The year 1985 introduced the movie Back to the Future. In the 26 years since its debut, people have enjoyed the film, its sequels, and its spin-offs (an animated series, a theme park ride, a video game, and a website). The movie tells about young Marty McFly, who accidentally goes back in time, driving Doc Brown’s modified DeLorean sports car outfitted with the famed “flux capacitor.” The film’s somewhat predictable plot presents the idea that past decisions determine future trends.
Maybe believers can do more than just enjoy Back to the Future; maybe they can learn something from it! Maybe, just maybe, future trends are indeed the result of past realities.
Applying that idea to global missions requires the question, Could identifiable current realities change the future of how we do missions? A look at some of the tendencies in today’s culture can help identify major influences facing the future of missions and perhaps even ministry in general.
Here then are five predictable future trends based upon current influences.
The Growing Influence of Millennials
According to the United Nations, over one billion youth live in the world today; that means one person in five is between the ages of 15 and 24 (www.un.org/events/youth98/backinfo/yreport.htm). Another source puts it this way: “The world is experiencing a marked shift in demographics. High levels of population growth in developing regions such as Asia Pacific, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean means countries here have rising proportions of youth (aged 0–14)” (http://blog.euromonitor.com/2008/11/special-report-global-youth-populations.html).
Within 12 years, the total population of the world will have grown by a billion people.
The millennial generation will change things significantly, and the massive size of this generation will predictably change the way missions will operate for decades and decades to come. Historically, ministry trends always follow significant population growth, and that will also happen with the current demographic explosion. Not only will the size of the millennial generation change the way missions operates, but the basic mind-set of millennials is vastly different than that of previous generations. One author puts it this way: “We have to understand that millennials simply view the world differently from us” (Ron Alsop, quoting Rich Garcia in The Trophy Kids Grow Up).
Based upon these demographic trends, missionaries and ministry leaders around the world will undoubtedly need to make youth ministry and young adult ministry a renewed priority. It will also become increasingly imperative for mission boards (as well as churches, by the way) to actively recruit millennials for positions of influence and leadership and for ongoing impact as this generation grows into adulthood very soon.
The Decreasing Influence of Baby Boomers
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, tens of millions of baby boomers will retire during the next decade. The American media has reiterated this statistic as it relates to the exploding number of retiring baby boomers that will soon exhaust this country’s Social Security system (Good Morning America, 1/27/2011). This generational transfer will certainly impact scores of missionary endeavors around the world as aging boomers retire from Christian service. It is imperative for churches and agencies alike to prepare now for a significant turnover in their workforce due to the coming retirement of this age group.
Baby boomers came of age during the confusion of the ’60s and ’70s and learned vicariously to “Have it your way” and “You deserve a break today.” This previously record-setting demographic segment has influenced missions methods and procedures for the past several decades with their way-of-doing-things mentality. It’s important to note that aging boomers, once the largest and most dominant generation in history, and generation X, the generation that followed, will significantly lose their cultural influence very soon to the looming millennials. It will be critical for ministry leaders to anticipate and prepare for this coming change in modus operandi.
There are basically two seemingly contradictory ways to actively get ready for this impending scenario. One, boomers should position themselves to intentionally and effectively mentor younger leaders into growing positions of leadership; and, two, mission agencies and churches must prepare to utilize retiring boomers as a potential new ministry workforce. They are likely to have the personal, financial, and social resources to continue serving long past the traditional retirement age. In other words, retiring baby boomers can be actively recruited for “second-career” ministry positions.
The Expanding Influence of Mobile Technology
Only a generation ago, a young Bill Gates turned technological culture upside down by acting on his belief that people would want their own personal computers even though this contradicted the conventional wisdom of the day. His generation is currently witnessing another technological revolution that is drastically changing the future of global communication before their very eyes.
An unmistakable example of this reality took place during the recent political uprisings in Egypt. On Friday, Feb. 11, longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down from his governmental authority following several days of public uprisings. Many American news outlets reported that these protests were fueled by young people utilizing social media websites like Twitter and Facebook. It is important to note that the course of human history in Egypt was altered, not by soldiers with guns or even bureaucrats in offices with laptops, but in the streets by young people with cell phones.
The future of instant global communication is absolutely not tied to a desk. Ask any teenager or preteen. They’d much rather have a cell phone than a computer. They’re experts at texting and rarely or never use e-mail. Have you noticed? E-mail is so yesterday!
Ministry leaders already understand the absolute imperative nature of utilizing the Internet to make instant connections with their various constituencies. Already, more people locate information about churches and ministry organizations from websites than from any other source. However, to really move ahead toward the future, leadership teams will need to strategize about how to utilize mobile technology for effective ministry communication. The rising popularity of iPads and smartphones indicates that the future of the Internet will not be limited to a home, an office, or even a “hot spot.” This is a growing reality around the world. Ministries, perhaps not unlike the young revolutionaries in Egypt, can realize the vast potential of making instant personal technological connections with almost everyone directly to their handheld mobile device. What an amazing opportunity.
