As the twenty-first century beckons, the church faces a dual challenge.

Anniversaries and other milestones often lead us to ask questions about the future. Birthdays not only bring celebration and merriment, but also the inevitable question, “What lies ahead?” One can hardly reflect on the past without imagining what awaits us in the years to come. So permit us, just this once, to prognosticate.

Unfulfilled Promises

When CHRISTIANITY TODAY made its debut 30 years ago, theological liberalism had become discredited and no clear successor had arrived on the scene. After 30 years, we can agree that the older liberalism is indeed in shambles. And while it might be safe to predict there will be no single dominant theology within the next generation, theological conservatism will continue to gain respectability.

Perhaps, too, the founders of this magazine already saw the demise of an earlier hope that technology would destroy disease and want on planet Earth. Already the atomic bomb had destroyed, once and for all, the fond hopes of social Darwinists. Social critic Bernard Iddings Bell gave the world not ten decades or even ten years, but at best a few months to solve the threat to mankind created by nuclear warfare. And the greatest optimist of the preceding generation, H. G. Wells, had produced his Mind at the End of Its Tether, reversing all his glorious predictions of a coming utopia—false prophecies that now sound strangely unreal.

Thirty years later, there is little to suggest we should be less pessimistic. Regardless of one’s position on nuclear arms, the bomb is merely buying us a little more time. Though the superpowers have managed to deploy only words and sanctions in their battle (aside from an occasional misguided missile or bullet), other nations have been less fortunate. More than 90 wars have been fought during the last 30 years. And in spite of breakthroughs in disease control, and giant strides in food production, nearly half of this planet’s inhabitants face a daily struggle against hunger and sickness. If that’s not enough gloom and doom, some astronomers tell us there may be a runaway star or black hole that could wander into our path, snuffing us out of existence.

Faced with a threatening universe (and a more threatening social structure), modern humans flee to the safe nest of their own private worlds. At the beginning of our modern era (1611), John Donne declared with foresight: “ ’Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone … and all relation; / For every man alone thinkes he hath got / To be a Phoenix, and that then can bee / None of that kinde, of which he is, but hee.”

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During the past three decades we have watched man isolate himself from the concerns of his personal and global neighbors. Responsibility for others is rejected. Personal freedom, rather than commitment, characterizes marriage and family issues. As a result, divorce is the option of choice when relationships falter. Unwanted pregnancies have become less of a problem because abortion, once a taboo, is now respectable. And though most parents would like to turn back the clock, permissiveness reigns when it comes to rearing children. This freedom from responsibility to all but oneself is growing and will continue to afflict our society. It will be fostered by a secularism that rejects religion and knows no alternative.

The Church Of The Future

But evangelicalism, likewise, will continue to grow. As people find no enduring grounds for meaning in their secularistic philosophies and no eschatology that provides any ultimate hope, they will turn to other sources. Many will look to the cults, and many more to Eastern religions, largely due to the influx of Asians in America. Outreach-minded Protestant denominations and Parachurch agencies will experience solid growth as they meet the needs of a searching public.

American Catholicism will also grow for the same reason: it offers an alternative to an ultimately bankrupt secularism. The rapid and immense immigration across the southern border will give the Catholic church tremendous potential for growth. Roman Catholicism of the future, however, will never be the same Catholicism that dominated Europe for so many centuries. It is rapidly becoming a pluralistic religion—more like its Protestant alternative.

Rapprochement between conservative Protestants and charismatic Roman Catholics will continue at a more rapid rate. It will come in politics first, already foreshadowed by the unthinkable (but practical) union between the Moral Majority and American Catholics (Catholics are the largest single religious group within that body).

If the separatists and fundamentalists can make common cause with Roman Catholics, we can similarly expect the more conservative elements among evangelicals and Roman Catholics to discover common values. As they do, they will work together to achieve mutual goals in government and society.

Other social movements affecting the church will continue in directions already set. Racism will not disappear entirely. Yet the consciences of evangelicals have been ignited, and they know racism is wrong. The church will support efforts to bring harmony through equal opportunity and fair treatment of racial minorities.

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The role of women in the church will become increasingly important. We cannot expect over one-half of the church to remain graciously patient with their second-class status. We predict more denominations will open their doors to women in leadership positions, though the debate over ordination will continue.

As the population ages, so will the church. Retirement age will creep up to 75. Youth pastors will be supplemented or even replaced by senior citizen pastors. Retired members of the congregation will take over the labors formerly cared for by married “unemployed” women. As with the question of women in leadership, the church will recognize its need to use every Christian’s gifts if it desires to carry out the Great Commission.

The threat of nuclear war will continue to hang over planet Earth, intensified by the Vietnams, Central Americas, and Afghanistans that will surely continue. Just as World War II was followed by a continuous train of lesser wars that have never ceased, they will not stop in the next 30 years. We can hope that Russia and the United States and their uneasy partners will work out a modus vivendi. Yet someday another conflagration will come. No doubt it will begin as a conventional war. The unanswered question is: “Can it remain on that level?” And if it does not, what then? The church has struggled with the nuclear question and will remain divided on the issue of disarmament.

It is against this backdrop that the church must function during the decades to come. But the lessons of history give us reason to be optimistic. Adversity always strengthens the people of God as they depend more fully on him. Specifically, we believe the next 30 years will present tremendous challenges in missions, education, and evangelism.

Into The Next Century

The nations of the Third World will grow in national pride as well as in poverty, making more difficult than ever the entrance of American missionaries. However, missionaries from the Third World will increase in number and find greater acceptance around the world. Missionary sending agencies will concentrate on teaching and equipping Third World Christians who will become the global evangelists of the next century.

A great danger evangelicals face in the next 30 years is penetration from secularism. This will come partly through secular control of the power structure of the Western world and partly from the growth of the church through successful evangelism. Secularism will affect the church by its antagonism to a biblical supernaturalism and by its insistence upon a false freedom from responsibility that is so devastating to moral life. Ironically, the more successful the church is in its evangelistic program, the greater the threat from the materialistic secularism that has permeated our society.

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The key to meeting this challenge is doctrinal and moral instruction of its converts. Here evangelicalism can be grateful for strong and growing seminaries across the land. Unfortunately, its colleges have not done so well, enrolling scarcely 100,000 of the 12,000,000 college students today. Unless there is a radical change in government support of private college education through tuition rebates or other devices, Christian private colleges cannot compete with the public community colleges and universities dominated by secular materialism. If Christian colleges close their doors (many will), and if we do not find ways to strengthen Christian students on secular campuses, the growth in evangelical churches will be mere froth. Eventually, the movement will be weaker than before.

The greatest challenge to the church during the next 30 years, therefore, is the need for both evangelization and discipleship. We are surrounded by a materialistic, self-centered, pleasure-seeking society of individuals. As Christian witnesses, we must enter that environment to reach the lost. To the degree that we are successful in introducing them to the Savior, our task of discipleship becomes all the more urgent. It will be wonderful to fill our churches with new believers. But it is equally important to nurture them in the faith. If we win the battle for evangelism but lose the battle for discipleship, we have lost the church of the next generation. If we win the battle for evangelism, but lose the battle for discipleship, we have lost the church of the next generation.

Thus, on this occasion of celebrating the past, we call on the church to look ahead. For the past 30 years, this magazine has chronicled a movement that, in spite of occasional setbacks, has met the needs of its age. We look forward to continuing the story.

By Kenneth S. Kantzer

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