: Harper & Row.

Kilworth, G.
1975 “Let’s Go to Golgotha”, The Gollancz/Sunday Times Best Science Fiction Stories, London

Knipe, W. (ed.)
1985 Proceedings of the Inter-Church Consultation on Future Trends in Christian World Mission, February 15-17, 1985, Maryknoll, NY

Long, K.
1986 The American Forecaster 1987, 4th edition, Philadelphia, PA: Running Press

Marien, M. and Jennings, L. (eds)
1987 What I have learned: thinking about the future then and now, Westport, CT: Greenwood

Motte, Mary
1986 “A Critical Examination of Mission Today: Research Project Report, Phase I.” Washington, DC: US Catholic Mission Association (85-page report on survey involving questionnaires from respondents worldwide)

1987 “Participation and Common Witness: Creating a Future in Mission,” Missiology, XV, 1 (January)

Newbigin, L.
1977 “The Future of Missions and Missionaries,” Review and Expositor

Nicholls, P. (ed.)
1979 The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: An Illustrated A to Z, London: Granada

Nostradamus, Michel de
1555 Centuries (continuously in print for over 400 years; see Prophecies, New York: Liveright/Norton, 1970).

O’Brien, Bill
1980 Missions for Tomorrow, Nashville, TN: Convention Press

Orwell, G.
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four, London: Secker & Warburg

Parks, R. K.
1987 “The Cross Means World Evangelization,” Annual Report of Foreign Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention Annual

Paton, W.
1942 “The Future of the Missionary Enterprise,” International Review of Missions

Payne, J.B.
1973 Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy: the Complete Guide to Scriptural Predictions and Their Fulfillment, New York: Harper & Row

Rahner, K.
1973 The Shape of the Church to Come, London: SPCK

Ramsey, A. M. and Suenens, L. J.
1971 The Future of the Christian Church, London: SCM

Rothman, T.
1987 “This is the Way the World Ends: the End of the Universe, How and When,” Discover, 8, 7 (July), 82-93

Shenk, W. R.
1987 “The Future of Mission,” in International Review of Mission, LXXVI, 301 (January)

Silverberg, R.
1969 Up the Line, New York: Ballantine 1971 “Good News from the Vatican,” in Nicholls, 1979, 1972 “When we went to see the end of the world,” in Nicholls, 1979

Sine, T.
1987 “Shifting Christian Mission into the Future Tense,” Missiology, XV, 1 (January)

Snyder, H. A. and Runyon, D. V.
1986 Foresight: Ten Major Trends That Will Dramatically Affect the Future of Christians and the Church, Nashville, TN: Nelson

Sommerfield, R. E.
1965 The Church of the 21st Century: Prospects and Proposals, St. Louis, MO: Concordia

Stableford, B. and Langford, D.
1985 The Third Millenium: A History of the World, A.D. 2000-3000, New York: A. A. Knopf

Taylor, C. W.
1986 A World 2010: A Decline of Superpower Influence, Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College

Thompson, F. S.
1933 “The Future of Missions,” International Review of Missions

United Nations Population Division
1986 World Population Prospects: Estimates and Projections as Assessed in 1984, New York: United Nations

Wells, H. G.
1893 “The Man of the Year Million,” in Nicholls, 1979
1898 The War of the Worlds, London: Heinemann
1899 “A Vision of Judgement”, in Nicholls, 1979
1915 “The Story of the Last Trump,” in Nicholls, 1979

Wingrove, D. (ed.)
1984 The Science Fiction Source Book, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold (arranges and analyzes 880 authors, 2,500 novels and short stories)

World Future Society
1987 Future Survey Annual 1986, World Future Society: Washington, DC

This article first appeared in the journal Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XV, No. 4, October 1987.

David B. Barrett, Ph.D. is considered the foremost researcher of Christian missions worldwide. He is founder of the World Evangelization Research Center in Richmond, VA and editor of World Christian Encyclopedia published by Oxford University Press. A native of Great Britain, Barrett received a B.A. in aeronautics and M.A. in divinity studies from Cambridge. After service in East Africa, he was a Fulbright Scholar at Union Theological Seminary, earning his S.T.M. degree, and a Ph.D. in Religion from Columbia University, New York. Dr. Barrett has been a professional futurist associated with the World Future Society for over 15 years and has published more than 280 books, articles and reports on world evangelization. He serves on the board of reference for the Christian Futures Network.


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