The Weakening Influence of Western Culture
A recent report from the Pew Research Center made a startling prediction: the world’s Muslim population is expected to increase by 35 percent in the next 20 years, rising from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion by 2030. “Globally, the Muslim population is forecast to grow at about twice the rate of the non-Muslim population over the next two decades,” the report says, and “if current trends continue, Muslims will make up 26.4% of the world’s total projected population of 8.3 billion in 2030” (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1872/muslim-population-projections-worldwide-fast-growth). This will certainly change the face of missions over the course of the next few years.
For the past several years the world has experienced a Western-leaning youth culture. According to Elissa Moses in The $100 Billion Allowance: Assessing the Global Teen Market, “The United States is cited more than any other country as the nation with the greatest influence on teen fashion and culture.” That American cultural influence may subside quickly with the extensive growth pattern forecasted for Muslims, and ministry leaders must soon prepare for this seismic shift in cultural influence.
However, today’s youth may be more prepared for the coming cultural shift than previous generations. Authors Thom and Jess Rainer say that about 70 percent of millennials are friends with someone from a different ethnic or racial background and that 87 percent of millennials are willing to marry someone outside their racial or ethnic group (The Millennials: Connecting to American’s Largest Generation).
Another United Nations report adds that the majority (about 85 percent) of the world’s youth live in developing countries, with 60 percent in Asia alone (www.un.org/events/youth98/backinfo/yreport).
These factors indicate that the approaching global influences may look much different in the future than they do today. At this moment, the majority of teenagers around the world are very much alike as consumers of a truly media-driven way of life. The rising crest of clout from the East (the seemingly ever-growing economies of countries like China and India), combined with the predicted population growth of Muslims, points toward a cultural swing that may impact missionary endeavors for years to come.
The Continuing Influence of God-centered “Reformation”
A movement in today’s Christian culture may also help forecast a change in global ministry, and that is the rising resurgence in Calvinism and reformed theology. Pastors Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City), John Piper (Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis), and Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill Church, Seattle) are currently some of the most popular and most downloaded speakers in today’s podcast universe.
One writer says, “Weary of churches that seek to entertain rather than teach, longing after the true meat of the Word, these young people are pursuing doctrine and are fast becoming new Calvinists” (Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists).
It is not the purpose of this article to argue the validity of one theological interpretation over another. Bible scholars and theologians can certainly handle that task with much more acumen and expertise. However, it may be important to note that today’s younger generations of Christian leaders are in fact embracing a renewed God-centered reformation. Christianity may be experiencing a new generation that is fed up with entertainment and fluff. The days of a quick devotional tucked into the middle of an all-nighter or a weekend Christian rock festival may be over, replaced with a growing appetite for a serious study of Scripture. There seems to be a growing trend in some religious circles back toward liturgy and a high-church methodology. Perhaps the emerging generation will swing the ministry pendulum back toward a deeper and truly Biblical definition of discipleship.
Christian political pundit Chuck Colson made this observation: “If we want to see revival in the church, we need to be at least as serious as the Marines are about preparing men and women for battle. Perhaps we ought to rethink Sunday school, dust off the catechisms, and start teaching the Bible and theology to our young people again. If the theologically attuned young Reformed crowd is any indication, they can handle it. But it’s not just for Calvinists. Every successful Christian movement has embraced ways to effectively pass on the faith entrusted to the saints once for all” (“Doctrinal Boot Camp: Conforming to the Truth of the Faith Is Necessary for Survival,” Christianity Today).
New generations of young people seemingly crave the deeper, more serious things of Scripture and they appear to hunger for truth—for real answers to real questions. Author Gabe Lyons made this observation: “[Christians in the new generation] have rediscovered Scripture and immerse themselves in it in a way that differs from the practice of recent generations” (The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith). Christian leaders must make a renewed commitment to the truth of God’s Word presented in clear, creative, and complete ways that challenge the thoughts and lifestyles of a new generation.
My comments here are observations, not necessarily predictions. However, cultural change is coming at what seems to be warp speed. Believers must have their message and basic mandates for global outreach firmly grounded in the never-changing and always-relevant Word of God. Baptist missionary forefathers perhaps never anticipated current trends such as international jet travel, the Internet, or cell phones, yet I believe they would have enthusiastically embraced the ideas of easy, quick transportation and instant global communication.
Maybe a practical illustration can be found in the familiar Back to the Future tale. Maybe future trends can be identified by today’s current realities.
Mel Walker, president of Vision For Youth, an international network of youth ministries, is a lifelong youth ministry specialist who has led short-term missions trips to Germany, South Africa, and Italy. He also annually leads teams of high school students on missions trips to inner-city Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. He and his wife, Peggy, have three children who serve full-time in vocational ministry. Mel and Peggy attend Heritage Baptist Church in Clarks Summit, Pa.