Are we too obsessed with anticipating the next big thing?
n 1970 American writer Alvin Toeffler coined the term future shock in his best-selling book by the same name.
Future shock is the experience an individual or even a whole society feels when rapid change is thrust on it. Just like plunging into a foreign culture can give us culture shock, we can feel overwhelmed by the shock of the future encroaching on our lives. Familiar technologies and habits are threatened in the face of rapidly changing cultural, political and these days medical realities.
Not surprisingly, a human trauma response to future shock is to do all in our power to anticipate what’s going to happen next. Let’s call this need to get an edge on the future what’s-nextism. Whether in technology, marketing, finance or medicine, the need to get a step up on the future has been a persistent mark of our current generations.
Theology and ecclesiology have not been immune to the lure of what’s-nextism. In my academic and theological career, I’ve heard – and used – more than my share of post terms: post-Enlightenment, postmodernism, postliberalism, postevangelicalism, post-Christendom and lately post-Covid.
Such new phrases often arise after weighty analysis and critique of the thing which appears to be now passing away in hopes of anticipating that which is coming. What will a postpandemic world look like? What will it mean to live in a post-Christian society? Are we edging toward a kind of postevangelicalism? And the prognostication goes on.
But here’s a question I’ve been recently considering – is there biblical justification for all this futurism, this peering into the current mix of cultural tea leaves?
On the one hand, the apostles Paul and John both make clear that the "forms of this world are passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31; 1 John 2:17). It seems logical for us to seek that which is likely to take their place. Indeed, as believers we should be confident of good things to come.
And yet Scripture attests that with the coming of Jesus Christ, the future has been made clear. Although it may have been mysterious before Christ’s incarnation, resurrection, ascension and the public promise of His return, the future is now indisputably revealed. As Paul says, "The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations … is now disclosed to the Lord’s people" (Colossians 1:26).
What is that mystery? "Christ in you, the hope of glory!" (Colossians 1:27). In other words, Jesus Christ wins!
Theology is the work of the Church in announcing the gospel to a particular historical and cultural context in ways that makes it understandable to them.
There are ever-present and real dangers of the Church engaging in what’s-nextism. I’m not talking about the need to understand our times, our culture and our political, educational and media systems. We need informed, intelligent thinkers to do this hard work for and with us. Theology is the work of the Church in announcing the gospel to a particular historical and cultural context in ways that makes it understandable to them. To do this requires keen attention to the movements and trends of our day.
Rather, the danger I’m talking about is thinking the success of the Church’s mission depends on shedding present trends and jumping on board with the next. Is Canada entering a post-Christian era? Almost certainly. Will there be a postpandemic ecclesiology or missiology? Probably.
However, here are some questions to wrestle over. If our theological future is clear, why are we so obsessed with anticipating the next big thing? What drives our theological need to predict the near and far future? Do our gospel strategies depend on knowing what’s next? These are hard questions for someone like me to ask as I’m regularly thinking about what’s next myself. But let us honestly ask – is theological futurism a sign of faltering faith and misplaced hope?
When we (appropriately) look to what’s next, let’s never forget there is only One who has already come to us from the future. That One showed up as a helpless infant in the middle of Nowhere, Roman Empire. Jesus is the only future in which we can place our faith and hope. He has already conquered death and Hades, and is already reigning from on high. He is ready in a moment to return to be with us at His Father’s call.
Multitudes desire to peer into the future. But Jesus is the "desire of the nations" (Haggai 2:7) to which we, His followers, are already privy. He has made Himself known to us and by His Spirit we already know Him as creator, Lord and king.
If there is a next on which to pin our hope, let it be Him and Him only.
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.