Editor’s Note: Last week we posted Syd Hielema’s prophetic and visionary “The Church of Jesus in 2047: Life After the Decade from Hell.” Wes Granberg-Michaelson and Jason Lief offer these responses.
Syd Hielema writes in the prophetic tradition. Such voices are always warnings as much as they are predictions, discerning how the future might unfold, and what is required for the faithfulness of God’s people in the present. This response comes in that spirit, not simply critiquing whether Syd’s picture of the church in 2047 is accurate, but rather what this picture of a possible future might suggest for the present.
A “Decade from Hell” could begin in only two years’ time through the inter-locking impact of climate change, war, pandemics, and more, in Hielema’s picture. With COP-27 just concluding, it’s clear that the urgent goal of limiting increases in the earth’s temperature to 1.5 degrees (c) in order to avert potential catastrophes will not be met. And already we have been witnessing the disastrous costs of global hypocrisy as deeds fail to match words and promises. Yet, resolute and courageous actions by nations, NGOs, international agencies, and the private sector could still prevent the apocalyptic scenario of a Decade from Hell.
The emerging church portrayed in 2047 reflects a deep integration of creation and redemption, with a spirituality that recovers the sacred quality of the earth. Scientific developments by that time reveal creation’s mystic mysteries. Foundations for this are present now. One of the most remarkable, and often unrecognized theological developments in last 30 years is the integration of ecological realities into the western Christian tradition. The fundamental challenge, however, is moving out of the Western Enlightenment framework that has long dominated the worldview of Christians, severing the material and spiritual worlds and regarding creation as inanimate “nature” existing for human exploitation. That broader cultural paradigm shift, suggested in Hielema’s forecast, is essential to avert a Decade from Hell and should frame a new worldview to share in our public witness.
A creative mix of cultures in de-centralized, networked gatherings, comprise the church that is described in 2047. That’s already well underway. While the largely white, established congregations, from Southern Baptist to Lutheran, are steadily losing members through death of the elderly and disinterest of the young, congregations of immigrants are increasing. Multi-racial congregations are growing. Present religious vitality in the U.S. is infused with people of color. Despite the shortsightedness and prejudice of many conservative political and religious leaders, immigrants are a key part of our present and future religious vitality. Those trends will accelerate.
By 2047, the re-centering of world Christianity in the global South, already well advanced, will be fully established. Included will be the continued growth of Pentecostalism. By that time, it’s likely that one out of every three Christians in the world will self-identify as Pentecostal or charismatic. Moreover, indigenous Pentecostal communities in the global South, often among the marginalized and involved in forms of social empowerment, will gradually displace the power of the large Pentecostal denominations centered in the U.S.
These irreversible trends in global Christianity will impact U.S. congregational life in ways probably greater than those suggested in Hielema’s picture. Forms of Pentecostal spirituality, such as prayers for healing and vibrant experiential worship, will spread into non-Pentecostal communities which will often reflect a microcosm of the diverse tapestry of world Christianity. Denominational traditions in the U.S., which often carry as much cultural as theological identity, will steadily diminish as a feature of U.S. congregational life.
The texture of U.S. Christianity in the 25 years leading to 2047 will increasingly become “de-institutionalized.” As Hielema suggests, vibrant life will grow in smaller Christian communities, house churches, and more loosely structured settings. They will function much more as “centered sets” than as “bounded sets.” The fluidity of boundaries and emphasis on inclusiveness around a core of faith identity known as much through worship and sacrament as through creeds and confessions, will challenge the structures and polities of many established denominations, including the CRC and the RCA.
Many congregations will seek and be nourished by wider affiliations and networks, but these are likely to be driven by shared mission, social engagement, and public witness. Congregational leadership will be nurtured more by mentors working through relational, covenanted groups that are connected globally. Seminaries will continue to have a role in this process, but the question is whether they can respond to the high level of adaptation required. That same question will face existing denominational structures.
Fresh forms of faith formation, discipleship, and spiritual practices will blossom and enliven the church of 2047. These will feature embodied expressions of spirituality and center the value of Christian community and relational groups in providing safe, sacred spaces in which one can explore and grow in the Christian journey. Some will draw on practices from the church’s history. For instance, I hope and expect that by 2047, Protestant and ecumenical “orders” will be formed that will invite members into highly committed forms of Christian life and witness in society. This might mirror movements such as when the Franciscans were formed and became a source of vital witness and renewal amid church structures that became hardened by the power of institutional momentum and inattention to the Spirit. Were I in denominational leadership today, I’d want to initiate the exploration of forming an order to nurture the inward and outward journey of Christian faith in a renewing social witness. My guess is that “elders” along with young people attracted by Christ but disaffected from the institutional church might respond.
