If you knew everything about the future, what would you do differently today?
It’s a question futurist, Faith Popcorn, has been asking for decades. Popcorn is an expert in cultural and consumer trends—the “Nostradamus of Marketing.” As a future-caster, she’s identified sweeping societal movements in business, politics, and human behavior that predict how Americans will think, what they’ll value, and ultimately, what they’ll buy. She advises dozens of CEOs of some of the largest and most successful companies in the world.
I’ve been following Popcorn’s work for over three decades, when she predicted the explosive growth of home shopping, home delivery, home businesses, home theaters, home schooling, and TV shows about home improvement. This was years before Amazon, Netflix, HGTV, and Door Dash.
I remember when she predicted that one day, instead of leaving our houses to rent a video from Blockbuster, we’d just download movies to our TVs through a streaming service.
And I thought, “Yeah, right. Whatever, Faith Popcorn.”
She claims a 95% accuracy rate in seeing what lies ahead.
Her work has always informed my thinking about where the church is today and where it needs to go in the future.
If we knew everything about the future of the church, what would we do differently today? How would we communicate our message, design our ministries, invest our resources to reach new people with the gospel? What human needs would we seek to meet?
Popcorn has identified seventeen global trends that reveal the future. In this new series, we’ll look at seven of these trends through the lens of the Christian faith.
How are these trends impacting our lives and our world right now—for better and for worse—and how we can live in ways that offer a Christ-centered, life-giving alternative to the cultural trends around us.
Today, we’re exploring the trend Popcorn calls “Clanning.” Clanning is about belonging to a group that represents common feelings, values, or ideals, where our own belief system is validated and normalized.
Few of us would doubt that clanning is a universal human phenomenon. We’ve been clanning since we first inhabited this world 200,000 years ago. It’s how our species survived. Without a clan we’d get eaten, go hungry, or die from sickness. There’s strength and security in numbers. Teamwork makes the dream work, right?
Today, not much has changed—except that there’s a whole lot more tribes. Today, we look for our people: Sigma Chi, Kappa Kappa Gamma, Broncos Fan, Christian, American, conservative/progressive, Democrat/Republican, Ford/Chevy, Mac/PC, Fox/CNN, Coke/Pepsi, cats/dogs, west coast/east coast, ski/ride…
Personally, I’m a Ford driving, Mac using, dog loving, Diet-Coke drinking, skier.
Our clans are even more narrowly defined than that now. We’re not just looking for one of these groups anymore. Today, clanning means we’re looking for one kind of very specific group of people: the Sigma Chi-pledging, Broncos-cheering, Presbyterian church-attending, Chai Tea-drinking moderate-unaffiliated voters who get their news only from Facebook, are members of the local shooting range, and raise backyard chickens—preferably the Plymouth Rock variety.
That’s a pretty small clan. If you can find it, wow—you’ve really found your people.
But isn’t this close to the truth in today’s world?
We seek out, sort out, highly specific people who think like us, look like us, believe and act like us.
This is how we feel safe, affirmed, and valued. It’s how we often find our identity and belongingness in the world. And this kind of clanning can save lives: Alcoholics Anonymous, grief groups, scouting and youth groups, churches, cancer or abuse survivor groups, bungee-jumper support groups.
But when our clanning weeds out those whose thoughts, opinions, interests, values, or beliefs are contrary to our own, something in us begins to atrophy and die.
When our clanning makes hard distinctions between “us” and “them,” that’s when our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, our churches, our school boards, and our very country become so sorted and segmented and polarized that close-mindedness and mistrust and hostility soon define our whole way of life.
This is how we lose our common life and surrender our commitment to the common good. It’s how we become tribalistic, exclusionary and extremist. It’s how communities die. It’s how compassion dies. It’s how God’s Spirit within us dies.
We can’t strip this human impulse for clanning from our nature. But we can follow the lead of Jesus, who gave us a new strategy for divine clanning. It was a simple strategy, yet highly controversial in the first century world: he hung out with sinners and tax collectors.
Jesus expanded the traditional clans of his day to include those who, by all outward appearances, and for many social and political and philosophical reasons, were so unlike him and his people. In the gospels, these people are often called “tax collectors and sinners.” It’s a common phrase in the gospels. It meant something like, “That one group of schmucks and all the rest of the good for nothings of the world.”
Tax collectors were pretty schmucky. We meet one in our text today. His name is Matthew. He’s more crooked than Bernie Madoff, and more intimidating than Tony Soprano. He’s a first century mobster, a Jew who works for the Roman Empire.
In other words, he one of us but he’s on the enemy’s payroll.
Which makes him a traitor. As a tax collector he could stop you on the street and assess duties on nearly everything in your possession. If you had a cart, he could taxe you for each wheel, tax you for the animal that pulled it, and tax you for the merchandise that it carried.
At the end of the month he sends in a portion of his collections to the Roman governor and anything over that amount he’s free to keep—and he keeps a lot. The heavier the tax, the wealthier he gets. And the more his own people suffer for it.
And for that he is hated and cursed.
One day, Jesus sees him on the street, at his tax collecting desk. Jesus says to him, “Come and follow me.”
Matthew got up and followed him.
We don’t know why he got up and followed Jesus. We don’t know if there is more to the story—if he had some dramatic conversion right there at his tax desk, or if he was just curious.
But he gets up, and together, he and Jesus go to Matthew’s home, where Matthew that very night throws a big party. Maybe it was a celebration party, and coming-out party—as in, “I’ve given up my old tax-collecting miserable life, and today, I’m a new person.”
