Does the Future Have a Church?
Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future! – Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate in Physics
I’ve often said that asking, “Does the Church have a future?” is the wrong question and that the real question is, “Does the future have a Church? And if it does, in what form?”
Six years ago, I published a research paper entitled “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity” in The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society. But I still prefer my working title, “Singularity: The Death of Religion and the Resurrection of Faith.”
If the term “Singularity” sounds kind of like SciFi or astrophysics to you, good! It’s supposed to. Because institutional Christianity is entering a kind of wormhole that will deliver us into a context so different that it might as well be an entirely new universe. And what we do now to prepare our congregations and judicatories will determine whether they will survive and thrive or be consigned to oblivion.
What is God doing?
The crux of the Religion Singularity is this: Christianity has become better at division than multiplication – we are producing new churches and denominations at an exponentially faster rate than new Christians. My 2017 projections indicated that by the end of this century there would be only 17,000 Christians per denomination and 67 Christians per worship center. And that’s per not in, which means that if you factor out the religiously unaffiliated (now running at 60 percent nationally), the average membership of those institutions could be significantly less than half that, which means that all of our ecclesiastical institutions – from congregations to judicatories to denominations – will have become unsustainable in their current forms.
And that was before Covid accelerated those trends, crushing our familiar paradigms about what Church was supposed to be. This year, for the first time in the history of the U.S., fewer than half the population “attends Church” in physical or virtual form.
I’ve always found it a great spiritual irony that Christianity has become so attached to and identified with the physical gathering places where we meet, when its original Greek name, ekklesia, literally means “called out.” Which brings us face-to- face with some challenging questions about what God is calling us out of. Do we love our neighbors enough to allow God to call us out of our beloved buildings, familiar liturgical traditions and self-assured theologies to meet them on their turf and not ours? Are we willing to leave behind what is dying to seek out and partake in what God is bringing to life?
Four essential conditions that can help our Church survive and thrive in the future
I do believe that the future will have a Church, but neither I nor anyone else has any idea what that Church will look like. Only that it will be changed for good, literally and figuratively. And while we cannot predict with any certainty what form the future church will take, I think that there are four conditions that will be essential for congregations who want to survive and thrive in the new context of the Post-Singularity era.
- A clear, transcendent and shared vision: We need to dig beneath what we do and how we do it to discover why we exist. The unique charism and purpose that God planted in us and is calling out of us and is understood and shared by all in our congregation. I often call this finding our congregation’s “Minimum Viable Belief” because it usually requires shedding everything non-essential.
- A willingness to experiment in service of the vision: I like to call this Rapid Iterative Prototyping because it spells R.I.P. and because it involves using our God-given imaginations, testing lots of ideas, finding out which of them don’t work, letting them die and moving on – and all without fearing failure.
- A willingness to have our eyes opened to our blind spots: We have to find ways to see what we habitually block out about ourselves as congregations and the communities we hope to engage. The thing about blind spots and implicit biases is that we have no idea what they are, we cannot find them on our own and we must have help to see them.
- An understanding that unity does not require uniformity: This last one is much like the first. Unity based on uniformity of doctrine or practice defines a community by who’s in and who’s out and always leads to division. But unity based on Christ’s love for us in all our diversity and imperfections defines a community by the One who lies at the center and makes us family.
Where does this leave the Episcopal Church in 2050?
I believe that the Episcopal Church is better suited than many to implement the four above conditions. Especially the fourth, as it is deeply rooted in in our denominational DNA since the time of Richard Hooker, one of the founders of our Church. He wrote that doctrine and praxis are not a sufficient basis for Christian community, but rather the logical consequents to understanding that the core of Christian community is Jesus Christ and his love for us.
The Rev. Ken Howard is the founder and executive director of The FaithX Project. Its primary focus is helping congregations and the judicatories that support them survive and thrive in challenging times through data-grounded discernment. For more information, visit our website at www.faithx.net or email us at email@example.com.
- Is the Church Dying? Or Not? (and the answer is...) by Ken Howard, an ECF Vital Practices blog, June 11, 2014
- Hybrid Church - A Way Forward for Church Leaders by Tim Schenck, an ECF Vital Practices tool
- God is My Helper by Catherine Thompson, an ECF Vital Practices blog, June 24, 2022
- The Ultimate ‘Online’ Church by Sean Steele, Vestry Papers, May 2022