What Will The 3rd Millennium Hold For The Churches Of Australia?

Predicting the future is always risky. The world is such a complex place that the unexpected can always happen – apart from trying to predict divine activity! Yet we spend much of our time preparing for the future. We train leaders for the future church. We build buildings to be used in the future. We establish organisation structures to serve us into the future. To some extent, we can take the future into our hands through our imagination, creativity, and determination. We either do these things on the basis of tradition, ignoring the fact that the future may be different. We may prepare the future on some general hunches. Or, we can use the best information we can gather.

Demographic Trends

Some features of the future can be predicted with relative confidence. In particular, demographic trends do not change dramatically overnight. Some trends in the development of technology are evident, although predicting the consequences of them may be very difficult. Trends in the development of culture and opinion, in the nature of society and relationships, are less evident. Indeed, contradictory trends are often apparent.

The most dramatic changes to Australia’s population, however, have come through changes in immigration policies. Since World War II, one wave after another of immigrants has brought a multitude of new religious groups to Australia, and brought diversity to those previously well established. Immigration between 1991 and 1996 made Hinduism the most rapidly growing major religious group and the Oriental Churches, such as the Coptic Orthodox, the fastest growing of Christian groups.

Immigration is likely to bring further diversity. Perhaps we will say more immigration from Africa, and the planting of some of the African religious movements. Perhaps we will see more business men arrive from India, bringing further variety to the forms of Hinduism. Will we find more people escaping the conflicts and tensions which stretch across the Middle East? Or Indonesian Chinese seeking respite from violence they have endured?

Meanwhile, the demographic structures of mainstream churches, the Anglican, Uniting, Churches of Christ, Lutherans, and others make down-sizing a strong likelihood. The Anglo-Celtic sections of the Catholic Church is experiencing the same ageing and decline. Assuming that current trends do not change, the numbers of adult Australians in church on a typical Sunday will decline from about 1.5 million on a typical Sunday to about 1.2 million by 2010.

Mustard Seed versus

Such trends are common throughout denominations in the Western world. Two years ago, Tom Sine, an evangelical ‘futurologist’ who has visited Australia several times, released his perspectives on the future in Mustard Seed versus McWorld. He said that, even in the United States, which has very high levels of church involvement, the mainline churches were plummeting. In 1968, eleven mainline denominations represented 13% of the American population, but by 1993, this had dropped to 7.8%. He concluded ‘If the present trends continue uninterrupted these denominations will be totally out of business by the year 2032′ (p.187). As churches decline, so do their finances, and, importantly, the finances and personnel available for welfare, charity and aid.

Globalisation and Its Consequences

Sine, however, focusses on other concerns about the future. He sees the globalisation of business, communication and media the major trend for the future. He says ‘The power of this new global economic order is awesome and it has brilliantly demonstrated it ability to market not only its products but its values all over our small world’. In recent years, we have seen many areas of the market which have become dominated by one or a few very large players. McDonalds is dominated the fast-food world market. Microsoft is dominating the personal computer operating system and office software world market. There has been considerable rationalisation among manufacturers of cars. Sine says that Congara aims to dominate world agriculture within a decade, perhaps partly with the help of genetically modified seeds on which they will have a monopoly.

One possible outcome of the globalisation of business could lower levels of international conflict. International conflict hurts global business. As some of these multi-national corporations become more economically powerful than most nation-states, conflict may be transformed into economic competition rather than political domination.

While Sine is not anti-capitalist, he believes that the growth and domination of multi-national corporations is leading to a range of major challenges for the new millennium. It is certainly changing the economic balance in a range of ways. Many wealthy share-holders and top managerial staff have become very wealthy. Many of the poorest people, even within the most wealthy nations, have become poorer. Sine says that between 1989 and 1994, the number of children living in poverty in homes in which one ore more parents were working in the United States swelled by more than 30% to 5.6 million children (p.164). The middle class is being squeezed, forced to work longer hours under greater pressure to retain their incomes. Within the global economy, Sine says that ‘the employer has no responsibility to either the worker who loses his job in a car plant in Flint or to pay a living wage to a worker who replaces him in Juarez’ (p.77).

