This article explores the question, "What challenges and opportunities will preachers face in 2027?" A homiletician trying to predict the future resembles a daredevil jumping out of an airplane with a parachute he invented himself. If his calculations are right, people will look to him as an authority. If his calculations are wrong, let's just say that people will remember him for different reasons. A lot can happen in ten years. Perhaps we will bear witness to "wars and rumors of wars" with nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom (Matt. 24:6-7). Maybe we will experience great revival, as so many have prayed and continue to pray. Perhaps we will "see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great glory" (Mark 13:26), Can we really say what will happen between now and 2027? Not so much. Even so, future-casting can be a good exercise for Christian preachers. It helps us steer clear of navel gazing, and it breaks us free from the tyranny of the immediate. Let's imagine the non-immediate for a while.
In the first part of this article, I highlight the challenges that (I expect) Christian preachers will face in the year 2027. In the second part, I describe the opportunities preachers can lay hold of not only in 2027, but also in the years between now and then.
Five challenges (I expect) preachers will face in 2027
Challenge 1: The steady marginalization of the church
Embrace ecclesial marginalization. Get used to it. The church continues its steady move away from the center and towards the periphery of American civic life. As each year passes, the church has less influence and less say over ethics, policy, and institutional structure. It does not have the ear of the State and, in some cases, it is seen as a nuisance to the State. This is not an all-together bad development as the church has sometimes overstepped itself and forgotten its role as a conscience of the State. Prepare yourself for constriction rather than expansion: the erosion of various rights and privileges rather than the growth of them no matter who's in office.
A reconciled and reconciling community can function as a winsome witness in a world that is fractured, hate-filled, and xenophobic.
Challenge 2: Ongoing racial and ethnic tension inside and outside the church
Plan to run a marathon rather than a mile when it comes to navigating racial and ethnic tensions. Think back to 2016 and the U.S. cities impacted by violence in just one year: Baton Rouge, Milwaukee, St. Paul, Dallas, Tulsa, and Charlotte, and this is not an exhaustive list. Other cities and towns will make the list in the next ten years. Racial tension will continue to represent a significant percentage of ongoing tensions, but other difference-based tensions will also emerge. It would not be far-fetched to imagine that Muslims in the U.S. context, an extremely vulnerable population, may have to deal with more mistreatment against them, caricature, and perhaps even violence. It would also be a safe bet that non-U.S. born immigrants will deal with more harshness and hostility. When I was in Miami recently, where a significant number of people speak Spanish (which I speak, also) at restaurants, gas stations, and in supermarkets, my pastoral colleague told me that non-Spanish speakers are more than happy to yell at people on the street, "Speak English!," even if they have never met them. The preachers of tomorrow should ask: "How does the gospel address racial and ethnic tensions, the treatment of religious others, and the treatment of the foreigner?"
Challenge 3: The rapid increase in biblical illiteracy
Prepare for widespread biblical illiteracy. In 2014, the American Bible Society reported that nine in 10 U.S. households had at least one Bible with the average household owning three. Contrast this finding with a Lifeway Research study, also published in 2014, which showed that 40 percent of church attendees read their Bibles about once a month or "rarely/never." In other words, we live in an age of both Bible ownership and biblical illiteracy. People have Bibles, but don't read them. Although the pervasiveness of biblical illiteracy will vary depending on a host of factors such as congregational culture, leadership, and geographical location, even so, as a general rule, the preachers of tomorrow should assume far less biblical knowledge than we assume today. As Andy Stanley observes, "Whenever pastors assume people in their congregations know certain things, they miss opportunities to teach. If a pastor makes assumptions year after year, then a whole generation has never heard [that truth] for the first time. If we assume too much, we communicate too little."
Challenge 4: Techno-philia(love) versus techno-phobia(fear)
Expect the exponential advance of technology as well as the permeation of it in people's lives. In the year 2000, the average American spent nine hours per week online. By 2015, the average had spiked to 21.5 hours. At present, over 7.3 billion mobile phones exist worldwide, about one phone for every person on the planet. In 2008, Facebook only had 100 million users and, by June 2016, it boasted 1.71 billion active monthly users. Imagine what these numbers will look like in 2027.
Technological advance brings with it many benefits: new options for worship, opportunities for outreach, enhanced education and training, and resources for connection and collaboration. However, no one should ignore the potential liabilities of new technologies such as exhaustion through hyper-connection, drift from incarnational and embodied community, addictions like Internet pornography, and hate-filled or bullying speech online. In her recent book Reclaiming Conversation, sociologist Sherry Turkle reminds us that for all of social media's benefits (of which there are many), it exacts at least two costs: first, it offers the user the "illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship," and, second, it makes machines more human at the same time that it makes humans become more machine-like. The preachers of tomorrow should exercise wisdom in weighing the benefits and costs of rapid technological advance, and they should know how to think biblically and theologically about how they and their congregations engage it.
Challenge 5: Reputation reversal
Who needs reputation reversal? Looks like we do. It may take at least ten years to get there, maybe more. In his popular book unChristian, David Kinnamen asked outsiders to Christianity about their perceptions of Christians. What were their most common responses?: "anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too involved with politics, out of touch with reality, and insensitive toward others." The first three took the prize for the highest percentages: anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical. Some of these characterizations make sense in the context of a church moving toward rather than away from marginalization. Even so, I wonder what preachers are doing wrong if these are the main phrases outsiders use when someone asks them about Christians. The church should not only be known for what it's against but what it's for. The preachers of tomorrow have the power to remind people that the church is not only against sin and rebellion, but it is also for kingdom transformation in the world. The church is for compassion to the poor, justice for the oppressed, protection for the vulnerable, the eradication of violence for the mistreated, and the transformation of local communities into places of shalom.
