SEVEN TIPPING POINTS IN 2021
By Mike Burnard – Analytical Strategist at dia-LOGOS
Predicting global events is like target-shooting in the dark: you know you are likely to hit something, but it will probably not be the target. Most, if not all, news commentators will admit that their predictions for 2020 completely missed the mark. Who could have predicted a virus that would paralyse the global economy, interrupt international politics and devastate world-wide healthcare?
Asking the right questions is sometimes more important than getting the right answers and as Christians we need to be alert, awake, and prepared to ask strategic questions in strategic seasons. These questions need to guide the Church in responding to the needs of the world in a Biblical way. What Christ taught His disciples in Mark 13 was to observe, watch, and learn as much as possible about current events and then determine future trends and possible outcomes. We need to identify issues that are likely to dominate world news in the coming year – issues that could potentially change the world as we know it today. These issues are described as ‘tipping points’.
Below is a shortlist of seven tipping points for 2021, as observed from the legacies that shaped 2020. These are not the only tipping points in a season of uncertainty, but it represents seven trends that will shape the future in one way or another:
- IRAN – FAITH AT A CROSSROADS
January 2020 introduced the world to a nation at a crossroads: IRAN. On 3 January Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was assassinated by US Military forces during a drone airstrike in Iraq. On 5 January, during his burial, the blood-red flag, symbolizing the call to avenge the death of a martyr, was hoisted atop the Jamkaran Mosque in the Iranian holy city of Qom. Three days later, on January 8, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crashed in Iran, killing all 176 people on board. On January 11, it was revealed that the crash was due to missiles launched by Iran, though those missiles were not purposely sent on the plane. These events all accumulated into a major anti-government protest on January 12. Demonstrators called for the Ayatollah Khamanei, Supreme Shia Leader, to step down.
From a spiritual perspective there are three tipping points to consider:
Firstly, in times of darkness, the Church has an opportunity to shine the light of Christ. These are Kairos moments in the nation of Iran.
Estimates vary about Christianity’s Iranian revival, with some suggesting in 2019 that “70 percent of Iran’s people have rejected Islam.” Like others, Open Doors, an aid organization for Christians persecuted worldwide, cited at least 500,000 Iranian Christians that same year, compared to 500 known evangelical Christians in 1979, while some sources claimed one million covert believers. In a 2016 Christian Broadcasting Network interview, Iranian house church pastor Rahman Salehsafari, an evangelist among Iranians both in Iran and globally via Skype, stated that 100,000 Iranian Christians in 1994 had become three million.
Mark Bradley, a writer about Iranian Christianity, claimed in 2019 that more Iranians had become Christians in the past 25 years than the past 13 centuries combined. Iran has one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian communities, where demand outstrips Bible supply. David Yeghnazar, the executive director of the nonprofit Elam Ministries for Iranian Christians, argued in 2018 that “Iranians have become the most open people to the gospel.” 
This could provide a tipping point for the balance of faith in the Middle East
Secondly, and this relates to the context of the revival in Iran, statistics show that the population of Iran is young, discontent and dynamic. Iranian Youth presents a tipping point within Islam. 
- 30% of Iran’s population is younger than 20 years
- 66% is 39 or younger.
In June 2020, the Research Institute for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN), conducted an online survey amongst 40,000 Iranians living in Iran. It revealed a dramatic increase in secularisation and a diversity of faiths and beliefs.
- Compared with Iran’s 99.5% census figure, only 40% identified themselves as Muslim.
- Another 9% said they were atheists
- 8% said they were Zoroastrians,
- 5% said they were Christian. (1,26 million)
- 47% reported losing their religion in their lifetime
- 6% said they changed from one religious orientation to another. Younger people reported higher levels of irreligiosity and conversion to Christianity than older respondents.
Thirdly, for those who seek to maintain and enforce the current status quo of the Ayatollah and Islam, the philosophy of revenge is an integral part of the Islamic faith. This well-established religious code will therefore ensure that the unjust assassination of Major General Soleimani will be avenged at some future date.
