2013 The Year Ahead – Triskaidekaphobia and Gospel Hope in the New Year


Triskaidekaphobia?  It means the fear of 13.  This being the year 2013, it’s an issue. It’s not just the Romans and the Vikings who were spooked by 13.   Many people will not live in a house with the number 13, build a 13th floor, or even sit 13 people down for dinner.  They prefer to jump from 12 to 14.  But that we can’t.  Ready or not, we must do 13—2013 that is, together.  It is a year that will be filled with great challenges and all kinds of assorted fears.  But for the Christian, it will be filled with gospel hope.

This year end post is written with Christian leaders in mind.   What are some of the things we may anticipate in 2013?  What are the challenges, and what are the significant events and anniversaries ahead?

Events and Anniversaries
Let’s start with events and anniversaries.  Most important, there is no national election or mid-term election this year.  It is a year to chill out. Instead we have the inauguration of a president.

On January 1, taxes will go up immediately.  On February 15th, an Olympic pool sized asteroid will hurtle close to the earth—flying lower than the satellites which beam down our television programming.  March 20th, the UN has sponsored the first International Happiness Day.  There is no connection that I know of between the two dates. Though many are glad that Asteroid DA14 will miss us.

Here are a few other key dates:  January 19, Heidelberg Catechism (400th anniv., 1563), February, Edict of Milan (1700th anniv., A.D. 313), March 19, birth of David Livingstone (200th anniv., 1813), April 8-10th Gospel Coalition National Conference in Orlando, May 5th, birth of Soren Kierkegaard (200th anniv., 1813), May 13, death of A.W. Tozer (50th anniv., 1963), May 21st, birth of Robert Murray McCheyne (200th anniv., 1813), 50th anniversary of US Supreme Court ruling that prayer and Bible reading in public school classrooms are unconstitutional, (1963), July 1-3, 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, August 28th, 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), November 22nd, 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death and John F. Kennedy’s assassination (1963), December 13th release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

13 Trends for 2013 that will impact the American church
With apologies to triskaidekaphobiacs reading this, here are 13 trends that will impact the American church in 2013.  Some are obvious, some not so obvious.  The first four, became obvious in the aftermath of the 2012 national election.

1          Expect accelerating demographic change in the US
We are already the most pluralistic nation on the planet. Expect more. The new rising electorate which is altering the political landscape, (made up of Hispanics, African Americans and millennials) will also alter the church.  2011 was the first year in which the majority of babies born in America were minorities. Only 72% of the electorate was white—the lowest ever.  If trends continue, by 2042, America will be a majority minority nation.  This is simply news for the Christian, not bad news, because the church is made up of every tribe, nation and people group and tongue. But it means that churches in America should become more diverse; leadership should become more diverse;  and the American church should start looking a little bit more like the global church.

2          Expect to hear more about a divided, polarized America
Politically, gridlock will not go away.  Everything is becoming more partisan and it will hurt our ability to solve huge national problems.   The electorate has never looked more polarized.  That polarization even extends to the church.   We are a nation moving further apart.  During the election, Michael Barone said that “America is two countries not on speaking terms.”

The culturally cohesive America of the 1950’s that some can remember, is now becoming a
hermetically sealed America.  A universal media is replaced by niche media.  We watch niche newscasts, listen to niche radio, and read niche journals.  Christian leaders, who live in the Christ who holds all things together (Colossians 1.17), have to be careful not to get locked into a cultural niche, or follow lock-step with the polarizers.  In an age characterized by tribalism, we hold good news of Christ’s reconciling cross.  We are ambassadors of his peace.  We have a unique and greatly needed message.

In the face of rising tribalism,  we must build new communities where Christ is the foundation and his reconciling love draws people together, even with our considerable differences.

Interestingly, in 1960, Arthur Schlesinger said the biggest division in American life was between Protestants and Catholics.  In 2013 it is between Traditionalists and Progressives.  But the bandwidth of these groups has expanded.  In the days ahead, expect to hear, not just of “Evangelicals and Catholics together,” but of Evangelicals, Jews, Mormons, Catholics and perhaps even Muslims together!   All of these groups have strong traditionalist elements.   Progressives have a growing diversity as well.

Bottom line is that Pastors have to minister in a polarized world, and must learn to be bi-lingual in the way we speak and preach.  We have both Traditionalists and Progressives in our churches (most of the Progressives may be our own kids).  Yet both groups lack the righteousness they need to stand before a holy God.  Both groups desperately need the righteousness of another—of Christ.  Both need to hear the gospel in ways which speak to their world.

3          Expect the liberalization of our culture to continue.
This election showed that we are becoming a center-left nation.   Progressive ideas are winning on abortion, same sex marriage, legalization of marijuana, etc..  Voter’s core beliefs are shifting.

With coming vacancies (possibly up to 4) in the Supreme Court, that body will move to become decisively more liberal.  Even among Republicans, some are suggesting that social issues be jettisoned from the GOP agenda, so that Republicans become more like the conservative party of Britain.

