Skating to Where the Puck Will Be

Michael Metzger

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky attributed much of his success to skating to where the puck will be—not where it’s been. In 15 years, the predominant cultures in the US will likely look different than today’s. Question: Who’s skating to where these cultures will be?

Gretzky is “The Great One,” also called “the greatest hockey player ever” by the sports world. He’s the leading scorer in NHL history, with more goals and more assists than any other player. He did it largely by skating to where he saw the puck heading.

So where will US cultures be in 2030? Given current trajectories described in the recent Pew study as well as Barna research, it’s likely that religious “nones” will constitute 46 percent of the US population (from 23% today). They’re into spirituality but not Christianity. For them, popular renditions of the gospel are been there, done that.

Exiles will represent 22 percent of the country. They’re mostly millennials and largely disaffected evangelicals. They believe in Jesus. They’re Christians. But for exiles, the prevailing renditions of the gospel and church are been there, done that.

Exiles are exiting a tradition Pew calls Evangelical Protestant, often found in independent churches. This tradition hails from the early 1800s. Given its current trajectory, Evangelical Protestantism will drop below 20 percent of the population by 2030 (from 26% today). Mainline churches, the fourth tradition, will likely drop to the single digits, from 18 percent today.

Do the math. By 2030, it is likely that 80 percent of the US population will view the gospel as been there, done that. They’ll be the new “burned-over district.”

Charles Grandison Finney coined the term “burned-over district” in 1876 to describe the western and central regions of New York in the early 1800s. He believed evangelists had blazed through the area so often that there was no “fuel” (interested population) left over to “burn” (convert).

This didn’t mean western folks were not into spirituality. They were. The problem was the evangelists’ truncated gospel. For centuries, the gospel was understood in four “chapters”—creation, fall, redemption, and the final restoration. Finney and his fellow evangelists shrunk the message into “God loves you, you are a sinner, accept Jesus.” Millions heard it and walked the aisle to receive Jesus. Then they began to walk away.

This truncated gospel couldn’t explain enough of life. People wanted more. That’s why the “burned-over district” spawned all sorts of spirituality cults. Joseph Smith, Jr. hailed from western New York. He founded a movement that later gave rise to Mormonism. The Fox Sisters introduced table-rapping seances and helped inspire Spiritualism. William Miller hailed from this region. His followers, called Millerites, became the Seventh-day Adventists. The first communal Shaker farm came from this region, as did the Oneida Society, known for its advocacy of group marriage. These groups all sought transcendence but were burned out on a truncated gospel.

It’s happening again. Given the current trajectories of religious “nones” and exiles, it’s likely most of the US will be the new “burned-over district” by 2030. To their credit, evangelical ministries seek to evangelize these folks. But are they skating to where nones and exiles will be in 2030? I don’t see much evidence this is currently happening.

But that could change. Next week, I’ll explain a way we could begin to skate to where the puck will be in 15 years. Sharpen your blades.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike


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  1. What is the human need(s) that can only be met by a four-chapter gospel?

    What’s the insight to human nature as to why all four chapters are necessary?

    Is it as simple as a person needs a gospel that makes sense of the world around him, and based on that credibility, he can receive the rest of the gospel as true?

    Or is there more to the wisdom of a four chapter gospel? Are there other unmet needs that only a four-chapter gospel satisfy?

  2. The human quest is to make sense of life–or as much of life as possible, given our finitude. Example: two weeks ago, The Economist ran an article pondering the age-old struggle with time. That question requires a gospel broader than the “two-chapter” rendition. It requires the gospel that stretches across all of reality, informing us about food, our bodies, sexuality, time, etc. The “two-chapter” gospel is sufficient to get you to heaven but insufficient to address these questions. Nones and exiles sense this.

