Editor’s Note: Earlier this fall, we invited Syd Hielema to imagine what the church might look like in 25 years. Syd’s essay kicks off a series of posts on this topic. Next Monday, we’ll run responses from Wes Granberg-Michaelson and Jason Lief. In addition, look for a number of our bloggers to take up this theme in the coming days as well.
April 12, 2047, 6 pm. Alejandro and Jolene Flores buckle their two young children into the back seat of their electric Toyota and Alejandro carefully places the steaming casserole on the seat. Wednesday evening house church is gathering at the home of Caleb and Blessing Mubito, and they will share a meal, spend time in video prayer with a sister house church in San Pedro Sula, Honduras; read Philippians 2 together in three languages; give updates on the volunteer refugee work they do together through Rahab House, a downtown Chicago ministry; and celebrate the Eucharist. The house church has 14 members, meets every Wednesday, and almost everyone volunteers at Rahab. The members trace their roots back to six different countries on four continents and the little church itself has its roots in a joint RCA / CRC initiative.
Alejandro’s parents came to Philadelphia from Honduras in 2022, and joined an RCA church plant there. Jolene (nee DeGelder) grew up in the Guelph, Ontario, CRC church. She met Alejandro in an on-line New Testament course they took in 2032. The professor at the Reformed University had assigned them to work on a project together, and well, the project expanded beautifully into extra-curricular territory. They married in 2035, and settled in Chicago. Jolene’s family were lifelong Black Hawk fans.
Both Philadelphia and Guelph were spared the worst effects of the climate crisis that enveloped the entire earth from 2024 to 2034. During what is now called “The Decade from Hell,” life on Planet Earth was profoundly reshaped. Hurricanes, typhoons, floods, rising oceans and wildfires rendered large portions of the earth uninhabitable. Potable water became the most precious natural resource, and numerous “smallish” wars were fought over it. COVID-25 was much worse than COVID-19, and the lessons learned from that first pandemic were not up to the task of navigating the second. During that terrible decade, two billion people died from disasters, wars, pandemics, hunger, disaster-evoked diseases, and mental health related causes. Billions more simply stopped bearing children, lacking the hope and the courage to bring new life into what seemed a palliative planet.
Democracy did not fare well during that chaotic decade. Global panic led to a clamor for order, stability, and predictability, and autocrats promised all of the above. Eco-anxiety spawned all sorts of breakdowns: suicides, addictions, family conflicts, personal bankruptcies, and the chaos spread exponentially. One by one democratic governments enacted Emergency Powers Legislation which gradually evolved toward the dying of democracy and the rise of autocracy. By 2034, the only countries left with a modicum of democratic process were Finland, Iceland, Canada, New Zealand, and the newly formed breakaway nation of Cascadia (formerly Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia). Nations with highly developed IT, diversified, flexible economies, and less climate-caused damage fared moderately well, while those with single resource economies (especially fossil fuels, agriculture, and tourism) limped along the thin edge of failed statehood. Every significant issue faced by humankind was affected by the climate: race relations, gender disparities, relations between the haves and have-nots, technological developments, mental health, and the shape of faith communities.
Why did the Decade from Hell not end with an apocalyptic conflagration? The decade began with a survival-of-the-fittest, bitterly protective nationalism which contributed to a global population decline from 8 billion in 2022 to 5 billion by 2030. As the death toll increased, so did an awakening of enlightened self-interest that recognized that divided we die, together we might just muddle through. Climate change knows no borders. A completely recalibrated United Nations developed processes for coordinating economic changes, population shifts, viable technologies for large scale water desalination, massive irrigation, information sharing, and more, thereby developing an infrastructure for human survival. Rogue states soon learned that they could either join the team or die. Green technologies, which began to be taken seriously on a mass scale for the first time after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, were ubiquitous by 2034.The corn and soybean fields of Iowa are now filled with the grains used in plant-based “meat” and many varieties of market gardening. As a result, Iowa now feeds ten times as many people as it did during its meat-based years, with much less damage to the environment.
Did science and technology become the savior of civilization? That’s a paradoxical question, given that they were the primary drivers of the trajectory that led to the Decade from Hell. As they built capacity for a survival infrastructure, they continued to refine artificial intelligence. By 2047, AI has reached the point where robots / avatars are better therapists, better preachers, better visitors for the lonely, and at times even better life-partners than any human could ever hope to be. As Israeli futurist Yuval Harari noted thirty years earlier, AI has progressed to the point where the number one question facing humankind is, “What does it mean to be a human being?” which in actuality asks, “Is there a core essence to humankind that cannot be improved upon by IT?” Science did not have the capacity to respond to this question. More honestly, its only response to the second question was a simple, “No, there is not a core essence to humankind that IT cannot improve upon.” Technology reigns.