Five Opportunities for Preachers to Seize in 2027
Opportunity 1: Cast a vision for becoming a reconciled and reconciling community
As racial and ethnic tension increase and proliferate, imagine what it would be like to preach in a church that understands itself first, as reconciled to God and, second, as a force for reconciliation in the world. What would happen to your preaching? What would change in your church's sense of mission? As that great preacher Manuel Scott Sr. reminds us: "You never want to have a gospel that you can only preach on one side of town." Hear again the Apostle Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 5:16, "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ this way, we do so no longer." In the original language, it reads: "We regard no one according to the flesh." In Christ, walls of separation come down. Those who are reconciled to God in Christ become reconcilers for God through Christ in the world. Preachers: remind congregants of their call no longer to see people "according to the flesh." A reconciled and reconciling community can function as a winsome witness in a world that is fractured, hate-filled, and xenophobic.
Opportunity 2: Recognize preaching's catechetical function
Ours is not the first generation to bemoan the lack of biblical literacy. The generations before ours also lamented it. However, as the percentage of people who are either un-churched or de-churched increases in the next ten years, we should not only spend more time questioning our assumptions about biblical literacy in our congregations, we should also recognize the potential for preaching to have a catechetical function.
The etymological meaning of catechesis is "instruction by word of mouth." In church history, Christian leaders most often catechized those who were preparing for baptism or confirmation, that is, they instructed them in basic Christian doctrine. Between now and 2027, preachers need to think of fresh and innovative ways to instruct, edify, and even catechize in their preaching. What would it look like to preach in a way that fed mature believers, catechized new believers on the rudiments of the Christian faith, and assumed the presence of biblically illiterate non-believers? How would your preaching change?
Opportunity 3: Become a prophetic minority
In the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, Jerry Falwell spearheaded the rise of the Moral Majority. In a short article like this one, it is not for me to speculate as to the benefits and drawbacks of this movement. Here is what I can say definitively: the last thing that Christians can claim in the United States today is that they are a moral majority. Such a claim will seem even more presumptuous in the year 2027. The marginalization of the church from the center to the periphery continues with a steady beat. The challenge for preachers, especially in the majority culture, is to communicate to their congregations that they are a prophetic minority instead of a moral majority. Preachers from minority and immigrant churches already have a head start in that the communities they preach to know what it is like to be marginalized and mistreated. Majority culture preachers would benefit greatly from hearing and heeding the counsel of minority and immigrant preachers who already understand the church's mission to be a "voice calling the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord'" (Matt. 3:3).
Opportunity 4: Practice "prophetic imagination"
Preachers in 2027 can and should "practice prophetic imagination," to use Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann's phrase. Brueggemann points out that the OT prophet had a dual function: to call Israel back to God and to offer the nation a "counter-narrative" in opposition to the dominant narrative of the world. How might preachers challenge the dominant narrative to which so many Christians unwittingly give their allegiance? How might we offer listeners a vision of the kingdom of God as the counter-narrative to the kingdoms of this world? What would it look like to imagine the way things really are as opposed to the way they appear to be? Systematic theologian Kevin Vanhoozer reminds seminarians that Christian preaching is the front line of assault on the anemic imagination of believers. Ask hard questions. Is your imagination anemic? Does your preaching assault the status quo? Does it question the way things seem to be? Does it cast a prophetic vision of a kingdom counter-narrative or is it complicit with the powers and principalities of this world?
Opportunity 5: Cross borders for the sake of the gospel
In my 2015 book Crossover Preaching, I claimed that an intercultural church with an intercultural future is emerging in the U.S. context and, to some extent, has already emerged. To cite just one example, the Hispanic and Asian populations have not only grown exponentially in the last twenty years, they will triple within a generation. My convictions remain unchanged. In Crossover Preaching, I also argued that "crossover preachers" play an important part in that future as new ways of being the church emerge. Many of the most effective crossover preachers of tomorrow will cross borders for the sake of the gospel today. They will not see difference as a threat but as an opportunity. They will embrace foreigners instead of exclude them. They will engage with the other instead of escape from them. They will serve the poor instead of neglect them. They will not turn a blind eye to those who are invisible, but make visible those who are invisible.
Living in a VUCA world
A lot can happen in ten years. Just ask those who lived between 1910 and 1920. To be sure, new challenges exist today that did not exist before. At the end of the Cold War, an acronym slipped into military usage that is now making inroads in leadership and change management circles. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The military used it to describe post-Cold War realities and leaders today are using it to frame discussions about global realities in the future. They claim that we live in a "VUCA world." While it is true that the next ten years will probably be marked by some if not all of these factors in hard to predict ways, the words of Qohelet, the writer of Ecclesiastes, are also true: "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecc. 1:9). The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, people of faith remember that they belong to a "kingdom that cannot be shaken" (Heb. 12:28). After all, does not the gospel speak a word of hope and consolation in a VUCA world? Does it not address issues of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, not just at the individual level, but at the collective and global levels as well?
I do not know who our president will be in the year 2027, and I cannot make definitive predictions about Wall Street or Main Street. That stated, here is a promise that will be just as true in 2027 as it is today, especially in a VUCA world: "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever" (Isa 40:8).
Note: Select portions of this article have been adapted from Jared E. Alcántara, "Church in the Wild: Preaching in an Age of Americanized Secularization." Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 16, no. 1 (March 2016): 14-28.
Alcántara, Jared E. Crossover Preaching: Intercultural-Improvisational Homiletics in Conversation with Gardner C. Taylor. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.
Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin, 2015.
Jared E. Alcántara is an Associate Professor of Preaching and holds the Paul W. Powell Endowed Chair in Preaching at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. His latest book is "The Practices of Christian Preaching: Essentials for Effective Proclamation." Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @jaredealcantara.