The temptation in watching trends is that we imagine God in Deistic fashion, as if he were uninvolved or absent in human affairs. But history is not an inevitable progression. God may choose to start a revival in the United States this decade. He may allow the U.S. to wither from a nuclear attack. Who knows what the Lord has planned? We should never speculate about the future in a way that makes God seem distant and removed.
There is, however, something to be said for understanding the times in which we live. If we can discern contemporary trends in evangelicalism, we should consider their implications and trajectory. Here are five trends to watch:
1. Chastened Expectations of Culture Change through Politics
Evangelicals will be less inclined to focus our efforts on changing culture through the political process. Books like Culture Making by Andy Crouch, To Change the World by James Davidson Hunter, and Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson are already influential among thoughtful evangelical leaders. Younger evangelicals (on both the political right and left) are increasingly put off by the politicization of evangelicalism.
Evangelicals will continue to be socially aware and active - perhaps even more than in the past - but in different ways (art, literature, movies, etc.). And even our expectations in these areas will be chastened by a theologically-driven humility regarding how much change we can effect.
2. Growth of Evangelical-Style Prosperity Teaching in South America and Africa
The new face of world Christianity is no longer the European man, but the African woman. The missionary movement has resulted in a dramatic demographic shift.
Unfortunately, the result has not always been a vibrant evangelical witness, or even a recognizable evangelicalism tainted by the prosperity gospel. In many places, the teaching is fundamentally "health and wealth" with just a few evangelical qualities. I expect the spread of evangelical-tinged prosperity teaching will persist.
3. For evangelicals in North America, homosexuality will become a wedge issue that reveals the major cracks in our theological disunity.
This decade, we will see a number of prominent evangelical pastors come out in favor of committed same-sex relationships as compatible with a life of Christian repentance. The controversy in the mainlines will reach historically evangelical churches and denominations.
A number of historically-conservative churches will surprise us on this issue. The atheological foundation at the bottom of what used to be a cultural-conservativism will give way. The distinctions between traditional and novel views of Scripture and its role in the church will become evident, with homosexuality representing the edge of the cliff.
At the same time, a large number of pastors will maintain biblical convictions on the issue of homosexuality, and yet will preach and teach on the subject less and less - as they don't want to offend newcomers in a way that would preclude a hearing for the gospel.
4. We will tighten the belt for ourselves and (hopefully) recommit to world missions.
The speed and quality of internet connectivity will fuel more mission work and collaboration with people in other countries. This exposure to other contexts will force us to re-think our historic emphasis on big buildings and maintenance. This trend is already evident, as church planting becomes more prominent, multi-site campuses become an option for many mega-churches, and guys like David Platt call us on the carpet for building "monuments" while people need the gospel (not to mention the basic necessities of life).
Many churches will rethink the purpose of big buildings because of cultural pressure (extravagant sanctuaries like the Crystal Cathedral are viewed negatively and thus become a hindrance rather than a help in reaching out), while other churches will do so because of their passion to give more to missions.
5. Polarization regarding Philosophy of Ministry
Evangelicals are already divided on the issue of ministry philosophy. I suspect these lines will become more defined in the next decade.
The attractional model will lead many churches to adopt incredibly entertaining children's church programs, youth group experiences, etc. The attempt is to hold on to an evangelical culture that is increasingly bored with church. Mega-churches will continue to compete with one another for a decreasing number of "regular church-goers."
Other churches will react to the attractional model by upholding family-centered churches and dismissing event-based evangelism. I suspect that few church leaders will read and listen to people on both sides of this discussion.
(My hope is that the missional Reformed movement, which holds a lot of promise, will work to stay rooted in biblical faithfulness, not pragmatism, so that it doesn't digress into simply the next variation of the attractional model. Right now, I see strongly missional guys taking care to make good distinctions that help prevent a drift toward the left. I also see an openness from non-missional guys to learn from the missional warning of turning into an isolated enclave. I hope this conversation continues.)
On a related note, the "worship wars" will become a thing of the past. Our society's musical taste are too fragmented for there to be a "contemporary" and "traditional" style. Young people are less and less likely to choose a church based on the style of music.
What do you think? How have you seen these trends at this early stage of the decade? Are there others that deserve mention?
Trevin Wax is the Managing Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum developed by LifeWay Christian Resources. He blogs daily at Kingdom People. He is also the author of Counterfeit Gospels (Moody, 2011).