- MOHSEN FAKHRIZADEH – THE INTRODUCTION OF CYBER WARFARE
The first 11 months of 2020 ended exactly the same way that it started – with the assassination of an Iranian leader. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist, was killed on 27 November. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was regarded as the “father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program”.
The attack was extremely significant from a Military perspective which witnessed the first recorded high-profile assassination where the victim was shot from a remote location using face-recognition (FR). The weapons used were equipped with a smart satellite system that zoomed into the victim’s face to identify him. It was being “controlled online” and “zoomed in” on his face “using Artificial Intelligence”, according to Mehr news agency, which quotes Commodore Ali Fadavi, deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The technology is so advanced that his wife, despite being only 25 centimeters (10 inches) away, was not shot,” the news agency reported. This new-found technology could be a tipping point in global warfare
According to experts with AI, the ethics of the use of ‘people targeting’ through FR opens up the proverbial Pandoras Box for future warfare (“Any source of great and unexpected troubles”, or alternatively “A present which seems valuable but which in reality is a curse”.) And with technology moving fast and intelligently, the times and methodology of fighting wars are undergoing a quantum jump. It is a matter of time that artificial intelligence gains currency in land warfare by exploiting the space and cyber domain.
- TERRORISM IN AFRICA – A NEW BATTLEFIELD EMERGES
On June 10, at least 81 people died after a suspected Boko Haram attack in northeast Nigeria. The village was attacked by men in armoured tanks and trucks filled with guns. Along with the shooting, the militant group kidnapped 7 people from the village. Another attack took place on 28 November when at least 110 people have been brutally killed in an attack on a village in north-east Nigeria. On 9 November more than 50 people were beheaded in northern Mozambique by militant Islamists. The militants turned a football pitch in a village into an “execution ground”, where they decapitated and chopped bodies, other reports said. Several people were also beheaded in another village, state media reported. The beheadings were the latest in a series of gruesome attacks that the militants have carried out in gas-rich Cabo Delgado province since 2017.
The tipping point of these attacks is to be found more in the trend than in a single event. According to the Global Terrorism Index published on 25 November 2020, the “center of gravity” for the Islamic State group ISIS has moved away from the Middle East to Africa, with total deaths by ISIS in sub-Saharan Africa up by 67% over last year.
“The expansion of ISIS affiliates into sub-Saharan Africa led to a surge in terrorism in many countries in the region,” reports the Global Terrorism Index. “Seven of the 10 countries with the largest increase in terrorism were in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Mozambique, DRC, Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Ethiopia”. The report points out that in 2019 “sub-Saharan Africa recorded the largest number of ISIS-related terrorism deaths at 982, or 41% of the total”.
Deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year in 2019 to 13,826 deaths, representing a 15 percent decrease from the prior year. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Russia and Eurasia, South America, and South Asia regions all recorded falls in deaths from terrorism of at least 20 percent. Although terrorism has fallen in most regions, it has become more widespread in others. Seven of the ten countries with the largest increase in terrorism were in sub-Saharan Africa.
- UNITED STATES – AN OLD LEADERSHIP WITH NEW POLICIES
The 2020 United States presidential election was the 59th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. The Democratic nominee of former vice president Joe Biden and incumbent U.S. senator from California Kamala Harris defeated the Republican candidate of incumbent President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
From a Christian perspective America is one of the most strategic nations in the world for the following reasons:
- America is the biggest Christian Nation in the world and also sends the most missionaries cross-culturally – 127,000 missionaries – as many as the next top 6 sending nations combined and 5 times more than the whole continent of Africa
- Americans are also the most charitable people on earth, giving over $410 billion for charity annually – 2.1% of the nation’s gross domestic product.
- The reality is that whatever happens in America politically has a profound impact across the globe spiritually.
A new and more progressive liberal leadership will no doubt impact the global footprint of the American Church as well. However, the tipping point in American politics, and the global influence for that matter, might be found more in the Vice-president of the USA, Kamal Harris, than in the President-elect, Joe Biden.