Sine sees the globalisation of business as a threat to small businesses: the local shop, the family farm, and the corner cafe. Replacement with superstores, is not just a change from a small business to a larger one, it has a range of consequences. The wealth generated by the larger businesses is concentrated in fewer hands. So also is the power of decision-making. Further, local communities are affected. Sine asks further questions about the impact of the cybernet. Are electronic communications creating virtual communities that will leave many people lonely and alienated? Yet, at the same time, they can provide opportunities for ordinary people around the world to work for justice and resist totalitarianism as never before.

Challenges in ‘McWorld’ for Christian communities

Sine argues that the Christian community has hardly begun to grapple with the issues raised by the world of business. It has tended to approach life in a dualistic way. The world of business, which Sine calls ‘McWorld’ demands more and more of people’s time and money. On the other side of the dualism, Sine says ‘following Christ is too often trivialised to little more than a devotional lubricant to keep us from stripping our gears as we charge up the mountain trying to get ahead in our careers, the suburbs, and our children’s activities’. A major challenge for the future exists within the values which McWorld is seeking to impose on people, in the consumerism, the focus on the acquisition of goods, on economic security, and also on subduing the world of nature.

In some ways, Sine’s book is more a set of sermons than a sustained attempt to predict the future. Sine wants to challenge the Christian community to find imaginative ways of creating community, of finding ways of challenging poverty, celebrating and expressing faith.

In the new millennium, the gap will increase between the expectations of McWorld and what a Christian life-style might mean. That is the setting in which Sine sees Christian communities finding new expression and new life. Sine concludes ‘I urge every church to begin mentoring the young into leadership and take seriously the visions, creative ideas and gifts God has given them. This postmodern generation is creating a whole new expression of the Church that is more relational, local, tribal and looks very different from the mega church model of the 90s’ (p.339).


Another ‘futurologist’ who has recently visited Australia is Leonard Sweet. One of his books is Soultsunami: Sink of Swim in New Millennium Culture. Sweet notes a number of issues with which people will have to grapple in the new millennium.

Regression in Environmental Problems and Advances in Biological and Genetic Sciences

Environmental problems will loom ever larger in people’s thinking as the effects of climate change are experienced. Not only will people have to adapt to different weather patterns, but to new problems of diseases and pests which will emerge. The consequences of over-population and over-consumption will become increasingly apparent and may contribute to terrorist and mass violence. Sweet believes that the solutions lie in partnerships between communities, and between different sections of communities to face these issues. He encourages churches to play a role in developing such partnerships, to mobilise congregations in creating ‘the global village of Planet Earth’ and to take in lead in becoming ‘green’.

Sweet notes the developments that are taking place in biology. He suggests that there is a sense in which there is a merging of living beings and machines. Living beings have now been created in the laboratory through cloning. Machines are being used to keep people alive. It may be that DNA will one day replace the silicon chip as the basis of memory in computers. The biological advances in the mapping of human genes is raising a host of new issues about life and death, health and disease, personality and personhood. In some ways it is contributing to a focus on the quality of life.

Sweet, like Sine, believes that among the issues with which the church must grapple in the new millennium, is globalisation. However, Sweet notes that there is also a ‘localism’ that is emerging. He argues that many people are looking for security in the small town or rural community. There is also an interest in building homes in small walled communities, as if they were trying to keep the world out of the home. Within the globalised networks of the world, Sweet suggests that people are looking for relationships marked by genuine intimacy.

Sweet sees this as a time of opportunity for Christian mission. However, he warns that the future does not lie primarily in the development of institutions. Rather, Christians, he says, need to take on the ‘post-modern’ characteristics of developing fluid structures that are adaptive, embracing change, and even chaos. Worship must be spontaneous. People must take precedence over programs.

Multidimensional, Morphable Identity

There has been idolisation of the individual. People are focussed on what they can get and do for themselves. Yet, Sweet suggests, ‘hell is getting what you want. Hell is doing only what works for you.’ The future lies in greater inter-connectedness between people.

