Where The Headlights Get Dim

Michael Metzger

It’s that time of year. We make New Year’s resolutions. Churches might make a few as well, looking fifteen years out, where the headlights get dim.

A year ago I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and took a quick trek out to the Herman Miller Furniture Company. Their world headquarters is located in nearby Zeeland. Herman Miller’s invention lab is located there. It’s a future-oriented problem-solving group that looks ten to fifteen years out, envisioning the office of the future. One of the directors described their work as “operating where the headlights get dim.” 

One of its projects is with Google. Google is developing driverless cars. If, fifteen years out, many of us are traveling to work in these cars, commute time will be office time. Herman Miller’s lab is designing office furniture for driverless cars.

I’m not aware of any churches running a future-oriented lab operating where the headlights get dim. Given what the religious landscape will likely look like in 2032, it might be wise to establish such a lab.

Given present trends (which, admittedly, might not continue), 50 percent of the U.S. population will be religious “Nones” by 2032. Another 20 percent will likely be exiles. This is problematic as few churches currently have any appreciable influence with Nones. Yet Nones are becoming the most influential percentage of the population.

It’s also problematic that few churches understand what characterizes Nones and exiles. Nones and exiles are not unchurched. They’re dechurched. Big difference. You can’t “reach” Nones and exiles because they’ve already been reached—and discarded whatever they heard. They feel they’ve already heard it. Nones feel they’ve heard about the Christian faith over and over and over—and are so over it. They’re post-Christian. Exiles feel they know all about church, and are so over it. They’re post-church.

You can’t reach post-anything people by repeating over and over what they’ve already heard and discarded. That’s a recipe for insanity—doing the same thing over and over yet expecting a different result. Post means Nones and exiles have travelled past the Christian religion and church to something else. Christians are yesterday’s news.

That’s why it’d be wise for churches to operate fifteen years out, where the headlights get dim. They’d ask: what would it take for 75 percent of the population to take the gospel seriously in 2032? My sense is that most churches aren’t looking that far into the future.

It seems too many are satisfied serving 25 percent of the U.S. population. That’s the quarter of the country described as “active” Christians, about 80 million believers (the U.S. population is about 330 million). By 2032, the population is projected to be 370 million. As a percentage of the population, active Christians are projected to decline slightly. But in terms of raw numbers, they will grow, from 80 to 90 million.

Most of this church growth will be transfer, however, not conversion. Still, if you’re only counting attendance—or the number of services your church holds—growing from 500 to, say 1,000, can look impressive.  It’s not, if you consider the big picture.

Loving God is seeking the flourishing of neighbors, not just congregants. It’s difficult to love others if others don’t see you as a neighbor. And remember—loving Nones and exiles requires a whole lot more than inviting them to church. Been there, done that.

It’s been said the Western church is in exile. My sense is that this exile will be full blown by 2032. The U.S. will be Europe. We’re moving toward a situation similar to what the Judeans faced in Babylon. They too were in exile. The few who recognized it, the sons of Judah, saw exile in Babylon as a great challenge as well as a good opportunity.

The city of Babylon featured 1,197 temples. Everybody was into spirituality. No one believed there could be One True God. Yet consider what Julian Barnes wrote in a 2008 New York Times piece, “Nothing To Be Afraid Of.” “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Barnes is a religious None. Nones miss God. This was true of many Babylonians as well, including the king, Nebuchadnezzar.

This is why Nebuchadnezzar has spiritual advisors out the wazzoo. But when he suffered troubling dreams, these advisors proved worthless. The sons of Judah proved to be better problem solvers. Years before, they got their foot in the door in Nebuchadnezzar’s courts. Over time, they earned a place at the table. They eventually proved to be the go-to problem-solving guys. Appreciating their help, Nebuchadnezzar eventually came to his senses, recognizing the One True God (Daniel 4:34).

For years, I’ve been operating where the headlights get dim. I run a little future-oriented problem-solving lab. I’ve developed tools, images, language, and exercises that reframe the faith for been there, done that folks. A couple of years back, Alison Thompson, Hollywood producer and director, used our Clapham coffee mug to share the gospel with actor Sean Penn, a religious None. It proved effective. I’m inventing tons of tools that (I hope) will be most effective out in the year 2032.

Google recognizes it will take years for driverless cars to be the norm. Same goes for Herman Miller and car/office furniture. Both are working where the headlights get dim. Wise churches might make this one of their New Year’s resolutions for 2017.


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  1. We have the “Ought Is Can Will” mug and got to share the gospel with it just yesterday! My brother was drinking his coffee and asked about it (well the “can” looks like “car” because some of the writing is scratched off). His first response: “Damn!” I will consider that progress:).

  2. Since we are planting a new church in Dunwoody, GA, a North Atlanta City/Suburb, for 2017, I’ll resolve to invest time weekly into developing ministry practices and tools for 2032.

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