Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Church of the Future

The future is a cipher, a code that many attempt to crack until finally it frustrates. Some people can intuit it better than others, but this is always by extrapolating from the past. The future cannot be foreseen, only predicted with varying degrees of accuracy. It is true that God and God alone knows the future—but I would suggest this is only because God is present to all times, in much the same way as God is present to all places. The future is not something that can be known. It must be made present for that to happen. But once the future is made present, it is not the future but the present—and immediately the past.

Nonetheless, predicting the future is a worthwhile enterprise. The genre of science/speculative fiction in its hard and soft forms predicts in order to prophesy, to comment on the failings or the strengths of our contemporary lives. Novels such as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four (classics, and for good reason), despite their age, continue to stamp on the cosmetically enhanced face of contemporary narcissism-in-conformity. The future will always prove to be an unintelligible puzzle, but pieces can be arranged to present some kind picture of what it might be like, even if ultimately they do not fit together perfectly.

Is the Christian Church a piece of this jigsaw? Of course. But the future of the Church (or the Church of the future), like everything else, can only be scripted on the basis of what is present and what is past. The history of the Church provides clues for what could unfold because the history of the Church is the framework from which it will unfold.

Craig Borlase’s 2159AD: A History of Christianity (DLT, 2009) is an interesting read because it assumes the importance of the past for the future. It is a history of Christianity written from the perspective of a Christian living in the year 2159. It is at once entertaining and curious to see Christianity past from the imagined perspective of Christian future. The Church is alive and very well in China and India; the evangelical wing of the Church morphs into the self-sufficient Hidden Church; and the Independent Republic of the Latter Day Saints (formerly Utah) eventually develops a cure for ageing and the military potency to strike lesser nations who stand against its geopolitical and technological expansion. These predictions are surely little more than present concerns recontextualised or taken to extremes. Even some of the language Borlase uses perhaps betrays his own assumptions: ‘Was there really quite so much fuss made over the ordination of women and gays?’ (p. 11); and there is a House Church movement resulting from the fall of Christendom, one that can ‘evolve’ and has ‘different expressions’ (p. 242), echoing for me the language of ‘fresh expressions’ and championing the desirability of the novel rather than the stability of the traditional. These things—post-Christendom, women in ecclesial leadership, LGBTI+ issues—are present concerns; they might not be so in a century or two due to sociopolitical developments that we simply cannot anticipate due to our historical situatedness.

We cannot breathe out the future until we have first inhaled the past. The future of the Church (or the Church of the future) grows from seeds sown in the past, but only God knows which ones will actually germinate. Only God knows how and in what directions the body of Christ will grow. Any prediction about the Church of the future is a commentary on the Church of the present and thus the Church of the past.


  1. A most startling 'prediction' of the future is found in E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops. He basically predicted the internet (and the ramifications thereof) about 90 years before it happened.
    I think the past is the only lens through which we can view the future. A knowledge of history, and history of the church and of theology is important. A basic knowledge of the history of the bible would also be useful, as a Christian, but that would probably get in the way of some people's agenda.

    1. Yes, I read The Machine Stops for the first time not so long ago . . . but I think I read it too quickly, as it didn't leave much of an impression on me. But one of my plans for 2017 is to re-read a lot of the books on my 'non-academic' shelves, so I'll be giving it another look.