By Joe Carter
In an interview on the science in science fiction, novelist William Gibson noted, "[T]he future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." What Gibson meant was that the innovations in science fiction can already be found-at least in embryonic form-in our current ideas and technology.
Because evangelicalism is always slightly behind the curve, the task of predicting the future becomes much easier: Simply observe the cultural trends that are now spreading through the rest of culture and consider how they will affect the church a decade from now.
Following this approach, I find three specific trends already present that, when evenly distributed throughout evangelical culture, will have a significant impact on the church:
1. The use of personal technology to spark niche cultural phenomena
Twenty years ago, I met a pastor who was infatuated with the Puritans. To build a small library of writings from the literature of that era, he spent several thousands of dollars from his meager salary and several years of waiting by the mailbox for packages from obscure booksellers. He was eager to share his enthusiasm, but doing so often meant creating fellow devotees by loaning books from his precious collection.
Today, he could download almost all of those same books from the Internet-in one afternoon and for free. He could start a blog and share his interest to a potentially unlimited audience. Armed with nothing more than a laptop and an unquenchable passion, the pastor could ignite a neo-Puritan movement.
The past decade has provided a number of examples of how personal technologies can spur the growth of burgeoning factions. Both the emergent church and the New Calvinism, for instance, began in churches, conferences, publishing houses, and seminary classrooms. Yet the message spread from the clerical elite to the masses primarily through the tools of new media. Over the next ten years we can expect to seen dozens-if not hundreds-of similar, though likely smaller, movements spring up inside the church.
2. Decentralization from institutionalism and authority
The average pastor in America will deliver the Sunday morning sermon to sixty people. In contrast, a blogger who writes about religion can expect anywhere from two to one thousand times as many visitors to read their thoughts over the course of a week. The result is that thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Christians are already more influenced by their favorite blogger than by their local pastor.
Academic bloggers, particularly those who are also pastors or teach on religious subjects, can expect to have an especially outsized influence, one than often dwarfs the impact they have on their own peers and students.
Despite the importance of these new media teachers, there is no council, diocese, presbytery, or synod that oversees and sanctions these religious blogs. These bloggers are able to instruct and inspire large audiences without oversight from any higher-level church polity. Of course, evangelicals have always been loosely bound by denominational boundaries. But in the past, some form of credentialism or institutional position was necessary to reach an audience. Today, all that is required is a broadband connection.
Evangelical bloggers are not only able to gain significant influence, but are able to do so without scrutiny by a seminary, local church, or other ecclesiastical or institutional body. Indeed, some bloggers have found that their leadership on the web dwarfs the leverage they have within their local church (especially if they attend a megachurch).
This decentralization of ecclesiastical authority will have repercussions that are similar to, though likely greater than, the parachurch movement of previous generations. Whether they are Lutheran, Methodists, or Presbyterian, when it comes to religious engagement online, all bloggers act like Baptists.
3. The DIY Ethos
When the cost of personal technology decreases, the rate of experimentation increases. Processes which once required expensive equipment and professional expertise, such as filmmaking or audio production, can now be done by a child on a family's personal computer. The products created because of this access to powerful communication tools will affect the church in ways we can hardly fathom. But it is the DIY (do-it-yourself) mentality behind these processes that is likely to have the greatest significance for the church.