Joe Biden confesses to be a Christian and by his own admission base his presidency on the abiding principles of loving God and loving others. “These are at the very foundation of my faith.” Biden said in an interview with Christianity Today  “Throughout my career in public service, these values have kept me grounded in what matters most. As a husband, father, and grandfather, they are the cornerstone upon which our family is built.” His policies might be seen by many as liberal but seems to reflect a more conservative liberal position.
Vice President Kamala Harris, on the other hand, has different abiding principles even though she is a member of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, led by the Rev. Amos Brown. Harris was raised on Hinduism and Christianity. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was from Chennai, India; her father, Donald Harris, from Jamaica. She is currently married to a Jewish man, Los Angeles lawyer Douglas Emhoff.
Politically, Harris is seen as a progressive liberal and there are legitimate concerns that Biden, at the age of 78, might not complete his full term as president and Harris will assume the role as president. This will guide the USA into a new future.
Only time will tell how the Biden/ Harris combination of a moderate, centrist liberalist and radical, progressive liberalist will influence domestic politics and global relations. Reviving liberalism will give both something to advocate but the spiritual consequences will remain a tipping point.
- ISRAEL – A DIVIDING UNITY
15 September saw the first of three historical meetings where Israel signed peace treaties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the White House, with President Donald Trump calling the moment the “dawn of a new Middle East.” The UAE and Bahrain joined Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries to have peace treaties with Israel.
In the second historical meeting, on October 23, President Trump announced that Sudan and Israel have also agreed to normalize relations.
On November 23 in a further historic event, Benjamin Netanyahu made an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia to meet the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. The visit marked the first reported meeting between leaders of the long-time foes, one that Israel has been pushing for in its efforts for regional acceptance despite previously being considered a far-fetched ambition.
The tipping point, which is still unexplored by many news commentators, is what impact these peace treaties will have outside the circle of signatories. There is an old Arab Bedouin saying that still shapes the ethics of the Middle East today: “I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I, my brothers, and my cousins against a stranger. “
For many Muslim nations the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Egypt, and Jordan are not viewed as “trailblazers” in their pursuit for peace but as traitors of Islam and therefore enemies of Allah. The fact that they all share a common culture and religion will mean little if they are perceived to have bonded with the ‘enemy’ – and make no mistake, Israel and the USA are not perceived by many Muslim nations as the “great Satan” without reason. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani decried the deal as a “huge mistake”. “The Emirate rulers think that if they approach America and the Zionist regime, their security will improve and their economy will grow,” Rouhani said. “But this is totally wrong.” The Iranian leader said the UAE-Israel deal was a “betrayal of the Palestinian cause”.
Turkey said history will not forget and never forgive the “hypocritical behaviour” of the United Arab Emirates in agreeing to a deal with Israel to normalise relations.
Ras Mubarak, a parliamentarian in Ghana, called the UAE’s move “a betrayal” of the Palestinian people, comparing their plight to that of Black South Africans during the apartheid era.
The peace treaties may provide a tipping point in the Middle East. Peace treaties with some Arab nations, the growing resistance with other Arab nations, and the discontent with Islam in Iran could result in shifting the Powerhouse of Islam from Saudi Arabia to other key role players like Turkey. The Middle East remains as volatile as ever but, now, with Islam losing ground in the Middle East and Islamists gaining ground in Africa, the spiritual world will face challenges unprecedented in modern history.
- COVID-19 – MORE THAN JUST HEALTH
March 11 2020 was the day that irreversibly changed the world as we know it. Deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction, WHO made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a GLOBAL PANDEMIC.
By January 8 2021 there are nearly 87 million coronavirus infections and nearly 1,9 million deaths related to COVID-19 (3%). Nearly 62 million have recovered (97%)
The challenge of the pandemic, however, can only be discussed in the context of all the misinformation and conspiracy theories that accompanied it. In the internet era, everyone suddenly became an expert on COVID-19 and pundits cherry-picked the data that matched their beliefs and seemed to speak with authority. This resulted in an unprecedented infodemic that travelled faster, broader, and deeper more than the accurate information provided by virologists and related experts. Sadly, many Christians contributed to a season of uncertainty by distributing theories and conspiracies of fear and suspicion
The tipping points that COVID-19 offers to the Church is profound:
- 500 million people were added to global poverty – 8% of the global population. This provides new opportunities for Churches and missionaries to engage and expand their footprints in caring for the poor. Rick Warren from Saddleback Church in the USA shared on Christian Post how the Church embraced the opportunities and has now become the largest food distributor in Southern California, having served over 3.5 million pounds of food to over 300,000 families.
