The dominant eschatology of the churches in the west has long been variations on the belief that things are going to get worse and worse, until Jesus returns (day and hour unknown) and sorts it all out, calling ‘Time!’ on this age and ushering-in the age to come.
And as a result, churches simply don’t recognise the future before it arrives, because they aren’t looking out for it.
Collectively, some of us have become pretty good at reactively ministering to people who have been caught up in history, responding to those affected by natural disaster or war or unjust global economics. But (with a few notable exceptions, like the prophetic voice of futurologist Tom Sine) we haven’t learnt the skills of discerning what is coming next, in order to offer a better future.
Other people have done this: business leaders are interested in ‘future-proofing’ their assets; environmental scientists look to engage with the realities of global warming.
Bishop Tom Wright (among others) presents an eschatological understanding whereby the kingdom of God increasingly breaks into the present until the present is overwhelmed and the kingdom is fulfilled, in a renewed earth and a renewed heaven come down to earth.
And if the kingdom is on the offensive, not the defensive (the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church; not, the gates of the Church shall prevail against the armies of hell) then, albeit resulting in sharper contrast between darkness and light, the future is supposed to be better than the present…because we are supposed to come more and more into God’s fullness of life.
As Christians, we need to be dreaming and modelling alternatives to the dreams and models of the world, pioneering kingdom prototypes.
Here are some things churches need to be dreaming and modelling in relation to now. I see hopeful evidence going on in many places, but these are tiny and fragile seedlings; and they have yet to take root in the soil of most churches.
My generation is the first generation in the west for over 200 years to be financially less well off than our parents. I’m 35, and it gets worse from my peers onwards: I was among the last in England to receive university education for which my fees and living expenses were paid for me. Today students leave with an average of £14K debt. I think my parents and parents-in-law were the first generation in their families to go to university, and I think that trend might not continue beyond their children…
But, we are sold the same dream: get a degree, get a professional career, get married, live in your own home, as a nuclear family, travelling abroad for holidays, upgrading the size and luxury of your cars, your house, the kids having their own room, their own TV, their own etc., shopping conveniently and cheaply, climbing the ladder at work, retiring on a good pension…
The housing market has out-priced itself, so that first-time buyers are excluded. A crash in value might allow such people to buy – if there isn’t a crash in personal income at the same time – but, if we merely begin the cycle again…
Regarding the ‘credit crunch,’ things are going to get much worse before they improve. Unemployment is going to rise significantly, and most likely not by gradual rise.
The cost of fuel is going to continue to rise, and again rise sharply, as demand outstrips supply; as fossil fuels are depleted; and as fuel increasingly becomes a political lever. Globally, water supply will become even more of a political lever than fuel. The cost of food will continue to rise.
Health care will overwhelm the Health Services as our populations age, and as the expanding boundaries of what can be done by medical science are outstripped by the expanding cost of being able to do what can be done; and as we face new challenges resulting from the ways in which we have met previous ones (e.g. resistant viral strains).
We are living in a time of rapid, discontinuous change. The American Dream, and its no less all-pervasive British cousin, are being found wanting. But, aren’t they the dreams our middle-class congregations have bought into? I don’t mean that as a criticism from outside that community, but a lament from within.
We need new dreams, new models, of how we live. Small-scale mixed-occupancy housing developments. Communal, rather than nuclear or individual, living will be an economic necessity: but also better for us in so many ways. Communities scaled around travel by foot, not car. We will need to grow more of the food we eat – something my grandfather used to do, when I was a boy (how far we come, what progress, to grow out of such peasant living in only half a lifetime!); food without its current carbon footprint. We might want to do that collectively, on allotments.
We will need to rediscover the church’s role as healer and educator, as hospitals and universities are increasingly unable to bear the demands on them. We will need to imagine new (or rediscover older) ways of doing business, on a more local scale of production. We will…
The question is, will we dream reactively in response to the future, or now, proactively, so as to shape it?
Thank you, God, for Tom and Tom, and others like them.