A Humble Prediction About the Future of the Church in America
I am not an expert in demographics. I took one sociology class in college. I have no real credentials when it comes to predicting culture trends. But as a pastor I do think about the future of the church, and I have tried to do my best to stay on top of the polls, surveys, and studies related to the church in America. From what I've seen, and with a pinch of pastoral gut feeling, here's how I think things might go down in the future decades of the American church.
Liberal Churches: Relevant to the Point of Irrelevant
It's almost a guarantee that every town in New England has a Congregationalist or United Church of Christ (UCC) edifice in its town square. That's what you get when boatloads of Puritans come to America - lots of churches. Although the theological heritage of these congregations fell within the circle of Christian orthodoxy (at least as far as the three ecumenical creeds are concerned), they now represent a sort of bland, activist, generic doctrine of niceness with meatier stuff like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity either ignored or reworded.
Other churches leaning toward the same liberal ilk are the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church - USA (PC-USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the United Methodist Church (UMC). These denominations are not nearly as numerous in New England, but have stronger pockets in other areas. However, what these church bodies share in common is their gradual secularization. Rather than critiquing the modernism of the 20th century with the gospel, these churches capitulated to its demands, leaving only a thin veneer of true Christian doctrine. And more recently, postmodernism wreaked havoc in their seminaries, allowing various revisionist theologies and interest groups to hold the narrative of the Scriptures captive.
What these churches all have in common is not simply their compromise of core Christian doctrine - they are also bleeding membership at alarming rates. The UCC, for example, suffered a roughly 32% decline in membership between the years 2000 and 2013. Between 2000 and 2011 the ELCA lost about 23% of its membership, and within the span of two years (2010-2011) over 600 congregations abandoned the denomination, either operating independently or finding refuge in a more biblical friendly denomination. The other mainline liberal denominations reflect the same tendency toward decline - and not only decline, but also imbalance. A recent Pew Research study reported that Congregationalist membership is 63 % female. It goes without saying that female membership is a positive trait for any church. But where are all the men?! A healthy, sustainable church should have a demographic in line with the ratio of males and females in society.
So... what happened here? Sociologists like Robert Putnam have observed that Americans have recently tended toward less involvement in social networks that were once the center of our cultural life. But since not all churches are declining at these rates, something else is suspect. Already in the 1980s, Father Richard John Neuhaus saw the writing on the wall for the mainline liberal churches in America. His diagnosis is biting, but prophetically perceptive:
The mainline was left to sniff around for crumbs that fell from the tables of the cultural elite. Or, like an aged and somewhat eccentric aunt who shares the house, it was thanked for occasionally helping out with the tasks defined and controlled by others (pg. 220)
In others words, rather than being gospel-centered salt and light, the mainline hid its light under a bushel of cultural relevance, allowing the world to steer her churches into a ruin of "isms" with no real foundation. Cultural relevancy became its incurable Achilles heel. The fact that most of these churches have a membership predominately over the age of 60 means that they are a few decades away from complete collapse. The sad thing is that many of these churches possess all the resources they need for revival in the neglected books on the shelves of their theological libraries. If they were to open their Bibles again, approaching the sacred text with the prayerful reverence of their theological predecessors, such as Luther, Calvin, Edwards, or Wesley rather than the irreverence of Spong, Borg, Ehrman, and Crossan, there might just be some embers left to fan into flame. There are also some bright spots in these denominations - theologians, pastors, and churches who have chosen to remain loyal to their denomination rather than sojourn elsewhere. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson are John the Baptist voices in the ELCA, the UMC has Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (their book "Resident Aliens" is a critique of the liberal mainline church), and countless confess Christ faithfully in spite of the inconsistencies in their denominations.
Megachurches Might Just Mega Flop
In the 1990s, some churches started to reflect the American consumerism scene - bigger, better, and according to your preferences. The American "megachurch" entered the religious landscape using the best in marketing, technology, and corporate style leadership. Music was often shaped to the liking of the worshiper, and messages coincided with the latest reality TV show series. Now, don't get me wrong. Not all that has taken place in the megachurch scene is negative. I am uncomfortable when church panders to our individualistic habits of consumerism. This kind of method makes the gospel less counter-cultural. But, with that said, I'm certain there are great things going on in very large churches. Sure, megachurches often fall prey to certain temptations that come with their size. But it would be wrong to discredit them completely.
However, I'm not so sure that the millennial generation will flock to these churches the way earlier generations did. Millennials are more prone to be suspicious of big religious operations, desiring a more authentic community (that word authentic is a little over-used among millennials, perhaps to the point that it's no longer authentic, but oh well...). I've also observed that younger generations are longing more and more for the sacred space of sanctuaries, as well as the consistency of liturgy and theology. Some are even abandoning the Evangelical scene for the smells and bells of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
All of this makes me wonder if the megachurch scene will thrive as it has in the past two decades. I'm sure that some pockets of the United States will remain fertile soil for such churches, especially in those parts of the country where the Bible Belt might weather the cultural changes without as much impact.
I also wonder how long it will be until large churches associated with the prosperity gospel will fall to the wayside. The cheery optimism of megachurch pastors like Joel Osteen may have been attractive during better years, but a presidential election with no good options, the rise of ISIS, and the cold winds of secularism might blow away once and for all the illusion of having "Your Best Life Now." I also don't see millennials as all that friendly toward a theology that has more in common with school assembly motivational speakers than the true gospel.
