That which becomes real: Looking ahead to 2020

By Philip A. Amerson, Special Contributor…

The idea began with a column by United Methodist Bishop Michael J. Coyner in Indiana. As the New Year began, he sent out his predictions for the year 2020. Bishop Coyner invited his readers to come up with their predictions for trends over the next seven years. He had some fascinating hunches about the future. As I read them I was reminded of the Thomas Theorem in sociology (named after W.I. Thomas) which asserts that what one perceives to be real, becomes real in its consequences.

Philip A. Amerson

There is considerable evidence that shows that what one anticipates as possible, gains potential for actuality. This is also known as the power of self-fulfilling prophecy. So, I thought I would accept Bishop Coyner’s invitation. Clearly, my “forecasts” are shaped by personal hopes, past disappointments and my theological perspectives; at the same time I want to argue that they are grounded in clear trend lines and ample evidence.

While Bishop Coyner and I agree on some, we also hold very divergent perspectives regarding the trends ahead and which are most important. I will leave it to you, good reader, to consider your own forecasts and discover with me “that which becomes real.”

So then, here are my 10 predictions for 2020:

1. The Holy Spirit will surprise our church and our nation. Some of these surprises will come as the result of the ministry of the bright young leaders currently studying in our theology schools. Many of these surprises will emerge from outside of the normally expected church structures. They will happen in public schools, hospitals and businesses, in urban centers, on farms and in suburban settings. The techniques and the programs offered by outside experts will be less and less valued as the gifts from the unexpected places (the “Nazareth places”) of our world are discovered. The great spiritual hunger in our nation (spoken of as those who are “spiritual but not religious”) will continue to morph and many will be led back to traditional expressions of faith. This will be an opportunity for local congregations to rediscover anew spiritual practices like contemplative prayer, acts of hospitality and justice, and the creation of fresh and richly textured and varied worship resources.

2. Many congregations will rediscover a more vibrant theological and biblical identity. Since 9/11 and in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there has been a clear desire for the church to offer more than we have offered in the past. In their book The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe note that the next decade will be a time of realism and the seeking of fundamental change at all levels of society, but especially the local level. The Millennial generation will bring impatience for change and will insist on new and realistic economic models. Baby Boomers will regain their reputation as the “flower generation.” They will join with younger folks to call for a shift toward greater dependence on renewable resources and care for the environment. The arguments against climate change will lose their steam as the impact of storms and draught continue to be studied and understood. Baby Boomers and Millennials will join together to find more ecologically sustainable ways to live. Churches that miss this trend will miss a great opportunity to ask the Boomers to “give it forward.” Urban neighborhoods that are food deserts will be linked with urban gardeners/farms and rural suppliers of more nutritious food options.

3. As congregations discover again their true identity as the seedbed of faith and action, new models will emerge. We will see more neighbor-churches marked by clear and focused calls to spiritual practices that are linked with active discipleship. There will be more attention to the loving of God and neighbor and less to institutional preservation. Mega-churches will be increasingly plagued by the multiple organizational dilemmas of second or third generation institutions. Neighbor-churches will know their raison d’être beyond buildings and budgets. Fresh resources for personal and social transformation, repentance and forgiveness, covenantal living, eucharistic celebration and liturgy will be developed. These resources will include songs of lament as well as praise. Congregations will be more than happy-clappy enclaves of the comfortable and like-minded: They will be places of learning, of experimentation, of challenge and restoration for the brokenness among persons and within our social and biosphere ecologies.

4. The great gift of our increasing demographic diversity will renew the vibrancy of our cultural and economic life. Our nation will learn the benefits of intercultural connections and the rich talents being offered in the wake of the profound demographic changes occurring across our land. Growing numbers of persons from Asia, Latin America and Africa will populate large and small cities, towns and suburbs, especially in the Midwest. For example, take a look at the population shifts in the small towns of Iowa and the suburbs of Chicago. These “newcomers” bring renewed hope for our neighborhoods and congregations. In the next seven years our nation will adopt comprehensive immigration reform so that there will be safe and legal ways for such persons to become citizens.

