Q&A: A 21st-century roadmap for the church

Author and futurist Leonard Sweet serves as the E. Stanley Jones professor of evangelism at UMC-affiliated Drew University, Madison, N.J., and visiting distinguished professor at George Fox University, Portland, Ore. His most recent books include The Greatest Story Never Told: Revive Us Again (Abingdon Press) and Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival (WaterBrook Press).

UM Men magazine ask Dr. Sweet about the state of the world in 2062 and the place of the United Methodist Church in that future.

What will be the role of the United States on the global stage in 2062?

India and China will be thriving super nations and leading the world in arts and sciences. People in the United States are already being operated on by Chinese and Indian surgeons. Another nation that is emerging as a surprising international power is Canada. That nation is now exploring its vast natural resources in the north and is in the midst of a renaissance. Some of the best novelists, musicians, poets, artists, now live in Canada. It already has been awarded “best cheese in the world” (“Cinderella cheese”) and the number one place to do business. The role and place of the United States is uncertain. Our future in 2062 may be similar to the position of France and England in 2012 if we continue on the present trajectory.

“There can be no role for a denomination that tries to regulate its pastors and churches. . . . We need to replace Robert’s Rules of Order with St. Paul’s Rules of the Spirit,” says author Leonard Sweet in discussing the future of the United Methodist Church. UMR FILE PHOTO BY ROBIN RUSSELL

What about religion in 2062? Will present tension between Muslims and Christians increase?

We are coming to understand that we must all live on this planet together, and I think we quickly will come out of present tensions between Muslims and Christians. The major competition in the future will be between the religious and non-religious. The number of people who express no religious preference will grow larger. Religious people will occupy a back corner and the rest of the world will wish they would shut up.

What about the future of the United Methodist Church?

Daniel Pink has observed that the well curve has replaced the bell curve. The middle class is declining and the United Methodist Church is a church of the middle. All middles are in trouble. The challenge for the church is to tribalize (particularize) in order to globalize (universalize). We need to “make my parish my world” before we can follow John Wesley in saying, “The world is my parish.” We need churches to love their zip codes and their heritage—I don’t mean love their bishop and polity. I mean churches must know and love people in their community and their “campfire” heritage.

The emergence of the well curve should be good news for neighborhood United Methodist churches. People hunger for the small town—the unique, the artisanal, and the home-made. Just as pedestrian malls have replaced parking malls, so too pedestrian churches will replace large churches. We have a unique history that is based on music and passionate love that connects us to Christ and to one another. As a part of the well curve, I can imagine a future that has megachurches—such as the million-member churches in Korea—and satellite churches where celebrity preachers will appear as holograms in local churches and homes.

If pastors simply love and minister to people in their zip codes, is there a danger of losing the prophetic edge of the gospel?

When I say love your zip code, I don’t mean to confine that love to the people in the church. I’m talking about loving the entire community. How many pastors visit businesses in their communities and ask how they might be helpful? I don’t want pastors to become chaplains to their institutions, that’s a role for clergy in prisons and hospices. I want them to be pastors to a missional movement. The form of the church will follow its function.

What will be the role of the denomination in the future?

There can be no role for a denomination that tries to regulate its pastors and churches. No one wants to pay to be regulated; they will pay for resources. We need to replace Robert’s Rules of Order with St. Paul’s Rules of the Spirit.

What is the future of men’s ministry?

I just came from an event in Paris, Ontario called “Pitch & Pray.” Thousands of high school students pitched their tents for four days and I preached every evening at 11 p.m. American Methodism began with camp meetings—they were the engines of male evangelism. Men like the outdoors; it is a place where they are comfortable and where they are allowed to let their emotions out. Camp meetings were a huge force for keeping men in churches. We need to create ministries like our ancestors did that are male friendly. While I dislike the term “mission” trip, since all of our life should be a mission trip, micro-mission trips should include all generations in order to connect the younger with the older. Everyone in the future will be coached, and be a coach.

With your advice to return to neighborhood churches and campground meetings, are you suggesting we should return to the past?

I’m saying, we can’t drive forward without a rear-view mirror. We need to live out of the past—not in the past. In Hebrews 6:18-19 we are told to “lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast.” Here tradition is an anchor we throw out ahead of us (not drop behind us) to help us move into the storm as we winch our way forward, holding on to that “sure and steadfast” rope of hope.

This interview is reprinted with permission of United Methodist Men. It was published in the fall 2012 edition of UM Men magazine.

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