Confessional Churches Will Trim Down
By confessional I mean biblical, gospel-centered, and anchored to the creeds and confessions that have shaped Western Christianity for centuries. These churches are Christ-centered, take the Scriptures seriously as the living voice of Christ to his church, adhere to a confession of faith, and are rooted in a tradition defined by its catechism and liturgies. Many of these churches are mainline, yet have resisted the tendency toward theological liberalism. For example, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and the recently formed Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) all fit within the category of confessional. All of these churches have recovered their confessional identity through a crisis within their own mainline denomination, and have come out on the other side determined to confess the faith in line with the church in ages past and not according to the shifting winds of novel innovations. More and more, the Southern Baptist Convention falls into this category as well. Recent movements within their denomination have tended towards a new discovery and appreciation of the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Reformed church.
Confessional churches have experienced a loss in membership as well - nowhere to the degree that liberal mainline churches have - but still palpable. Part of this is demographics. For example, many LCMS churches followed the trail of German immigrants to rural areas, which are no longer growing at the same rate as urban areas. Furthermore, general trends toward secularization have left their mark on religious communities in general. And more directly, pastors and parents of these denominations have often neglected to inoculate their youth against the world through thorough catechesis.
My guess is that as these churches respond to cultural changes with a renewed commitment to their confessions, they will also lose members. Many who once found social utility in church membership will recognize a growing divide between their perception of Christianity and its true reality. In other words, once committed members will leave, responding to the truth of the gospel and the call to costly discipleship with, "I didn't sign up for this." As Russell Moore commented in a recent article:
Those who were nominally Christian are suddenly vanished from the pews. Those who wanted an almost-gospel will find that they don’t need it to thrive in American culture. As a matter of fact, cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat released in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined, not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.
Overall, confessional churches will be faced with a critical question - will they remain true to their Christ-centered confessional heritage - even at the loss of members - or will they forfeit their theological birthright for a bowl of lukewarm pragmatism? To choose faithfulness may mean less members, but it will also mean a core of regenerate believers who live as strangers and aliens in a post-Christian world.
Immigrant and Charismatic Churches Will Grow
We've all heard ad nauseam that the church in America is dying. But it turns out the supposed death knell is only party true, and also culturally narrow. What "the church is dying" really means is "the white middle class church is dying." But the church is anything but a white middle class assembly from the suburbs. The church is a colorful tapestry of "every nation, tribe, people, and language" (Rev. 7:9). A 2006 book by Philip Jenkins noted that the center of Christianity is shifting to the global south (Africa, Asia, Latin America). As the Christian faith grows in leaps and bounds abroad, that faith is imported into the American religious landscape as immigrants establish new congregations in the urban centers of the Unites States. While many of these immigrants come from a confessional church body, a recent Washington Post article notes that more and more claim a Pentecostal or Charismatic background. Walk through any urban area, and you'll be sure to see store front churches with names like "Agua de Vida" or "Roca de Salvacion" instead of "San Juan Iglesia Luterana" These churches are not as strong on formal doctrine, but rather emphasize the experience of spiritual gifts, healings, and exorcisms.
While confessional Christians may be wary of such movements (and rightly so to some extent - Pentecostalism has often been marked by excesses, cults of personality, and prosperity gospel theology), they should also be sensitive to what the Spirit may be working in these communities. When I was in high school, I was converted in a charismatic Assemblies of God church. My time in this congregation instilled in me a love for the Bible, worship, and sharing the gospel with others. It did not, however, connect me to solid theology. As far as I knew, nothing substantial had happened in the church between the book of Acts and the Azusa Street Revival. It wasn't until I wandered into an LCMS church that I was taught to connect with my head what happened in my heart in a way that left room for experience, but did not rely upon it as the assurance of salvation. Confessional churches would do well to engage in humble, constructive conversation with growing charismatic churches in immigrant communities. Doing so would serve a dual purpose - the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of confessional churches would prevent charismatic churches from falling into repeats of early church heresies, and the zeal of charismatic churches would serve as a needed critique of the dry, lifeless intellectual orthodoxy to which confessional churches often fall prey.
The Roman Catholic Church? I Dunno.
As a Christian from the Lutheran tradition, I feel a certain level of affection and nostalgia for the Roman Catholic Church. Since Lutheranism began as a reform movement within the Roman church, I feel like in many ways we're speaking the same language ("The Lord be with you... And also with you!). But for the life of me I cannot figure out the Roman church. Every priest I speak with tells me something different. Although unified by the Pope, Roman Catholicism is by no means monolithic in doctrine or practice. Perhaps unity exists on paper, but not in the reality of parish life, and certainly not in the minds of the laity. In fact, within one communion exist conservative, progressive, cultural, charismatic, and evangelical branches.
What I do know is that within the Roman church there are deep divisions between conservatives and progressives. Ross Douthat, who is a practicing Roman Catholic and columnist for the New York Times, has suggested that there is a looming crisis within the Roman church that may eventually lead to a schism over social issues. Perhaps the same division that took place between mainline liberals and mainline confessionals will take place at an institutional level in the future. Perhaps this division already functionally exists.
Either way, I appreciate the intellectual contribution that many Roman Catholic thinkers have made to recent conversations within the American church. Ryan T. Anderson, for example, has been the most outspoken apologist for traditional marriage. His book What is Marriage: Man and Woman - A Defense (along with fellow Roman Catholic Robert P. George) is excellent - unlike anything Protestants have written. Ross Douthat's book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is also invaluable to understanding where we're at and where we're going in terms of religion.
So, there you have it. I'm not sure I'm on the right track here. This is just a somewhat educated guess. What I do know is that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matt 16:18). But what happens when the heat rises on the American religious landscape is another matter. So, let's continue praying, preaching, baptizing, and catechizing, and all the while saying with the church of all ages and places, "Come, Lord Jesus."
Rev. John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church