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Megatrends that Weren’t

  • Dr. James Emery White

    The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and…

  • Published Nov 03, 2011

The most recent issue of Foreign Policy is themed around its first-ever set of predictions about the future.  Articles from some of the world’s most “bleeding-edge” thinkers look at the planet in the year 2025. 

As you would imagine, most of their predictions have already been set in motion by recent events, and could, themselves, have been predicted.  For example, technology will take on a life of its own; micromultinationals will run the world; everything will be too big to fail; the South China Sea will be the future of conflict; the world will be more crowded (but with old people); the shape of the global economy will fundamentally change; and problems will be increasingly global in nature, as will their solutions (you think?).

But what intrigued me the most was an article titled “Megatrends That Weren’t.”  Joshua Keating writes about “yesterday’s Next Big Things” that never took place, noting that “history can be awfully unkind to pundits wielding crystal balls.” 

As his examples show, today’s “Next Big Thing can quickly become tomorrow’s “Trend That Never Was.”

Such as:

*The Japanese Superpower.  In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, as Japan’s industrial production surged by more than 50 percent, a cottage industry predicting Japan’s economic dominance was born.  Instead Japan entered its “lost decade” of economic stagnation and was overtaken by China in 2010.

*The Permanent Economic Boom.  Prior to the current financial crisis there was unbridled optimism that the good times don’t have to end.  Experts placed inordinate faith in the power of computerized trading, financial “innovation,” and the exploding housing market.  The reality was that the Dow Jones industrial average never did get higher than its 2007 peak of 14,164.53.  So much for predictions of the Dow reaching 36,000, 40,000 or even 100,000, as some predicted.

*Peak Oil.  While there is a finite amount of oil in the world and it’s going to run out sooner or later, it was predicted that global oil production would tap out in the early 1970’s.  Peak-oil theorists failed to take into account both the discovery of new oil and new means of extracting difficult-to-recover reserves buried deep beneath the ocean or in tar sands in the Canadian tundra. 

*The Resource Crunch.  In 1798, English scholar Thomas Malthus predicted that global famine and disease would eventually limit human population growth.  As of last month, we are now at 7 billion and growing without imminent global famine and catastrophe due to rapid population growth. There may come a time when the Earth’s population becomes unsustainable, but for now the problem isn’t lack of resources but how to distribute them to those in need.

*The Internet Fad.  Excessive skepticism can be as bad as buying into overly optimistic predictions. In 1943, IBM Chairman Thomas Watson saw a global market for “maybe five computers.”  Then there’s astronomer and popular science author Clifford Stoll, who in a 1995 book and Newsweek article, ridiculed the idea that “we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet” and argued that “no online database will replace your daily newspaper.”  And more recently British entrepreneur Alan Sugar predicted in 2005 that the iPod would be “kaput” within the year. 

In my recent book What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary, I talk about the “Next, Next Thing,” and how our culture’s preoccupation with “next” has replaced our earlier fascination with “new.”  The difference?  New is what something is; next suggests a special insight. 

Christians can be captivated by “next” as much as anyone. 

I know of pastors who joke about a “migratory flow pattern” among Christians in their community who are constantly church-hopping to the “next” thing in church life.  They move from one church to another, looking for the next hot singles group, the next hot church plant, the next hot speaker, the next hot youth group.  Many times they end up full circle where they began, because their original church suddenly became “next.”

Church leaders can succumb to the same temptation, only in terms of church model.  First it was Willow Creek.  Then Saddleback.  Then came Hillsong, Northpoint and Fellowship.  Or perhaps instead of doing it by church name, it was by type:  first came seeker-targeted, then purpose-driven, then postmodern, then ancient-future, then emergent, then “simple.”  For some the allure of the next “next” is programmatic, moving from Alpha to KidStuff to...well, you get the picture. 

Stop and think what happened to the “megatrends” of drama in church, the meta-model of small groups, the seeker-targeted strategy of the 80’s and 90’s, and praise choruses?

In truth, many of the “next” churches we flock to - as attenders or leaders - have little of the true “next” about them.  More often than not, what is behind the attention is little more than a gifted communicator, or a niche-focus, or tried-and-true contemporary approaches in a traditional context, maybe one or two twists on previously envisioned programs – coupled with a growing edge of town. 

Yet the seduction of the “next” lures us to race to their conference to find the “secret” to success. 

But racing toward the “next” is more than just deceptive – it can be dangerous.  Meaning you can buy into the “next” before you know whether it was ever worth buying into in the first place. 

There have been, and will be, some truly “next” churches.  But our threshold should be more than rapid growth, a charismatic leader, a niche-market, the latest beneficiary of a growing edge of town or the migratory flow of believers.  Not simply because there may not be anything truly “next” about it beyond that which is cosmetic, but because our appetite for the “next” has us looking to churches that have yet to truly prove themselves, much less their ideas, through the test of time.

Leaders must realize that however exhilarating a new church model may appear, silver bullets do not exist.  Leaders must look deeper than the latest model or program, conference or style, and realize that the process inherent within a thriving church has not changed in 2,000 years:  you must evangelize the lost, then assimilate those evangelized, then disciple those assimilated, and then unleash those discipled for ministry.

That’s a megatrend that is, was, and ever will be.

James Emery White


“Megatrends That Weren’t,” Joshua E. Keating, Foreign Policy, September/October 2011, p. 92.  www.foreignpolicy.com

James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker Books, 2011).

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