Why has this shift taken place?   It appears that the public school system, the universities, the news media, and the entertainment industry are having a more formative influence on the young than the church is.

Pastors and Christian parents need to rethink how we do Christian formation.   Current efforts to shape the minds and hearts of our families and congregations are inadequate.   We need more serious evangelism and discipleship not less.

4          Expect the post Christian trajectory of Europe and the US to accelerate
The cultural value of identifying as a Christian in the West is decreasing.  Cultural and nominal Christianity is disappearing.   Nominals are becoming Nones. This means that there will be less soft center.  One is either a Christian or not.   True Christians are a minority and will have a minority status.  At the end of 2012, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a rare hearing on the increasing marginalization of Christians in Western Europe.  Court cases where European Christians have faced discrimination, demotion and even job loss for their faith have increased.

As one of my students put it, “in our society, Christians are going to look increasingly weird.”  In light of this, we will have to teach our congregations how to be counter-cultural, how to be “graciously strange,” and how to give a reasoned defense for the hope within us and the way we live.

5          Religious liberty challenges will increase in the US
One of the dangers of big government, is that as it expands, more and more areas of public life become a “religion free zone.” Which means the state’s values, (sometimes opposite of the church’s values) will prevail. This is one reason Christians have been suspicious of big government and warn of the dangers of statism.  Big states do not tolerate rivals—rival laws, or rival gods.

Expect to see flash points in the church-state clash on two issues.  The contraception mandate of the new health care laws is only the beginning.  It will force Catholics to pay for birth control.  It  will extend to force religious based institutions to pay for abortions.

A second flash point will be gay rights. The Obama Administration has decided to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered rights—in the work place, in schools and in foreign policy.  It does so at the expense of religious liberties.   In so doing, there is an endorsing of  gay marriage, validating the gay lifestyle in schools so that LGBT  is good.  Whereas, those who say that homosexual practice is wrong, are increasingly stigmatized as morally deviant.

6          Persecution of Christians will continue in the Middle East and Africa, while Christian growth surges in Asia.  2013 will be one of the worst years ever for Christians in the Middle East.  The exodus of Christians from Palestine and Iraq will continue. Christians will be fleeing Syria and Egypt in response to the Islamisizing of those counties.  Violence against Christians in Nigeria by radical groups like Boko Haram is a horrific, repeated, weekly occurrence.  And there are warning signs of a new genocide against Christians in the Sudan.

A recent Pew Forum study said that Christianity is now the most persecuted religion in the world.   It added that Christians are now targeted by independent groups or governments in 131 of the 193 countries of the world.  All this is very interesting on the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan where Constantine I and Licinius met and agreed to treat Christians benevolently.

But all news is not grim.  For there is the remarkable advance of Christianity in Asia.  China is on target to be home to a majority of the world’s Christians, some say within 20 years!   This is staggering considering some of China’s policies of restricting the freedom of religion.

7          Economic shifts in the US and tax increases will continue to affect Christian giving
Six years after the global financial crisis broke, most of us thought the downturn would be behind us. Instead, a kind of long term stagnation is with us.  This affects businesses and ministries. The American economy is expected to expand by 2% in 2013 (according to The Economist). And, there may be some bright spots in the economy—housing markets pick up, surging domestic oil and gas production –but it will still feel  like things are not turning around.  Large companies will lay off people to compensate for new tax hikes.  Small businesses will lay off employees to get below the magic number of 50 in order to avoid new national health care mandates.

Businesses and ministries that are waiting for major trends to change, will reevaluate current business models and take more radical measures to stem losses.

Government may look for new revenue by going after tax deductions for charitable giving.  They may also  re-examine  tax exemption for non-profit ministries.

Add to all this the decline in giving among millennial Christians, and the net effect is less charitable giving to go around.

8          The digital revolution will continue to transform the way we do things
We hear about the demise of handwriting, the decline of public libraries, the death of more print newspapers and magazines (bye-bye Newsweek).  We will hear more about nano-technology, nano-medicine, smart cities, wearable computers, and smart glasses.  We are a few steps closer to turning our phones into digital wallets.   And speaking of phones, this year the internet will become a mostly mobile medium. The number of internet connected mobile devices such as smart phones and tablet computers will exceed the number of desktops and lap top computers.  This does not mean they will replace lap tops, but that the center of gravity of the internet has shifted and become mobile first.   Businesses and ministries will be adapting to this shift.

The digital revolution continues to hit education with the increase of fully on-line accredited degrees and the advent of distance education through MOOC (massive open online courses), side stepping traditional degree programs.  Seminaries and Christians universities are grappling with how to do both residential and distance education, still believing that there is something about Christian education that is intensely personal and immediate—hence the bias towards residential training.

And then there is the on-going phenomenon of data-explosion.  We hear about a world of “infinite content online” that is accessible and free.   The challenge, according to Reuters.com,  is that in any two days, human beings now create as much information online as it took for humans  to create in all of history up to 2003.  In another ten years, that same amount of information will be generated in less than an hour!

