Look around you. In any city, even an old one, all that is visible now was not visible a century ago. Old houses get new skins, inside and out. Buildings come and go. Even in the wilderness, individual trees, bushes, and grass thrive and die, while entire ecologies shift across the landscape in a matter of a thousand years. Meadows morph into woods, woods age into mature forests. No matter where you stand, what you see is change. Our short lives blind us to this constant inconstancy.
If we accept continual change in the past we must accept continual change in the future. More so because everywhere the rate of change is increasing. This new neck-snapping acceleration is driven primarily by new technologies. As long as change happened over the span of many generations there was no sense of the future as a destination. The “future” arrived only when change sped up until it was noticeable within an individual’s lifetime. When your world was different from your parents, then you had to talk about the future. A relentless avalanche of new technology means that we now live not in the present but in the future.
The Christian church has changed significantly over time. The church in the year 1000 AD would not have been very recognizable to an ordinary Christian today. Certainly a core set of beliefs and values would remain unchanged, but much about daily life, spiritual perspective, and church-wide activity would be alien. One measurable and significant example would be the church’s attitude toward Jews. One thousand years ago official church doctrine and widespread popular sentiment declared Jews an anathema and they were treated as subhuman and worse. The fact that today a major supporter of an all Jewish state are conservative Christians would have been a laughable joke in 1000 AD. Or even two hundred years ago.1
In many other dimensions the church has shifted its course in the last 1,000 years. Ten centuries ago very few Christians were literate, so reading the Bible did not play a large role in everyday church life. Back then one’s denominational belief was almost 100% inherited from one’s parents. The geographically largest denomination was the Nestorian church, which has, for the most part, now disappeared. Sainthood had meaning, as did the concept of purgatory. Monasticism was considered a noble calling. Heretics were executed for public entertainment. There was no sense of an archeological or historical record of Biblical events. The raging religious controversies of the time were not about abortion and homosexuality, but whether the Spirit emanated from the Father and Son, or the Father alone, and whether indulgences (spiritual pardons from priests, often tied to donations) were legitimate.
Clearly a devout medieval Christian dropped into a mid-morning service at a progressive church today would not recognize his faith. The strong sensual music, the focus on Bible-reading, the unadorned architecture, the lack of ornate ritual, the conversational tone of the sermon – all would be baffling at best. Getting into a discussion with our visitor would not ease him much either. A contemporary Christian’s familiarity with the Scriptures, their sense of history, their great emphasis on the self, the heavily mediated context of their belief, and even the degree to which fundamental assumptions of their religion have been baked into the culture at large, would confuse the 10th century Christian, who lived in a world where only 18% of the people were fellow believers, even in Europe.
Given the extreme rate of change at work in our culture today it seems reasonable and responsible to expect tremendous change in the Christian church in the next 1000 years. Yet who in the church is preparing for this great shift? Where in the church is the needed longterm perspective? What is the scenario for the next 1,000 years of Christianity? As the wisdom in Proverbs 29:18 reminds us, “Without a vision the people perish.”
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Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor from its inception until 1999. He has just finished a book for Viking/Penguin called “What Technology Wants,” published October 18, 2010. He is also editor and publisher of the Cool Tools website, which gets half a million unique visitors per month. From 1984-1990 Kelly was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review, a journal of unorthodox technical news. He co-founded the ongoing Hackers’ Conference, and was involved with the launch of the WELL, a pioneering online service started in 1985. He authored the best-selling New Rules for the New Economy and the classic book on decentralized emergent systems, Out of Control.