5. New economic models that emerge as neighborhood and local enterprises. There are in fact limits to growth. Big-box stores will continue, and more and more highways will be built; however, more folks will factor in the cost of gasoline and taxes for new highways into the price of that can of soup or bottle of window cleaner “on sale” at the mega-store. In the meantime a growing number of folks will again discover the value of local banks, hardware stores, barber/beauty shops and congregations. Years ago, two sociologists (Willmott and Young) wrote about the true cost of living in expansive suburbs in their classic study “Family and Kinship in East London.” What was gained was a new suburban home but what was lost was a sense of identity and community. More recently researcher Lisa Gansky has identified the potential for “mesh economics” where new markets can be set up and do business on a day’s notice. In places like Oakland and Seattle, such mesh businesses have grown into established markets that build new communities of hope in formerly underserved neighborhoods.

6. These new economic and political models will also be global in reach and democratic in style. As the shifting global economy emerges we will see fundamental shifts in the way we live and work, in our politics and in our options. In many places local commerce will be enriched, aided by the power of digital communication. Schools, businesses and the churches in many places will experience the generativity of links with others in distant lands. The sharing of new language, knowledge and insights will become more common. Who could have predicted the power of Twitter in recent elections? Such dramatic change in our business-as-usual expectations is only beginning. These will emerge because the former limits of time and space are transcended. Jennifer Pahlka has spoken of the rapid growth of cell phone apps that are designed to make local governments more effective and transparent in their dealings.

7. The church (local and denominational) will have a great opportunity to support improvements in public education and health care for all persons. As these critical delivery systems change, the question will be if we can again discover the motivation of our ancestors in the faith. Early Methodists gave witness by providing for quality educational systems and health care for all—especially the poor and indigent. Methodists in the 19th and early 20th centuries started scores of hospitals and more that 120 educational institutions that survive today. Lutherans and Catholics, in their own ways, also accepted this commitment as a part of a faith imperative. What a treasure! United Methodist hospitals are one of the great legacies of the deaconess movement. The next seven years will offer us new opportunities for these areas of witness—perhaps especially through the United Methodist order of the deacon. There has been no period of history, until today, where this witness is more urgent and appropriate. (This is where some of the amazing young people mentioned in prediction #1 will shine!)

8. The nation will finally take a few halting steps toward ending the culture of gun violence and the belief in revenge as the first and most appropriate response to the culture of killing that seems to permeate our nation. For decades, the church in many places has offered an alternative vision. The next seven years will be a time when this witness will be more recognized and valued.

9. The tired old battles over homosexuality in our society will run out of steam . . . at least in the wider culture. General Conferences may disagree, but civil unions and marriage equality will become the national norm in commerce and government. The church may continue to give this matter heavy attention, but it will increasingly be seen by the young as an unnecessary wedge issue, a way for some to wield control within the church. Sadly, unless more humble and grace-filled polity and theology on such divisive issues is found by 2020, the denomination will remain omnishambled in structure and voice, and schism may be inevitable. We have too long been captive to theologies that are fear-driven and biblically inconsistent. The same folks who cite isolated Scriptures to support their restrictive views on homosexuality are strangely silent about apparent biblical support for plural marriage or against all divorce. The research is clear that the young folks of almost all theological persuasions are bewildered. They ask why there is such an emphasis on biblical hermeneutics that does more to damage than to heal.

10. We will learn new patterns of organizational relationship and leadership. John McKnight has said, “These days we keep focusing our efforts on leadership and we miss the critical importance of connectivity.” This connection may come from the neighbor down the street or the stranger from around the world. We have yet to see ways technology will connect us (and the threats of this technology to civil society). We will learn that authority needs to be earned, that there are many paths to accomplishing our goals; not just the pathway expected because one is acting within a particular tradition or hierarchy. The leader in this new world will look to discover the gifts of others rather than seeking to impose a business plan. It will be a leadership based on mutuality and respect. It is leadership that trusts and encourages others. It is leadership that seeks communities that thrive over situations that can be controlled.

This would be my vision for “that which becomes real” in the year 2020. It is rooted in hope, but rooted in realism as well. I will watch and pray and learn . . . and act that it may be so.

The Rev. Philip A. Amerson is president of United Methodist-affiliated Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

Leave a Reply

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
Notify of
%d bloggers like this: