The Future Church

by Terri Main

Earlier this week I received a link to an article by an internet evangelist and philosopher of the "post-modern" church entitled ARE YOU READY FOR SCIENCE FICTION CLERGY? He talked about some of the characteristics of future spiritual leaders in his opinion. The article is interesting and provocative even if I didn't agree with some of the conclusions. However, this post is not about that article. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about the future of the church and the implications for writing spirituality-based science fiction.

I've been in church over 50 years. I was in high school before PA systems were standard in churches. A woman in our church was removed from the choir because she wore lipstick. The pastor was the only paid staff member for a church of 200 people and he lived in an apartment in the back of the church.

Today, we not only have PA systems, but we digitally record the services. Women not only wear makeup, but our ladies group has had Mary Kay parties, and even small churches have multiple staff members. My grandfather, who was an old country pastor, could never have imagined that his granddaughter would be able to minister to hundreds of thousands of people a year over the internet. In less than half a century, not only the technology of the church has changed, but also it's culture and social structure. I won't argue whether or not those changes are for the best. The future is always the best judge of the past.

But this does raise the question for science fiction writers of what a future church might look like. Here are a few places to start:

What constitutes a church? Already "churches" are meeting online using chat rooms and discussion boards for fellowship and listening to sermons as downloadable MP3's . Several churches have sprung up in virtual world's like Second Life. Maybe future churches will meet in real time using holographic projections. But how might a church experience change when you can delete an objectionable member or easily erase the pastor's sermon from your hard drive or when you can project any type of image you want of yourself?

What is the role of the pastor/priest? Back in the old days a parson might jump on his horse and ride from one church to another in remote regions. These "circuit riders" planted churches and provided supervision as local lay ministers held services between the parson's visits. Might not a similar arrangement exist in a future time when humanity colonizes other planets in remote regions? Perhaps the pastor will exist only as a holographic projection.

On a less technological note, how might the roles of parishioner and pastor change over time. In the past many roles now held by paid staff and licensed ministers were held by volunteers. Will that trend continue until the opportunities for for lay service become increasingly limited. Or will there be a backlash and paid staff slowly disappear.

Many churches 50 years ago did not allow women to be ordained, yet many which didn't then, do so now. Some churches have even ordained gays and lesbians. Meanwhile conservative backlashes are producing splits in some of these churches. Will celibacy in the priesthood survive into the next century? Will the growth of megachurches push the small local church "out of business" making pastors CEO's first and shepherds last? Will the church hierarchy become more egalitarian or more authoritarian over time?

The Mission of the Church. Arguments over the mission of the church have filled books and church leadership conferences for years. They tend to break down into two camps: in-reach and outreach. The inreach camp says that the point of the church is to nurture and disciple Christians and provide a place for fellowship and support. The outreach camp contends that churches exist to reach their communities with the "Good News" of salvation. I can't imagine this struggle over the mission of the church to diminish over time. If we move out to the stars and engage alien intelligences, the role of the human church in "evangelizing" alien cultures will further complicate t h is question.

There are, of course, many other potential issues that can be concerns for the science-fiction writers. Some of the most interesting science fiction doesn't involve beaming into the middle of hostile aliens with phasers blasting away. Extrapolating from current trends into the future can not only be thought-provoking fiction, but also frame the discussion about where we actually want to go as a people and as a community of faith.

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