Syd Hielema’s portrait of the future church a quarter century from now ends with the “NBY” expression of the emerging community around the Table celebrating the ancient practice of the church, the Eucharist. That’s a picture infused with hope. Even now, in a time when there’s an incarnational yearning to experience the integration of spiritual and material reality, and when participation in the self-giving love of God invites us into the transformation of all life, the Table centers us. We belong. Sacramental life and embodied spiritual practices, far more than rational formulas or fearful boundaries, will define the church of 2047. If we regard Hielema’s picture as prophetic, we are called to live out our faith in Jesus Christ in that pattern today.
There’s much to appreciate in Syd Hielema’s dystopian thought experiment about the future of the church. Syd’s essay invites us to imagine the future. As I have done that, I realize I am more optimistic about the future. The current polarization of American politics will not last, which means I’m not convinced the end of the American democratic experiment is near. I work part time for the National Immigration Forum as a mobilizer in Iowa and surrounding states. I spend most of my time talking with moderates and conservatives about the need for immigration reform. I tell people all the time, I’m not naïve, I’m hopeful. The current rhetoric of white supremacy and Christian nationalism, while painful, is the death rattle of a passing age. Those who benefit from the old regime know their time is short, so they’re trying to hold on to power at all costs.
The same is true for the current state of the American church. Where I live, the rhetoric of remaining faithful to biblical truth masks a deeper fear and insecurity about social and cultural change. Augustine warned Christians about fusing the gospel with a particular metaphysic, knowing that once it crumbles, so too does the basis for religious belief. Christianity is not Neo-Platonism or Fundamentalism any more than it’s patriarchal, white, or Republican/Democrat. I’m convinced the current fissures in the church are not really about faith, they’re about power. Soon, they will give way to new expressions of Christian faith.
In his prison letters, Dietrich Bonhoeffer claims the old pillars of religious life in the West are crumbling. Instead of trying to restore them, the church has an opportunity to rediscover the power of the gospel stripped of its metaphysical and ideological baggage. This is a new paradigm in which the religious God of the transcendent beyond gives way to the biblical God who in Jesus Christ is “beyond in the midst of life” (Letters and Papers from Prison April 30, 1944). This is a turn from a religious god who functions as the guarantee of a particular way of life toward the God of faith, who calls us into weakness and powerlessness. As Bonhoeffer says, “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the secular life” (Letters and Papers from Prison July 18, 1944). We have an opportunity to leave behind the immaturity of a religion that stands in opposition to the world, with its combative posture toward culture, and align ourselves with Jesus Christ who is found in the midst of secular life. Both Syd and I share a desire to see this happen.
In many ways, the church Syd imagines in 2047 is already being created. In August, Martha Draayer and I started a new church in Sioux Center, Iowa. We meet at The Fruited Plain Café, not just because the owner lets us use the space for free, but also because of the location and feel. Maria Magdalena Reformed Church is a bi-lingual, multi-ethic congregation. Although the service is in Spanish and English, there have been prayers spoken in Mandarin, Créole, and Portuguese as well. The focus of our community is not growth or power; the focus of our community is to embody the presence of Jesus Christ in the world. The posture of our church is outward facing. We’re not trying to get people to come to church, we’re trying to be present in the life of the community. There are no salaries, budgets, or programs, we are a group of people seeking to live as signs of God’s love for this world. All are welcome at Maria Magdalena. There are no ideological litmus tests; we want people to hear the good news about God’s transforming love revealed in Jesus Christ. Critical voices hope we fail, but what does failure mean when you’re not trying to be successful?
I’m hopeful about the future. We’re starting to see Christian communities disentangle themselves from the levers of cultural power. These communities transcend denominations and traditions, sharing a common hope in the revolutionary power of the gospel. Maybe, if we free ourselves from the grip of Mammon, the church might finally have the courage to stand with Jesus Christ among the poor and marginalized.
I tell my students the most hopeful movie I’ve ever seen is the Cohen brothers film No Country for Old Men. (Most of my students haven’t seen it, nor have they read the Cormac McCarthy book.) The final scene has the old, retired sheriff, who fails to catch the bad guy, recall two dreams. To me, they represent the heart of the gospel and what it means to be the church.
Two of ’em, both had my father in ’em. It’s peculiar. I’m older now than he ever was by 20 years. So, in a sense, he’s the younger man. Anyway, the first one I don’t remember too well……but it was about meeting him in town……somewheres, and he give me some money. I think I lost it. Second one, it was like we was both back in older times. And I was a-horseback, going through the mountains of a night. Going through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by. He just rode on past… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.