Jan  2018 23
Puzzle Pieces

When you imagine the future of church, to which trend lines, data sets, fears, and hopes do you attend? There is so much going on with Christianity in the U.S. We have to make choices concerning where to look and how to frame what we see.

Personally, I want to take all the evidence into account that I can as I formulate a picture of what is going on. All I’ve known for the last 50 years are downward-moving trend lines for my part of the Christian tradition.

I am aware that my part of Christianity is relatively small and is not THE bellwether for Christianity in the U.S.; therefore, I don’t want to norm my personal experience. I also believe God surprises humankind and is ever attentive and reaching out to persons who will join together in God’s work in the world. I want to look at the evidence, and I want to hope.

The following is an assemblage of trend lines, questions, and interpretations I take into account as I imagine what shapes emerging Christian communities might take. I don’t have a clear picture, but these are my puzzle-pieces.

  • I’ve previously cited the research by Lovett Weems and others concerning the “death tsunami” that will wash over old mainline Christianity, and with not a small effect upon older evangelicals whose social stances on matters such as same-sex marriage are far more conservative than their offspring. Death will accelerate the closing of many congregations populated and financially supported by the World War II generation.
  • There are far, far more church properties today than will be around in a decade. Each closed or closing church home meant a great deal to congregants, but many of them became boundary-closed clubs. Some of those buildings have commercial value (I watch salvage shows reclaiming doors, windows, bells, flooring, and pews for houses and restaurants), and some do not. Some churches have become remodeled for another Christian group or as a mosque. But, overall, property sales will far outstrip property purchases. What kind of investment in the future might the sale of properties represent? How should those proceeds be spent?
  • Ask your pastor: “If current trend lines continue, how many months or years of life does this congregation have?” I know of some congregations where the answer is decades. (The congregation I attend, for example, has several thousand members. One church school class is larger than the average congregation in the U.S. Even so, the shape of this congregation will be challenged by any number of factors, including the death tsunami.) And I know other congregations where the answer is measured in months. I’ve also asked: “How many donor deaths is the congregation away from a serious financial crisis?” The answer to that question is often less than five.
  • How will ministry be funded? I’ve written on this topic before, in terms of bi-vocational ministry. But there is a related question, with some really interesting possible answers: how much will ministry be endowment funded, annual giving funded, social-entrepreneurial proceeds funded (e.g., a bakery or micro farm or thrift store or web programming business)?
  • What will be the effect of identity politics on congregations, and does Christianity have anything to offer to move us to “the other side”? Much of American Christianity, for centuries, has expressed and reinforced Sunday racial-ethnic segregation. Many expressions of Christianity are conflicted, divided, or dividing concerning the norming or rejection of patriarchy and heterosexuality. And, there are stories of efforts to conciliate and neighbor persons and congregations that differ from each other. Some congregations and their leaders are doing remarkable work resisting the powerful forces that are the church equivalent of “the big sort.” Right now, those individual stories of resistance and imagination seem to be as powerful on a social level as spitting into a hurricane—except for the individuals involved. But as racial-ethnic and generational demographics change, that hurricane might give way to a breeze from elsewhere and those experiments that transgress boundaries may give way to vibrant, diverse communities where the understanding of what it means to be human includes both diversity and something held in common.
  • Much has been made of the growth of “nones.” Surveys indicate 35-to-40 percent of millennials are indifferent to religion, with numbers higher among whites than other racial-ethnic groups. But that figure still means 60-65 percent of millennials have some affinity with religion. This generation has been called the most socially-conscious since the World War II generation, but unlike their grandparents, they are not (yet) institution builders. It is unlikely that millennials will renew institutions dedicated to religion-as-it-has-been. But will they build new institutions? Values live for only a generation if those values are not carried forward by institutions.
  • The landscape includes both Lifechurch.tv, with its many satellite locations and tens of thousands of weekly participants, and pub theology groups comprised of a dozen diverse souls for whom that gathering IS their church. Plus store-front churches. Plus online churches. Plus megachurches comprised of recent immigrant populations. Plus historic and revitalized churches. Plus churches that rival amusement parks and theaters in creating immersive, technologically-induced, full-body “wow” experiences. Plus communities that might gather for Bible study, fellowship, and service that will never become what had been known as a “church.” Plus alternative residential-religious communities that will be the 21st-century installments of Oneida and the Benedictines. Plus mall-sized churches that thrived when malls thrived and have to reinvent themselves in the age of Amazon and social media.
  • Decades ago, ecumenically-oriented denominations withdrew support for conversion-oriented, colonizing missionary work in foreign lands. At the same time, fundamentalist and some evangelical or Pentecostal denominations and charismatic churches, working from different scruples, made inroads and converts. I don’t know the research on the theological perspectives of first-generation immigrants who were raised in fundamentalist and evangelical mission schools in their countries-of-origin, but I suspect those first-generation immigrants in the U.S. will continue to exercise a conservative-weighted influence on Christianity in the U.S.
  • Graduate theological education will continue to be of high value for some church leaders, will be deeply questioned by others, and will be comprised of institutions adapting, resisting change, dying, and merging. Occasionally, new seminaries are being birthed—especially by newer immigrant groups, by splitting denominations, and maybe by an entrepreneurial someone with a lot of imagination, gumption, and financial backing.

When you survey the landscape, what is the picture you put together? What are the evidences you consider, and where do you find hope?

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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