On the one hand personal identity is something that is individual, multidimensional and morphable. Identity emerges from the choices that people make in life rather than the heritages and traditions people inherit. In that sense, post-modern society is a perpetual mardi-gras, says Sweet, in which people can take on different persona every day. He notes that 9% of Americans are intimately connected to more than one local church, for example. At the same time, however, he argues that there is increasing class segregation between the haves and have nots and between those who have access to knowledge and those who do not. Sweet believes that churches can embrace multi-culturalism and the diversity of human expression in the spirit of the first Pentecost. He believes that churches should be places where people ‘breathe freely and breathe together’. At the same time, however, he wants to set limits. Theologically, he cannot accept religious beliefs outside of Christianity.

Sweet argues that questions of power and control are being re-framed. He suggests that postmodern people are the first people in history who do not need authority figures to access and process information. Information travels up and down superhighways in ways which the elders of society do not understand. ‘In the modern era,’ says Sweet, ‘power was understood as a relationship of authority. In the postmodern era, power is understood as an authority of relationship’. Power is less a product of having knowledge, and more a product of being able to connect with knowledge linkages.

Decentralised, Interactive and Experiential Church-Life

He encourages church leaders to think ‘small and complex’ rather than ‘large and simple’. His example is of a church which conducted Christmas and Easter services in the homes of one hundred parishoners, rather than in one large, centrally organised church. Sweet sees the future in decentralising churches: in multiple sites, multiple worship services, in home-based worship and discipleship experiences.

It may be that churches of new millennium will be technically sophisticated in the equipment they use. Yet, Sweet says that what is more important are the human inter-relationships. He suggests that churches of the future will not be ‘built around great preachers, but around great experiences’ (p.199). He says that Orthodox and high Anglican churches have something in common with Pentecostal churches. They are all highly experiential. They invite people to interact and participate.

Sweet concludes that ‘we are living in a secular society but a spiritual culture’. There is much searching and a high interest in spirituality. That interest is seen in the publishing boom in books on spirituality. By and large, the culture is by-passing traditional churches. Yet, it is a time of when the failure of materialism is becoming increasingly apparent, when ‘God’ is a hot topic among scientists and broadcasters, among business people and politicians, for publishers and musicians. It is a time, Sweet says, for stories – personal stories, the stories of faith, a time for parables.

Sweet’s book SoulTsunami is not, in any sense, a systematic book. Like the post-modern culture it seeks to describe, it is constantly moving, approaching issues from different directions. It seeks to be interactive and experiential. It deals with similar themes in many contexts. Like post-modern culture, his book lacks clear borders and boundaries, but is full of images, metaphors and symbols.

Challenges for the New Millennium

The books by Sine and Sweet are more exhortatory than descriptive. In different ways, but from similar perspectives, they challenge religious organisations to take the future seriously by examining carefully current trends.

Apart from demographics, there are some clear trends in the development of technology. It is hard to know where the developments in biological sciences and genetics will take us. It is clear that new human, religious and ethical issues will be raised by such developments.

It is clear that there is a rapid globalisation of business and knowledge. The Internet is changing the patterns of human communications. While it is not clear what the consequences will be of such changes, it is obviously important that a host of new issues about community and relationships, about power and social division are being raised.

The effects of climate warming and environmental change on a global scale are becoming increasingly evident. Again, the scale of the consequences may be beyond imagination. The issues are critical, however, not only for future generations, but for future decades.

The interest in spirituality that Sweet observes in the United States is also evident, although perhaps not to the same degree, in Australia. As Sweet and Sine have observed, this is clearly not an easy time for traditional institutions which find adaptability and fluidity difficult. This is a time of searching, experimenting, synthesising in every possible combination. It may also be a time when religious organisations themselves need to meet post-modern culture through participation in that search and experimentation. God may be out ahead!

Philip Hughes


Tom Sine, Mustard Seed versus McWorld: Reinventing Christian Life and Mission for a New Millennium, Monarch Books, East Sussex, England, 1999.
Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999.

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