- With Churches being closed and meetings coming to a complete halt, technology opened new doors for believers to meet across theological, national, and cultural borders. Warren also shared how Saddleback has seen over 16,000 people come to Christ since March — and is continuing to see about 80 new conversions a day. “Of those 16,000 people who have come to Christ, over 12,000 of them have come through personal, one-on-one witnessing by my members. Not led to Christ by my sermons. By one-on-one evangelizing.” Warren shared
- Travel came to a virtual standstill. This meant no short term outreaches, no training, no deliveries, and no meetings. The UNREACHED suddenly became INACCESSIBLE. This places a new missions emphasis on developing local and indigenous leadership and equipping local believers. This is a tipping point in how Churches approach missions
- FINANCIAL RESOURCES also decreased and unemployment increased. Self-supporting pastors are now dependant on support and this should become a priority for those who seek to invest in poorer communities.
- REFUGEES – SEEDS PLANTED
The UNHCR released the following deeply disturbing statistics last year:
- By mid-2020, 80 million people were displaced worldwide as a result of conflict, persecution, human rights violations and violence. Now, humanity is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, including 26.3 million refugees, 45.7 million asylum seekers and 45.7 million internally displaced persons.
- Syria, Venezuela, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Myanmar account for two-thirds of people displaced across borders in 2019.
- Forty percent of the 80 million people forcibly displaced are children under the age of 18.
- In the last decade, 20 million people were granted international protection as refugees. The number of refugees has doubled from about 10 million in 2010 to 20.4 million at the end of 2019.
- Internal displacement surged to levels never before seen over the last 10 years. In 2005, UNHCR was working in 15 countries with internally displaced populations. By 2010, the number of countries had increased to 26, and it now stands at 33. In 2005, UNHCR worked with 6.6 million internally displaced persons, a number that grew to about 15 million by 2010 and stood at more than 43.5 million at the end of 2019 – representing an almost 7-fold increase in only 15 years.
- Asylum applications are on the rise. Between 2010 and 2019, States or UNHCR registered more than 16.2 million individual asylum applications globally. In 2019, two million new asylum applications were registered, making up 14 per cent of the total for the entire decade.
- Millions of people across the world who do not possess a nationality are stateless and consequently are often denied basic rights. UNHCR reported on a global number of 4.2 million stateless persons including those of undetermined nationality in 76 countries at the end of 2019. In the last decade, 754,500 stateless persons acquired nationality. .
Displaced people (both internally as well as refugees) have always been a key component in God’s redemption plans. The early church grew as a result of Christians being persecuted and displaced – scattered like seed (Acts 8). Today we find a major move of God amongst refugees. This is a tipping point in reaching the unreached with the Gospel of Christ but at the same time a tipping point with an expiry date. Over the past 10 years, just over one million refugees were resettled, compared to 3.9 million refugees who returned to their country. The season of reaching those in need will start slowing down with new peace initiatives in Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan. This remains a critical tipping point.
2021 will reveal to what extent the Church is serious about her mandate to be light-givers and instruments of hope, peace and reconciliation. The scale will tip, one way or the other, and for Christians the Kingdom of God should take preference over safety, prosperity and security. It is indeed now or never
However, there is one encouragement that we can take with us into the new year. Whatever we face or encounter, whether it’s a pandemic or war, famine or fire – nothing can, and will, separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38). He will be with us always, till the end (Matthew 28:20). So, whether we face the destruction of war, the death of famine, the devastation of earthquakes, the dangers of terrorism, or the perils of pandemics, remember, we are God’s light, created for darkness. For this reason, and for this season, therefore, let Him who shines through us, shine bright before others, so that they may see our good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)