Thanks to J.P. for sharing this article on future trends (sort of) with churches.  In a nut shell, church future tellers see these four trends shaping the future of American churches:

  • Sermons will become obsolete in favor of interactive multimedia events
  • Church buildings will become less and less important
  • End of denominationalism
  • Growing biblical illiteracy and antagonism towards Christianity
The first item is probably already underway in many non-denominational environments.  I don’t see it disappearing from more traditional and historic churches, though.  Noting the trend for pastors to be “guides” rather than “sages on stages” is all well and good.  But if this is the result (or cause?) of declining levels of theological training and preparation in favor of personality pastors, it’s ultimately going to be a bad thing.  Perhaps this will be one of the differences between “underground” churches and mainstream churches – underground churches will continue to use the historic techniques of the Church to train and equip the faithful.
I’m convinced of the truth of item #2, though I imagine this will be the single-most difficult thing for Christians to handle.  Tweak the sermon (or at least shorten it), change the name of the congregation to de-emphasize denomination (many already do), warn me that my faith is going to cost me.  Most folks will deal with those issues.  But as soon as you question the viability of a church campus and building complex, get ready to watch the sparks fly!  
There may be an end to advertised denominationalism, at least among new church starts.  But I don’t think denominations are going to go away.  They’ll just go underground.  And preach long sermons.  Although many today don’t seem to understand it, there are reasons there are so many denominations, and while we may lament the divisiveness, once you spend any time at all studying theology or the Bible or Christian history, you’ll learn to better appreciate the reasons we are separate.  
Number four – definitely.  Already seeing it.  It will only gather momentum.

7 Responses to “Prognostification”

  1. Sarah Says:

    I’m no expert on the state of churches in America nor am I a theologian but here are my thoughts on the issues:
    #1 – I have a hard time believing that sermons will become obsolete. I have no doubt that there is a widespread problem with “consumerist” Christians looking primarily for entertainment value in which church they choose but eliminating substance altogether for some sort of multimedia experience? That’s a dangerous road to go down.(Though I’ll be the first to tell the Lutheran church they need to let go of the 100 year old worship style and get with the program. It’s why we don’t attend a Lutheran church here. I want my kids to WANT to go to church, not dread it.)
    #2 – Our church has been seeking a permanent home since before we even moved here 6 years ago. It’s been a long process. Is a permanent building necessary for church? Absolutely not. But there are so many things we can’t do because we don’t have a “home.” Vacation bible school, mid-week services for special occasions, classes and bible studies at the church throughout the week. They happen elsewhere but logistically it’s harder. Our church has thrived despite the lack of a home but sure would be nice not to have to beg the school district to let us extend our use of the high school auditorium we’re in every year.
    #3 – Having grown up overseas where people were just happy to have an English Speaking church to attend, and now in Utah where people are just happy to find a Christian church to worship in, I think diminishing denominations is a good thing. There is a unification in the body of Christ that is missing when we get wrapped up in denominational differences. As long as the foundational truths are there, we are to be one in Christ. I think Ephesians 2 applies to us as much as it did to Jewish and Gentile believers.
    #4 – HUGE problem and I blame the church leaders! I recently took a class on how to study the bible and it CHANGED my whole relationship/passion/approach to God’s word. How on EARTH is it possible that through my entire upbringing in the Christian church something as basic as this was NEVER taught?!? WHY isn’t this taught in EVERY Christian church?!? People are illiterate because they don’t know HOW to study God’s word and think it doesn’t apply to them today or they think they can’t relate to it. Massive glaring problem across the board in Christianity today. This should not be reserved for seminary students. Every Christian should be equipped to study and share God’s word. Period.

  2. Sarah Says:

    I feel the need to clarify that I know I am responsible for my own spiritual growth and learning but I really think tools for how to study the bible should begin, on some levels, at the middle school and high school age groups. I wish I would have been taught this at a MUCH younger age. I wish church leadership would provide those opportunities. It’s not taught at ALL let alone to the youth.

  3. Paul Nelson Says:

    Great response, Sarah.  I’ll respond to what you’ve said here before I read your clarification post.

    First off – you are a theologian.  Everybody is.  Seminary doesn’t make you a theologian.  Hopefully it helps to sharpen your theological tools or give you additional ones, but everyone is a theologian.  The important thing is to take that task seriously, which is much of your commentary below.  So, congrats.  You’re now a theologian as well as a chef!

    1.  Agreed.  The only way that I see sermons disappearing completely is if formal worship is completely banned.  I can also see sermons needing to be augmented with other study opportunities through the week.  But that’s a matter of adding more content (as per your #4 below) rather than further minimizing it into Tweet-sized bites!

