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A response to Syd Hielema’s The Church of Jesus in 2047: Life After the Decade from Hell, posted on the Reformed Journal on December 12.


My friend doesn’t like me telling this story, but my post is going to provoke people, so I might as well get started. 

My botanist friend has the soul and demeanor of a quiet servant-leader. I admire him and his wisdom. Despite pain of age and injury, he makes a habit of pulling up noxious invasive plants. Wherever he goes, he trails dry corpses of spotted knapweed, garlic mustard, purple loosestrife and the like, roots shaken free of nourishing soil and left on hard surfaces to dry and die in the sun. He knows as well as anybody that one person’s effort is vanishingly trivial in the face of the ubiquity and damage done by just these three examples.

I asked him one time whether his habit was an expression of hope and I assumed, seeking affirmation I suppose, that I knew what his answer would be. But he surprised me. “I’m not sure there’s much to be hopeful about. It’s faithfulness, I guess.” 

I return to that moment again and again.


At the outset, I admire that Syd Hielema shouldered the challenge of imaging the church 25 years hence. He’s leading with his chin by necessity, speculating on an uncertain future where the politically fraught topics of religion and climate chaos converge. 

Syd imagines “a decade from hell” wherein he ticks off chaoses that one would read from an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) summary: weather instabilities, disease, water scarcity, break-down in civil society. And three billion fewer people (a 38% decline!!) from “disasters, wars, pandemics, hunger, disaster-evoked diseases, and mental health related causes.” We toss around numbers in these discussions, but we should resist the tendency to let big numbers slide into benign abstraction.

I’ve been re-reading Syd’s essay and letting it marinate in my own prejudices and anxieties and I am left with two related impressions. 


The first is the “decade of hell” itself. It’s only a decade. Syd imagines that emergent from the climate chaos some happy combination of United Nations’ leadership, new technology, and miraculous enlightenment among rogue states and near-failed governments will combine to recreate a new (presumably stable and sustainable) world.

Apologies to Syd, but this feels to me like a rhetorical flourish employed to wipe away the magnitude of a looming climate crisis so that he can get to a certain vision of the church in 2047. He imagines that by 2047, Iowa farmland will feed ten times as many people with diversified crops and plant-based meat. I think that’s unlikely.

IPCC science aggregators project that our climate will continue to warm through the end of the century, even under optimistic assumptions – taking us into global temperatures and effects that no civilization has experienced. This will drive profound changes in weather, water cycling, vegetation patterns and ecosystem dynamics. Millions, maybe billions of climate refugees will struggle for food and water and compassion.

Even if we find the will to end fossil fuel emissions tomorrow, we will not turn this battleship around in the space of a decade. The church of 2047 will not be enjoying the recovery. It will be in the thick of the battle.


The second is the framing of privilege that the vision inhabits. The essay’s archetype church-members (Alejandro and Jolene) enjoy the privilege of extended family, social networks (implying a certain social stability), living in a climate refuge (Great Lakes region), and a private Toyota in which to deliver their casserole (food security, plant-based meat?). They are educated and meet with a sister congregation using their large-screened TV (wealth and reliable power on both ends). And in the aftermath, they enjoy a faith that is “winsome” and “playful” — evidently unburdened by humanitarian disaster, ecosystem breakdown, and the pain of creaturely extinction.

Syd imagines that some new scientific discovery will be the wonder-provoking tipping-point that “unlocked secrets of the universe that displayed its inter-creaturely reciprocity in ways that evoked awe, wonder, mystery, and praise.” And that this becomes some sort of a catalyst for change.

The biologist/creek wading/prairie wandering/oak conversing/deer nerd in me wonders “Really? We don’t already have access to enough wonder to move our souls?” That’s not a problem of science. That’s a failure to look.

But this, to me, seems like the key failure of imagination we wealthy western Christian types cannot overcome. We can’t imagine a future apart from the privileges we have enjoyed in the past century or so. Consequently, we consider the climate crisis with the implied hope that we will navigate the chaos and come out minorly affected on the other end.


There are things about the essay that I like and think are vital. The first is the dying of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). Good. Drive a stake through its heart and bury it deep. Salt the earth over it. If you need help, you know where to find me.

Another is the recognition of the importance of connection — to creation, to each other (same thing really) and the wisdom on this point that we find outside of Western Christianity (Yay, Kimmerer!). Syd and Wes Granberg-Michaelson (in his commentary) both envision a 2047 church that is more ecumenical, less interested in dogma and structure, eagerly leaning into experience and communion (in all dimensions). 