But the paradigm that declared this, thankfully, did not reign. A second paradigm quietly emerged from within the old one. As scientists labored valiantly to renegotiate the survival of human life on a devastated planet, unexpected discoveries emerged. Trees form communities that nourish, protect, and talk with each other. Whales send meaningful messages to each other across many miles of ocean. Every species of animal has its own unique language, and zoologists decoded many language patterns and learned to engage communication loops with many creatures. Galaxies form spectacularly colorful shapes that embody wondrous mathematical formulae. At the age of one week, the human fetus is like an origami explosion eager to unfold and reveal symmetrical complexities of being “fearfully and wonderfully made.” One could go on and on with similar discoveries.
Cumulatively, these discoveries unlocked secrets of the universe that displayed its inter-creaturely reciprocity in ways that evoked awe, wonder, mystery, and praise. The imagined worlds of C. S. Lewis’s talking animals and J.R.R.Tolkien’s Ents, combined with the research of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, a best-seller in 2021,were perceived in 2034 as landmark pioneering works that framed the gelling of hundreds of discoveries to form a fresh paradigm for the relation between humankind and all creation.
Biblical scholars came to recognize that Karl Barth was right: The Genesis 1 worldview, which, read heretically, culminated in “technology reigns,” needed to be embraced “polarity management style” with the Genesis 2 worldview and its much humbler celebration of the inter-relatedness of all creatures and its closing note of praise. The Genesis 1 Imago Dei needed to be held in tension with the delightful personification of all creation in Genesis 2.
The Dying of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
These opposing paradigms – technology’s dehumanization of peoples and the humanization (in effect) of non-human creation – had a dramatic effect on the church of Jesus, which brings us back to Alejandro, Jolene, and their young family on their way to house church in April, 2047. To understand the shape of their faith, we need to follow the story from 2022 to 2047.
In 2022, Alejandro’s newly married parents stumbled into a fragile RCA church plant in Philadelphia that looked like a microcosm of the United Nations. Folks there connected them with housing and employment opportunities, provided translators as they navigated legal hurdles, found rental housing and employment, and functioned as a wrap-around team until they had launched in their new land. In 2022, Jolene’s mother served as an elder in her CRC congregation, and both her parents were very active in the life of the church and the local Christian school. Her extended family gathered for Sunday dinner at Oma’s, while the Flores family ate dinner with their entire congregation after Sunday morning service. The congregation has become their extended family.
Alejandro’s parents had fled the increasing chaos of an agrarian economy destabilized by climate change and the gangs that took advantage of this instability. The superstitious Catholicism of their parents meant nothing to them, and they were delighted to discover the gospel’s winsomeness in the Philly RCA congregation. Jolene’s great-grandparents had left the Netherlands after WW II, embracing the land whose army had liberated them, and finding great comfort in a CRC church that conserved the best of home, helping them launch in a new land while also serving as a buffer from what felt like the alien evils of Canadian society.
In 2022, the Guelph church contained three very different generations, each with its own theology and its own understanding of church. Jolene’s grandparents were at the back end of the oldest third, the builders. The builders developed organizations, institutions, projects, and programs. They were animated by a “Christ transforming culture” paradigm, and leaned into a Reformed understanding of common grace, using what they built to serve as salt in society.
The middle generation were the protectors, a group that perceived significant threats to the church and the faith both from society and from Christians with differing perspectives, and their main concern was to purge the church of ungodly influences and protect its purity. The protectors emphasized the Reformed understanding of the antithesis, drawing sharp, clear lines between right and wrong, good and evil. Protectors saw the church as a light set on a hill.
In 2022, the youngest generation was too amorphous to be defined, and its ranks were swelling the numbers of the “nones,” those who refuse to be identified with any faith community. During the 25 years leading to 2047, their faith identity did become defined (and Alejandro and Jolene embody it), but we’re not there yet.
Ecclesiastically, these 25 years navigated three distinct phases: the post-Covid prelude (2022-24), the Decade from Hell (2024-34), and the post-decade recalibration (2034-47). COVID-19 left in its wake a variety of contradictory consequences. It emboldened the protectors who legislated simple clarity upon messy realities, it severely weakened local Sunday worship as the defining activity of the church (as Alan Hirsch’s parable of the chess game profoundly illustrates), and it exposed the weaknesses and sins of a number of pastors, who quietly slipped away or were publicly disgraced through sex scandals and other power abuses. The protectors’ assumption that “the end justifies the means” furthered the explosive growth of the disillusioned “nones,” as did the church’s noisy refusal to accept pandemic protocols. These two years served as a prelude for the Decade from Hell.
