By Brian Mavis
When will I learn?
I’m not a futurologist. I don’t know anything about horoscopes. I brewed my tea leaves, and my Magic 8 Ball is stuck on “Reply hazy, try again.” When I look into the future, the only thing I see are people confronting me with, “Hey Mavis! Where are those flying cars with onboard waffle makers you said we would have by now?”
Let me clarify the purpose of this column. It’s not about predictions or prophecies; it’s about looking ahead, imagining what is plausible, and preparing for it. How will church be different? How will the world be different? How should you respond to the big issues of the future? It’s also about inspiring you to question the status quo.
In other words, it’s not only about responding to future conditions, it’s also about creating future conditions. It’s asking, “What will be next?” and “What SHOULD be next?”
Part of today’s work is to prepare for tomorrow. I believe you have an advantage when you look just a little bit over the horizon because it can give you an informed readiness. So here are three ways to think about the future that can help you and your church.
“I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy, but that could change.”
Before we think about trends, I want to keep in mind the admonition found in James 4:13-17.2 We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. A terrorist attack may occur, a natural disaster may strike, the Mayan calendar may have the last laugh—or, on a positive note, Jesus may return. So we need to be humble in our prognostications and plans, and today we need to do the good we know we ought to do. So Dan Quayle turns out to be right—there are some irreversible trends, but that could change.
With that in mind, let’s consider how to think of trends. Trends are “known knowns.” They are things on a fixed trajectory that will continue to have more influence in the next few years, and in some cases, many years. As the diagram3 on this page illustrates, the further out in time one projects, the less certain one can anticipate trends. Therefore, thinking about the future in the next three to five years can help us be forward thinking without being way off the mark.
• Population growth will continue to explode in the poorest countries.
• Type 2 diabetes, caused by obesity, will be the world’s most costly epidemic.
• Money transferred by mobile phone will become more common.
• China and India will use much more energy per capita; the United States may use less.
• Europe will become increasingly Muslim.
• Churches in the U.S. will become increasingly postdenominational and they will affiliate through networks.
Questions for you: What trends (“known knowns”) do you see growing in the next three to five years? How will they affect the church? How can the church affect them?
“Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. . . . Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself—its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structures; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world. And the people born then cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived. . . . We are currently living through just such a transformation.”
A road outside of Kelowna, British Columbia, is a favorite of local, drag-racing teens. It is a straight and smooth road, but at the end is a 90-degree turn with a large swamp on the outside curve of that turn.
Tim Schroeder, a local chaplain, was on duty one evening when the police received a report about a car stranded in the swamp. Tim slogged through the swamp expecting to find a lead-footed teen, but instead found an embarrassed elderly man.
After helping the man walk out of the swamp, Tim asked him, “How did this happen?” The gentleman explained he was having trouble adjusting to his new trifocals. Then he summed it up by saying, “I couldn’t see, so I kept going the way I was going.”5
If you don’t understand the changing times, and just keep going the way you are going, you can drive your church into the “swamp.”
This second diagram illustrates navigating the turn. The Sigmoid Curve (also called the S Curve for obvious reasons) models the natural life cycle of many things, from biological organisms to churches. At the beginning is the “learning phase” that dips before it rises again (think of 99 percent church plants). Next is the “growth phase” that is the sharply rising line. The third part is the “decline phase” as the S shape starts to fall. The key is to turn or “jump the curve”6 near the top of the growth phase, before the decline phase.
Of course this is easier said than done because just as you are doing your best, you jump to the bottom of another learning curve. It’s a risky move. It requires discernment to know when to take that turn. Most churches turn too late. My general advice is to ride the first curve as you cultivate the second, but don’t let that delay you from decisively taking that turn.
Questions for you: What is coming to the end of its lifecycle in your church? What new turn do you need to take? Who can help you get there?
“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Trailblazing doesn’t disregard existing trends and turns, but it does ask a different set of questions which leads to different actions. It doesn’t just respond to trends and turns, it creates them. It doesn’t “skate to where the puck is going to be”; instead it changes the rules of the game, and it gets some of the players on the opposing team, some of the fans, and the refs to join your team.
I use this diagram (at the bottom of this column) when thinking about the future along with a problem/opportunity. I study the present situation to find out what reality is. I see where the trend is going in order to imagine the probable future. Then I dream of a preferred future and figure out what it would take to make the difference. This is my favorite diagram, and I hope to share in upcoming articles specific examples of applying this model.
Questions for you: What is a problem your community or church is facing? What is the probable future (be brutally honest—reality is your friend)? What does the preferred future look like? What will it take to get there?
In 1 Chronicles 12:32 the men of Issachar were described as men “who understood the times and [therefore] knew what Israel should do.” That’s not a bad eulogy. As Christian leaders, we should also strive to understand our times and discern what God is doing. We need to learn to take the unchanging gospel to a rapidly changing world by recognizing trends, taking necessary turns, and blazing new trails.
1www.wikiquote.org. Cited to The Wall Street Journal (26 May 1989).
2James 4:13-17: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
3Tim Jones, and Caroline Dewing, Future Agenda, (Oxford: Infinite Ideas Limited, 2011, Kindle edition).
4Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society (New York: HarperBusiness, 1993), 1.
5Elmer Towns and Warren Bird, Into the Future: Turning Today’s Church Trends Into Tomorrow’s Opportunities (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 13.
6Nicholas Imparato and Oren Harari, Jumping the Curve: Innovation and Strategic Choice in an Age of Transition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996), 74.
Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as the community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.