I’ll largely leave imaging the fine details of the church in 2047 to experts like Syd and Wes except to say that I live among the “nones” and soon to be “nones” with one foot here a cosmopolitan secular university and another in the universe of environmental seekers sourced from conservative Christian schools at the Au Sable institute. Those two pools of students are more alike than you might imagine, and their defining feature is their finely tuned bullsh*t detectors. They are not areligious or nonspiritual. They are leaving the Western church to the degree to which it is making itself irrelevant to the challenges they face, the climate crisis chief among them. 

But they also carry the latent seeds of Christianity’s next (and overdue) reformation.  

Hope is not cheap. Indeed, seems to me, the cheap hope that we piously pass to one another is an emergent property of the MTD that Syd buries in his essay.

Hope for a vibrant church in 2047 will depend on the groundwork laid by mature Christians right now. Hope is hammered out in dogged stubborn blows on an anvil of faithfulness. Hope isn’t hope until it wrestles with the realities and continues anyway. If you want those nones back, show them that you care for their future.

If a meaningful North American Christianity still exists in 2047 it will because the church has stripped itself of the trappings of empire and stood naked in the mirror – free of colonizer presumption, free of the privilege of wealth and convenience; free from bonds of patriarchy, white supremacy, and exclusion woven into the Western intellectual tradition; free from the deep soul-loneliness it created for itself when it stood apart from the rest of creation.

In the mirror, it will re-find the elemental: Love of the divine, love of humanity, love of creation.

Aldo Leopold, the secular saint of conservation famously said that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

Humanity in 2022 is beginning its ecological education as a crash course and the church in 2047 will exist in a deeply wounded world. Its role will be to be a guide,  to help humanity navigate the loneliness and restore connection.  

My thanks to Syd for sticking his neck out with the initial essay. I’ve now given up a significant part of my advent and my end-of-semester productivity brooding over this stuff and I hate it.

Every time I sit at my keyboard to write about climate, I want to be wrong. I have kids. I am deeply invested in the lives of wonderful young people.

You will read this on the 22nd of December, the day after winter solstice, when the light begins to return in reality and in our Christian tradition. That seems significant somehow.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    There’s so much that’s true and quotable in this essay, but I am most grateful for this: “If you want those nones back, show them you care for their future.” Amen.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    An exercise might be, start with Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, and imagine a church for that world.

  • Sue Poll says:

    Your thoughtful essay reminds me of how we light each others’ candles at Christmas Eve services. One candle’s light ignites hundreds and thousands of other candles, in a rippling effect that can go on and on. Keep picking those invasive species, keep recycling those items that we can, stay in tune to nature and the lives that are threatened all around us, keep including everyone in our churches, etc. The challenges are huge and we may or may not conquer, but we will stay faithful, and we will persist.

  • David Hoekema says:

    This is so true and so daunting to contemplate. This exchange on the RJ site is one of the most insightful discussions of the climate crisis I have read anywhere. Many thanks to all the writers.

  • Jim Day says:

    Perfectly on point from stem to stern. Thank you Tim. Very much.

  • Marie says:

    Thank you for these thoughts. It’s easier to be motivated by Hope than Faithfulness. But hopefully Faithfulness can keep us going for a while, too, whatever the challenge is.
    Also — regarding the Great Lakes area being a haven of climate change: try reading Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, a YA book set in the Ontario-area in the future. The themes of climate disaster and colonization of First Nations people give a lot to think about. Anglo-American Christians have generally had the choice to stare disaster in the eye or to walk away, but others haven’t had this choice, and this story comes from a heart that has a realistic understanding of how awful “disaster” is.

  • RZ says:

    Wow. Thanks for the very thoughtful, sobering reality check. I could not help but chuckle (sadly) at two images side by side:
    1. The emporer (and the empire) has no clothes.
    2. The church’s remaining hope is standing naked before the mirror.
    As you suggest, the Nones are Nones largely because they possess a bull____ monitor and an irrelevance monitor. I might suggest they also mock the logic of those who think we can define reality by simply declaring it because we hold the power to do so.
    This all makes me wonder: Did God actually PUNISH the world with the flood or simply restrain divine power, thereby allowing creation to navigate its own destiny?

  • Al Schipper says:

    Thanks Tim and your weed picking colleague. It is not time to read another book, sweat over yet another white paper or pretend that we have a corner on God’s truth. It’s time to act! The nones recognize incoherent ranting that destroys in the guise of purity. The world sees hypocrisy when they see it. All creation suffers under the abuse of the theologians & politicians and me, contrary to the Creator’s Image.
    Whew … apologies for the venting rant but faith without works??

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    “Hope is hammered out in dogged stubborn blows on an anvil of faithfulness.” That’s the one sentence of many great ones here that hits me the hardest. Yes.

  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    Thanks, Tim–that a bracing gift, and you know how to deliver it.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Ever so grateful.

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