We don’t know. What we do know is that all his friends come to the party. And the only friends he has, of course, are fellow tax collectors. The house is filled with tax collectors. It’s like a tax collector convention. It’s a schmuck reunion.
But also, some “sinners” drop in, according to the story.
We don’t know exactly what is meant by “sinners.” But they say misery loves company, and tax collectors probably found a lot of it.
“Sinners” is just a label for the big bucket of every other miserable soul in the neighborhood. It probably included prostitutes, money changers, loan sharks, a handful of televangelists. People whose ways are shady and whose money is dirty.
When the Pharisees go looking for Jesus, they find him at Matthew’s house, eating, partying, talking, laughing.
Jesus and the schmucks.
For the Pharisees, it’s more like Jesus and the neo-Nazis. Jesus and the Proud Boys. Jesus and Putin’s acolytes. Jesus and the devil.
At that dinner with schmucks, Jesus has scandalized is own clan. He’s crossed every boundary, crossed the line in the sand, crossed his own people and God himself.
The writer, Donald Miller, told the story about a question one of his teachers asked his elementary school class one day. The lesson was on values clarification, and the question was this: if there were a lifeboat adrift at sea, and in the lifeboat were a male lawyer, a female doctor, a crippled child, a stay-at-home mom, and a garbage man, and one person had to be thrown overboard to prevent the lifeboat from sinking, which person would you choose?
Miller says that he can’t remember for sure, but he thinks his class decided to throw the lawyer out of the boat. He says, “I do remember that the class did not hesitate in deciding who had value and who didn’t.”
Why is it that we humans so often function as though there’s only so much room in our lifeboat? Do we really believe that there’s not enough room in the boat for everyone, that at the end of the day, someone must be thrown overboard?
The Pharisees worked so hard to keep the tax collectors and sinners out of their lifeboat. And here’s Jesus, pulling them aboard, one by one.
When the Pharisees complained, Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do” (Matthew 9:12).
Jesus never forsook his clan. He was a faithful Jew who loved his own people. But his mission was to build a bigger clan by healing the sick. He began that mission by calling twelve sketchy suspects to be his disciples. He then sought out a handful of other people, men and women, who became his close friends, some of whom had their own sketchy pasts.
It turns out that, if you want to make sick people well, you actually have to seek out and find and hang out with sick people. Who’d have known?
If you want to redeem the world, you actually have to seek out those whom the world has labeled irredeemable. Go figure.
If you want to win over the enemy and the adversary, you have to befriend them.
And so, at every turn, what does Jesus do? Jesus builds a bigger table. Then he goes out and gathers more people. Building and gathering. Over and over. Never checking religious credentials first. Never requiring proof of vaccination from the spiritual ills of the world. Just expanding his clan, making people well.
All because they needed a doctor.
That was Jesus’ mission.
It’s not entirely the fault of the Pharisees that they didn’t understand. They loved their clan so much they that they were simply willing to do anything to protect it—to keep out the imposters and the predators. You know what they say about finding just one rat and the house. And here they find Jesus sitting in a house full of them.
Some Christians still love to blame the Pharisees for everything, labeling them as exclusivists, uptight “legalists” who were always trying to catch a cloud and pin it down.
But we all wonder where the boundaries are, don’t we? We all wonder if engagement with the enemy means endorsement. If compassion somehow means compromise. If respect somehow means resignation.
But if Christ is at the center, there are no boundaries that should separate us from anyone.
The Pharisees are furious because they do not understand this truth. In response to their protests, Jesus says, “Go and learn what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘Instead of offering sacrifices to me, I want you to be merciful to others’” (Matthew 9:13).
Jesus says it has to be learned. It’s not a natural human impulse. For us, clanning means there have to be rules and consequences and boundaries and obligations.
But for Jesus, clanning means:
Human compassion eclipses religious compulsion.
Love transcends the law.
Mercy surpasses sacrifice.
What about your clan? How big is your table? Are you building and gathering?
The length and width of our table determines the breadth and depth of our compassion.
Shortly after Pope Francis entered office, he gave a message that shocked many Catholics, and many Christians, around the world. Francis said that to be a Christian in the modern world is to meet all people, whether they are Christians or not—even atheists—at the place of doing good works. He spoke of the need to meet each other on our common ground. He said, “The commandment for everyone to do good is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will create a culture of encounter.”
A culture of encounter. It’s an evocative image for Christians. It’s the kind of clanning Jesus calls us to do. It’s what Jesus created in every community he entered—a culture of encounter. To meet others, regardless of who they are or what they believe or where they’ve been or what they’ve done. To find in them what matters most to them, the good in them and the good they long and hunger for, and to befriend that part of them. A culture of encounter.
Someone told me this week about an encounter he had recently with a neighbor. As an openly gay man, he doesn’t always feel safe or accepted in every personal encounter, and his neighbor is one who, at least by outward appearances, didn’t feel very safe to him—if for no other reason than the Confederate flag that his neighbor flies in his front yard.
One day the neighbor was outside, sitting on the driveway, with his face in his hands. He was crying. My friend was walking by on the sidewalk at the time. He stopped and addressed his neighbor by name, and asked him, “Why are you crying?”
The neighbor said, “My sister was just diagnosed with cancer.”
My friend paused for a moment. Then he said, “My sister has cancer, too.”
Then he sat down beside his neighbor, and they cried together.
God desires mercy not sacrifice.
The length and width of our table determines the breadth and depth of our compassion.
If we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will create a culture of encounter.