Discipleship or Bust: The Church in 2050
When asked to speculate about what the church will look like in 2050, the prudent answer is, “Only God knows.” But that’s no fun.
Some folks have looked at recent trends in church attendance and opined that the church will disappear in a few decades. But I don’t think the church in 2050 will be gone. Why? Because the Bible tells us so. Jesus commissioned Peter to lead the church, and he said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
This is good news. We don’t have to worry about the destruction of the church, because Jesus says the church will endure. Isn’t that a relief? We don’t have to save the church, because Jesus is our savior.
Change is coming
But let’s be clear. The church may not look much like the church as we know it now. In prosperous western nations, establishment churches will probably continue to lose prestige. Massive national church institutions may recede in favor of a renewed focus on local congregations.
I’m not suggesting we won’t have denominations in 2050, but we might not have denominational office buildings.
While the Episcopal Church is now a fraction of its size in the 1970s, our spending on and commitment to governance has blossomed in recent decades. Do we need more committees than we had when we were double our current size? Perhaps. But maybe there are more effective ways of carrying out work at the churchwide level. There are probably new ways to ensure that our church is governed and led by lay people, bishops, priests and deacons without expensive gatherings and the proliferation of committees.
So, to cut to the chase, what will churches look like in 2050?
A Church that is transforming lives by making disciples
I imagine that among local congregations, there will be large, well-resourced congregations that are providing support to smaller churches. And there will be smaller churches, perhaps meeting in homes or shared spaces rather than in buildings which are used fully only a couple of hours a week.
The congregations that survive until 2050 will be places where discipleship is the focus of congregational life. There are plenty of outlets now for community connection, for social justice work and for making appearances. But the church is the place where the sacraments are administered, where the word is proclaimed, where people are steeped in prayer and where we focus on meeting Jesus Christ.
Through the Christendom era of the 1950s, people joined churches for good appearances, to make friends and to do good works. But with the collapse of Christendom, there’s no social capital or prestige in joining a church. If I want to build houses or feed people, there are nonprofit organizations that do that really well with high efficiency. So I might not join a church for that reason. Instead, I probably join a church because I want to encounter Jesus Christ in word and sacrament, and I want to live a transformed life.
To be clear, I’m not for a second suggesting that social justice work is inappropriate for churches! I hope every Christian is involved in transforming our world one life at a time. I hope every church encourages its members to serve the poor, the outcast, the marginalized and the lost. It’s just that our identity, especially if you fast forward 25 years, must be first as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Increasing diversity among members and all aspects of congregational life
In addition to the identity of churches, I think the demographics will necessarily change. For that, I am grateful.
At present, mainline churches in the affluent west are primarily filled with aging white people. There’s nothing wrong with aging white people! But if we were succeeding at making disciples, our congregations’ demographics would match that of our communities.
The church will become more diverse in coming decades. We’ll see multiple generations meeting Jesus together. We’ll see people of all races and gender identities. We’ll see rich and poor together. Congregations which cannot adapt to that reality will not survive.
In 2050, the church will need to spend more time shaping our lives and our ministries outside the church. We’ll need to equip people for study and prayer and service at home. We’ll need to teach the reality that everyone has a vocation, not just clergy. God calls some to be pastors, some to be teachers, some to be doctors, some to be food service workers, some to be drivers, some to be mechanics, and on and on.
Right now, the church is built on the Christendom-era worldview that allows many of us subsume the radical commitment to following Jesus under the convenience of a comfortable consumer lifestyle. In the 2050 church, we’ll need to teach that we are followers of Jesus every moment of every day. Every dollar that we spend is a reflection of our faith. Every hour of our day is a reflection of our faith. Every moment is an opportunity to glorify God.
Just as I think congregations will be sorted into two kinds – large, well-resourced alongside much smaller communities – I think our worship services will move toward one end or another. On one side, we’ll see transcendent liturgy rooted in ancient tradition. On the other, we’ll see less formal, immanent gatherings, also expressing the church’s traditions. Think of High Mass in a Gothic cathedral versus a loaf of bread broken in someone’s living room. Both liturgies are amazing in their own ways, and the church of 2050 will realize this and prioritize both.
Christ's body in 2050
Jesus told us we cannot serve two masters. The church cannot be both the body of Christ and the embodiment of consumerism. The church, now and in 2050, is called to focus its gaze solely on God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
It might be helpful to remember two scriptures. The church and its work are neatly described in two important places. One key perspective on the church can be found in Hebrews 10:23-25.
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
That’s it. The church exists so that we can provoke one another to love and good deeds. Provoking one another is very different from the nice-fest that we sometimes see in today’s church. The 2050 church that survives will have recovered the provocation and encouragement that’s envisioned in Hebrews.
Another place we read about the church has more to do with its purpose. Sometimes we might wonder about the church’s mission. It seems to me that Jesus was pretty clear about that. In Matthew 28:19-20, we read Jesus’ instruction,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Our task is to make disciples of everyone. We can’t make disciples of everyone if we exclude or discriminate. We can’t make disciples of everyone if we don’t proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ. We can’t make disciples of everyone if we are focused on our comfort over God’s transforming grace and mercy.
The church that survives through to 2050 will have re-focused on disciple-making. For that reason, I expect the 2050 church to be vibrant and growing. And I am heartened to remember that Jesus has promised to be with us always — now, in 2050 and forever.
Scott Gunn is an Episcopal priest, photographer, speaker and author. He serves as executive director of Forward Movement, a ministry of the Episcopal Church based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Before that he was a parish priest in Rhode Island. Prior to ordination, he worked in the tech industry at Education Development Center, The Atlantic Monthly, Fast Company, the MIT Media Lab and a short-lived dot-com. He’s married to Sherilyn Pearce, and they share their home with a yellow lab named George. Scott is in regular demand as a speaker, retreat leader and preacher. His hobbies include photography, blogging and travel.
- Surfing and Spirituality by Scott Claassen, Vestry Papers, March 2020
- Not to Judge the World, but to Save It by Greg Syler, an ECF Vital Practices blog, February 25, 2020
- The Work of God by Annette Buchanan, an ECF Vital Practices blog, February 18, 2020
- Encountering Others by Linda Buskirk, an ECF Vital Practices blog, April 24, 2019