That terrible decade began quietly, and hit a seismic tipping point when simultaneous weather events, COVID-25, smallish skirmishes that merged into larger wars, and generalized global panic took over. It soon became obvious that the church was much weaker than it appeared to be. While COVID-19 served as both a revealer and an accelerator, the Decade from Hell functioned as a purging refiner’s fire. In his 2005 work Soul Searching, Christian Smith coined the phrase “Moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) as a more accurate description of the belief system held by most North American Christians. Put simply, it means, “be good so that you can feel good about yourself, and God will help solve your problems and give you eternal life.” By 2026, global realities revealed that this heresy did not have the inner robustness to navigate global trauma. Furthermore, it also became obvious that Christians on both the “right” and the “left” shared the MTD framework; they simply gave very different content to the phrase “be good,” and thus embodied variations of moralism. Controversies which had dominated church life for decades now seemed trivial and superficial. The protectors did hang on firmly as long as they could, confident that their way of being church would revitalize. But theirs was the lot of all dying movements: the volume increased as the realities declined, and finally, by the end of that terrible decade, their voices went silent.
A new kind of Christian: Generation INC
Alejandro, Jolene, and their children are now enjoying dinner at the Mubito home in Chicago. Their sister church in San Pedro Sula is present on the large screen TV. The two denominations that nourished them – the RCA and CRC – came through the Decade from Hell in tatters, very lean, but the remnant that remained was creative, energized, gentle, and embodied a lightness of spirit that belied the mood of the age. Their Reformed roots gave them a rich capacity for nuance and depth; they had the hermeneutic tools they needed to embrace the polarity management that the times demanded. Best of all, they were able to be playful. Their steadfast clinging to the sovereignty of God and the vastness of grace freed them to walk lightly amid the chaos and even death all around them.
Their denominations primarily work with networks of tiny churches, identifying wise elders who coach small groups of young leaders. This evening’s leaders, Caleb Mubito and his wife Blessing, are coached by Jonathan Kim, based in Vancouver. They are part of an NBY network of 592 house churches, the “No but Yes” network. They root their identity in the parable of the two sons found in Matt: 21: 28-32:
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
The members of the NBY network refuse to call themselves Christians. “In our century, the name ‘Christian’ has become associated with the second son, the “yes but no” son, and a theology of grace has been abused to justify YBN. Followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch, and the name died during the church’s response to the Decade from Hell.”
The NBY network also refer to themselves as “The Includers;” welcoming all into their fellowship; experiencing deep belonging is their highest value. They are Generation INC. They do not ground themselves in a statement of beliefs, but rather, in a set of values which they intentionally seek to embody together. These values include:
- Every person, creature, and life-situation is our teacher; we approach each one with curiosity, humility, and respect. Our own perspective left untended is always limiting; we need to refine each other; all truth is God’s truth (John Calvin).
- God reveals himself through the two great books, creation and Scripture (Belgic Confession). The wondrous scientific discoveries concerning the inter-relatedness of all creatures deepen our awe, wonder, and praise for our Creator – Redeemer. The NBY live with a profound sense of mystery. Creation-immersion is integral to their worship.
- Jesus is present wherever reconciliation and restoration occur, regardless of who is making it happen. Where Jesus is present, that is where the church is.
- Church buildings are a distraction from the Kingdom and often serve as obstacles to reconciliation. Their walls symbolize barriers to inclusion.
- “No one comes to the Father except through Jesus,” (John 14: 6), but one doesn’t necessarily need to know this in order for it to occur (C. S. Lewis).
- The Eucharist is celebrated at every single gathering; it holds within it all the values and longings of the NBY network.
The phrase “No but yes” was coined by a former self-identified “none,” who realized that the values of Jesus embodied in the gospels made her heart sing. When she discovered the parable of the two sons, she knew she had come home.
Alejandro, Jolene, and their two children, along with the group at Mubito’s, are concluding their time together around the Eucharist table. Blessing holds up the cup, and pronounces a biblical variation on ancient words: “Take, drink, remember, and believe that through the blood of the Lamb the entire groaning creation has been made new.” The cup is shared, a Swahili doxology is sung, and it’s time to buckle the kids in the back of the Toyota. The drive home is quiet: gentle, peaceful, contented, grateful. Tomorrow will bring many challenges, tonight is all that matters right now.