This means that our world is literally deluged by information and desperately in need of wisdom to know what is important.   The church has something to say about this.  The need for Biblical wisdom has never been greater.  We must be talking about, not only the truthfulness of the Bible (and that we must), but also the vital importance of the Bible (for light and wisdom).

9          We will be struck this year with the vast wonder of the created world.
Some time after July, the first Chinese space ship will land on the moon and deploy a moon based telescope.  Some time in October, the European Space Agency will launch a new satellite called GAIA which will be equipped with a powerful pair of telescopes that will chart a three dimensional map of our galaxy, the Milky Way.   At the same time, a submersible robot named HADES will go down an incredible 6 miles into the deepest part of the ocean to survey the strange sea life that exists there.   In each case, we will be seeing sights we have never seen before and it will evoke wonder.

10        Expect more talk about Evangelical malaise in a Post Protestant America
For the first time in US history, Protestants are no longer the majority. That number reached a low of 48% according to last fall’s Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Report.  Pew’s researchers were not sure how to count the growing body of non-denominational Christians, which may skew their results somewhat.  Nonetheless, no one can deny the shrinking of American Protestantism.  Ross Douthat, in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, chronicles the disappearance of a Christian center which, he says, held our nation together in the past. Because of this eroding Christian religious center, we lack the capacity to unite.  Hence we have   “Division, demonization and polarization without end” (NY Times  April 8, 2012,  “Divided by God”).

Another new book early in 2013, speaks of “the great evangelical recession.”  Noting that many young people are quitting the church, the book proclaims the collapse of American Evangelicalism.  It points to a numbers drop, a donation crisis, and a bad reputation in the wider culture.   Is Evangelicalism disintegrating?  Some think so.  I don’t.  Not American Evangelicalism and especially not the worldwide evangelical movement.  At home, the movement still shows too many signs of health (its gospel focus, church plants, media presence, large churches, innovative ministry, seminary students, etc..).  Abroad, the globalization of world Christianity is largely evangelical and Pentecostal.

But there does appear to be an Evangelical malaise and identity crisis.   As the American culture shifts, the old minimalistic Evangelicalism of the 1940s does not appear to have the backbone to forge a distinct Christian identity in a post Christian age.

Also, with the fading of an earlier generation of Evangelical leaders like Graham, Henry and  Stott, the cohesiveness of the movement seems to be in question.  The old “Graham consensus” is breaking apart and groups are increasingly embracing, not their commonalities, but their differences.   Will there be new leadership that pulls the movement together?

11        The suicide rate in America climbs
Lots of issues will be talked about this year—from gun control, to global warming.   But few will draw our attention to the increase in suicides in the US.   Sadly, more Americans now take their own lives each year (about 37,000) than die in car crashes.   This says something about safety improvements in cars.  But it also says more about other things—like increased joblessness, increased loneliness, and an all around nihilistic worldview that is promoted everywhere (i.e. we came from nothing, we return to nothing, and our lives have no meaning in between).

I have presided at too many funeral services because of suicide.  But what sustains me is the hope of the gospel.  The Bible’s message that we were made for a purpose and that we can be born again into a new and living hope is desperately needed today.  In our world, words of hope stand out.  People of hope stand out.  The church as a community of hope will stand out and give many a reason to not give up.

12        Middle and lower class white culture will continue to unravel
Over the past decades, there has been much written on the unraveling of the African American family, especially in our cities.  Now comes a report that family stability among middle American white families is crumbling.   According to Charles Murray, in his book Coming Apart, the old shared assumptions about marriage, honesty, hard work, faith and marriage have unraveled.  Out of wedlock births in this segment of the population are now at 44%.  We see too many explosive moments like Aurora and Newtown.

In the midst of such family and personal disarray, the need for strong, gospel centered, healthy, loving, Bible believing churches feels greater than ever before.   Our society needs a model of a new community and a better way.  Is this not something that Christ has given to us?

13        Happy days are not here yet……. Beyond triskaidekaphobia
A final 13th trend is that happy days are not here again, at least not at the beginning of 2013.  Despite the noble efforts of the UN, this will probably not be the year of happiness.  Fears abound as we enter a new year.  There is a good bit of grim news out there.  People are either obsessed with falling off some cliff, or stuck in some superstitious, triskaidekaphobic fear.  Sitting through all the film previews before watching The Hobbit, I was blown away with how many up and coming films are dystopian, picturing a bleak future.  It is all very sad.   Unless…. unless of course there is something more.

A river whose streams make glad the city of God
As I enter 2013, I am entering it with Psalm 46 in my heart, because there is something more.   Even if I knew for certain that on February 15th, Asteroid DA14 were headed straight for my Orlando swimming pool, I can say……… we can say together:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear the though earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

There is a river
whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her,
she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Wishing you a glad new year.