I have tried over the past few weeks to look into the future of church in the UK, and I’m very aware of the woeful inadequacy of this enterprise. I’ve suggested some directions which we might be headed in, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t be that surprised if all we see is a bit more of the same: marginalisation by the secular media, decline, greying and a lot of death. However, I am encouraged by a physicist named Thomas Kuhn, into whose hands I commend you as I close this mini-series of blogs.
Kuhn is famous for his ‘paradigm-shift’ theory. To understand him, allow me to take you back for a moment into the 1960s, and into the subterranean lair of an evil James Bond villain. All along one side of the cave is a huge computer, with lights flashing and tapes spinning, a machine with the aid of which the villain is planning to take over the world. Now, imagine that I asked you what a computer twice as powerful would look like in the future? The obvious answer is twice the size, with twice the number of flashing lights and twirling tapes. In the fact the real answer is that it would look like your mobile phone: in fact your phone is probably already hundreds of times more powerful. Technology, said Kuhn, rarely proceeds in a straight line. There come moments when some new invention radically alters everything, and a paradigm shift leads to a brand new direction. The invention of the microchip provided one such paradigm shift, such that miniaturisation, not growth, is the expected direction of progress. Nanotechnology, and work on single molecular circuits, mean that even further miniaturisation is on the horizon. But when Wikipaedia claims that ‘this miniaturization is the ultimate goal for shrinking electrical circuits’ it is reckoning without some further and as yet unimagined paradigm shift.
So much for physics, but the same can be true of history. Every now and then there will be some kind of a paradigm shift which means that a linear progress will no longer be the way forward. And in my experience the same is true of God. In spite of the suspicion with which the church often treats the notion of an ‘interventionist God’ the Bible is full of stories of God breaking into history to change everything. Freedom for slaves in Egypt; exile for a complacent and idolatrous nation; a Messiah on a cross; fire from heaven; all these are examples of God doing ‘a new thing’ which means that nothing is the same again. In more modern times the coming of the Holy Spirit on a group of farmers in Topeka, Kansas and many other revivals and renewals of the church have been both unexpected and powerfully disorientating for the church, but have sent us off in some amazing new directions.
All of which is a way of saying that I hope to the bottom of my being that the so-called ‘predictions’ I have made will prove to be complete nonsense, because by the time twenty years have passed God will have broken in, shaken up his church beyond recognition, and we’ll all be off in a completely new direction.
I went through a stage of reading all I could about great revivals of history, and like many I found myself praying ‘Lord, do it again!’ I have now learnt that a far better prayer is ‘Lord, do something new!’