  3. Gerard,
    About the four-part gospel, I see the evidence of it in my everyday life, and believe it is in yours also, just hidden. As you left or leave for work today, you leave your house in a “creation” sense. All things inside are as I have left them or as they ought to be. At work you don’t expect to be out of order, but when you get home that evening, you notice a puddle of water emerging from under your frig. The First and senond parts of the gospel have just intersected in front of you. Something has gone wrong (the fall) and we can have a choice to make, to leave it in a state of brokenness or begin the third part, redemption. As the homeowner, we take the initiative to troubleshoot, repair and restore the leak or call for a qualified person to repair the leak. Either way, we cover the cost, we take it upon ourselves to restore the broken frig. This is the fourth and final part of the gospel, restoration. Mike likes the terms Ought, Is, Can, and Will. The way Mike has described the gospel has been a tremendous help for me to see my role as a technician for a major telecommunications company. I am in maintenance and work everyday on lines that have been damaged, neglected, and overlooked for years. My part in living out the gospel in the everyday has been uncovered by Mike’s dedication to this blog. Sorry if I took your thunder Mike.

  4. Where we will be in 15 years, and how to infect ourselves in relevant industry now are the Meat significant questions that occupy my mind. Looking forward to this discussion.

  5. I am especially interested in this topic and look forward to next week’s post. Over the weekend, I had a lengthy conversation with my dad regarding the rapid decline in his once vibrant church and I recommended some ways they might skate to where the puck will be. I fear they are stuck in their mainline denomination quagmire and may not be willing to skate that hard.

  6. Marc,
    If I may, allowing the gospel to be exposed in my everyday has changed the trajectory of my 15 year outlook a few times since being introduced to this four-part gospel back in 2007. Obviously we are in different places now playing the different roles we are given. For me, I don’t quickly motice the “creation/ought” part of the gospel until I have found an “fall/is” part of the gospel. I see the broken and distasteful parts of life and ask myself, “Uh, what is this doing here and why is it in my way?” That prompts me to reflect on how it was originally designed or it ought to be. For a long time, I never connected the four parts in sequence with each other. Ought, is, can, & will. As a recovering older brother, the first two parts where very apparent, and I used other peoples faults (fall) as a contrast to my successes (ought). I never utilized the third and fourth parts in my persection of my surroundings. As I began seeing parts three and four, I began seeing the gospel like a sheet of tracing paper laying over my daily activities. The gospel became an active part of my life. I began seeing myself as God’s insturment for bringing restoration to broken parts of creation. I work in maintenance so fixing stuff that is broke is a recurring theme in my life, so the gospel was easily revealed in my profession. For starters, if you are comfortable with it, what line of work are you in now?

  7. Kyle, I retired from a career in information technology in 2008. My wife has a flower shop that is winding down, and we invest ourselves heavily in helping those who have been incarcerated to succeed.

  8. I am working to prioritize the human needs of people returning from prison. Malow and Manfred Max-Neef provide useful categorical structures, a pyramid and a matrix, into which I can drop such things as food, clothing, shelter, transportation, friendship, employment, etc. How does this fall into the direction of a whole-life gospel to which we might skate?

  9. I was thinking about your wife’s role as a florist and how it can easily be supplying others who are tring to redeem broken relationships. Example…A husbands buys flowers for his wife after a discussion that resulted in tension. He knows their relationship is not how it ought to be so he does what he can to begin mending tat relationship. She is supplying the goods and services to loosen the tension to allow room for reconciliationand restoration to take place. She might not be a front and center part of the four-part gospell, but she has a back stage role in God’s larger plan to restore marriages.

  10. Marc,
    I’m not really familiar with the transition from prison to civilian life. I can’t visualize where the puck is heading. What I can see clearly is the you are the ice and you are offering a “faithful presence within”. I get this term from the book “To Change the World” by James Davison Hunter. It was a recommended book along with Mike’s book “Sequencing” and James K. A. Smith’s book “Desiring the Kingdom”. These three books have helped shape the way I see the gospel at work in my everyday. With these tools and your vantage point, were the puck is going might be apparent in the near future.

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