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not future perfect – andrew butcher

It’s 2051 and you’re standing up to preach to your congregation.

What might they look like?

They will be old. Over 25 percent of New Zealanders will be over the age of 65. They will have life experience, but also be facing issues of ill-health and mortality.

They will be ethnically diverse. Statistics New Zealand projections indicate that at least 16 percent of New Zealanders will be ethnically Asian by 2016 – so fast forward to 2051 and the percentage will be even greater. If you’re inAuckland, the ethnic diversity will be stark. Only half of your congregation will be ethnically European; the rest Maori, Pacific and Asian. They will probably speak English, but might not understand ‘Kiwi’ illustrations or appreciate the fast pace of the preacher’s delivery.

They will come from all faiths and none. The main reason for the decline in church attendance in New Zealand is from those who are leaving Christian churches, rather than those arriving with different faiths. They won’t have a background understanding of the Christian faith that we might have relied on once. I heard of a little child who walked into a church and asked his father why there was a big plus sign at the front. It might sound a silly example, but it illustrates that this child won’t be alone in his assumptions.

They will live in an unstable world. The global shifts between the great powers –China and theUS, the rise ofIndia, the instabilities on the Korean peninsula, the decline of the Euro – will mean that the stability we have got used to in our part of the world is unlikely to continue. The congregation may therefore be afraid, be very afraid. This current generation has never known New Zealanders at war. Future generations might have to face that harsh reality.

They will live in a fragile world. Environmental change will be swift, radical and unforgiving. Already parts of the Pacific and Asia are disappearing under rising sea waters; ‘climate change refugees’ are moving into neighbouring countries; and people’s livelihoods’ on rice paddies and arable land are under threat by the building of dams and attempted control of river flows. This will be more than a theoretical possibility; for many it will be a practical nightmare. And it won’t just be half a world away either.

They will spend less. The global financial crisis has fundamentally altered both the global economic system and the way that people use and understand money. There is no return to the heady days of debt-fuelled lifestyles. People will be forced to live within their means or find themselves relying more on help from government and others. This will be the ‘new normal’. The way we understand the spending and consumer habits of our congregations will have to change.

They will be technologically savvy. The role of social media is changing governments and will inevitably impact how people engage with all aspects of church. Maybe every preacher will have a blog, I don’t know. But the ubiquity of technological changes will undoubtedly impact our congregations and how we engage with them.

But – whatever these trends and their implications, there are two things we cannot plan for: ‘events, dear boy, events’ (as one politician put it) and the work of God in his world.

If we went back fifty years would anybody – seriously? – have predicted that the growth of the Christian church in the world would be in Asia? Would anybody – seriously? – have predicted the rise of charismatic and Pentecostal churches at the expense of traditional mainline denominations?

These trends will happen, one way or the other, and we should plan and prepare for them. But our planning should never be at the expense of spending more time on our knees praying. God’s work in this world can’t be ascertained by statistics, or maps, or global shifts. And our response to those trends won’t be to only read sociological texts, economic handbooks and guidelines on foreign policy (though those things have their place in our understanding of the world). Rather, our response will be to soak ourselves in Scripture, to understand God’s work in his world, and to be reminded that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

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Dr Andrew Butcher attends and occasionally preaches at Tawa Baptist Church, Wellington. He is Director, Policy and Research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation. His personal website is

One Comment

  1. Mark Maffey says:

    The supposition that we will be standing up to preach to a congregation may even have to be remodelled! We may be tele-congregations, everyone could be either watching you on their individual I-Pad as you simulcast from a studio. Will we even be worshipping in church buildings as we know them?

    I think your other assumptions though are correct it will be difficult to know what a service may look like in 40 years time, I might still be alive but on my Zimmer Frame. I think we need to focus on the now and work out how to raise the level of biblical literacy in our Churches.

    I think that your concluding statement is in fact where we need to be now, “our response will be to soak ourselves in Scripture, to understand God’s work in his world, and to be reminded that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

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