    2.  Agreed – having a place of your own is a real blessing – if you need it.  With statistics on church membership and attendance continuing to grow more bleak (overall, there are certainly exceptions), there are plenty of congregations holding on to a facility that no longer really suits their needs or wants.  But somehow we come to equate our facility with our identity, a lesson that hopefully you & your congregation have not been learning.  Declining parishes feel like getting rid of their facility is the same as ending the congregation.  It isn’t – it’s an opportunity to redefine who you are, what’s important to you, and how you’re going to go about accomplishing it.  For a young, thriving church a facility is a huge blessing, but they need to also build into the congregation’s mind the idea that the facility is only that – a facility.  When it no longer facilitates, we are free to let it go for another solution.

    3.  There are certainly situations where the centrality of the Gospel eclipses other theological considerations to a certain point, allowing for greater fraternal relationships.  Whether that’s because of necessity via scarcity or persecution, it can be a beautiful thing.  Human nature being what it is, though, once scarcity is alleviated or the threat removed, when we have space to breathe, then the differences return.  

    Are we one in Christ, and how do we know that?  Traditionally, it has come down to the Creeds.  And interestingly enough, the Creeds (Apostle, Nicene) don’t say anything about predestination or infant baptism or any of the “modern” divisions between Christians.  So I can affirm that my Methodist and Presbyterian and Baptist and Roman Catholic friends are brothers and sisters in Christ and we’re destined for joy together.  At the same time, do I find the doctrine of double predestination painful and damaging?  Yes.  Do I think that the Sacraments are something God does rather than something we do?  Yes.  Do I disagree with the notion that the Pope is the single infallible transmitter of God’s will?  Yes.

    And so denominations will remain.  We can agree not to talk about certain things for a while, but if we’re seeking to make Christians more intelligent about their faith (#4 below), then these things are going to come up and we’ll have to talk honestly about disagreements.  Those disagreements shouldn’t be as contentious as they have and still can be.  But They’re going to exist, and who leads a community of faith and how united that community of faith will be will depend on the answers to some of these ancillary questions.  

    4.  You’re right – the Church (general) has let down people.  It has watered stuff down, placed programs ahead of equipping the saints, and generally fostered the idea that parents and the family can outsource the theological training of themselves and their children to the Church, just as they have outsourced the education of their kids, their financial planning for the future, etc.  And this is never a good thing.  You’ve mentioned this course before – could you send me the link again?  I started watching it but I only found one video so far.

    People are given the impression that because they aren’t theologians (see preface!) they don’t need to study the Bible seriously or attend studies or otherwise engage their brains with their faith.  That’s soooo dangerous.  It explains the wretchedness of pop Christianity in America today (prosperity theology, improper mixing of politics & theology, etc.), and it leaves people defenseless against the cultural and intellectual onslaught that is mounting against Christianity.  It explains why so many young people appear to lose their faith in college when they encounter different points of view and ideas for the first time.  It’s a massacre, and I agree that the Church is to blame in large part.

    Now, lots of people have bought into these errors over the years.  Many if not most of these folks are good, God-fearing people.  They were doing what they thought was best, or what they were told was best.  We should be careful not to confuse making honest mistakes with any sort of personal maliciousness.  The priority of the Church ought to be identifying these errors and correcting them quickly.  That will involve remembering the forgiveness of our Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit within us!

    The role of the Church is faithfulness.  Our obsession with metrics and figures and statistics and all the other tools of business that have been ported over to Christianity is misguided and dangerous, and I hope people are beginning to see that (though by the massive number of books by ‘experts’ on how to grow your church, maybe we aren’t yet seeing clearly!).  The Church is where the Holy Spirit brings people who have been brought to faith so they can see how that faith plays out in their lives.  

    Thanks for sharing – I trust we’ll be talking more about these things!

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    Thanks for clarifying.  It’s a partnership – being trained as a Christian.  As individuals we have to allow ourselves to be trained.  We have to see that this is a priority, that it is more relevant than getting into a good school or graduating with a coveted degree or landing a job at the right firm.  It is not one of many duties as Christian individuals and families, it is our primary duty.  There is no other duty capable of compensating for failure here.  

    But this involves some stuff that we don’t like to talk about in congregations because it makes people skittish.  I am faced from time to time with the question of why it matters whether someone becomes a member or not.  I always respond with practical issues (ability to vote, hold office, contribute to the direction of the congregation), but also with spiritual issues (accountability, service to others, submission to authority).  Stuff that people don’t care much to hear.  It is our constant urge to individualize things that leads people to bounce from church to church (denomination to denomination sometimes) based on whether they like the pastor or not, or because the last pastor had the nerve to challenge them on something.  This is dangerous individualism.  There are certainly good reasons (regrettable though they be) why people change churches, but there are many more good reasons why we ought to commit ourselves someplace.  

    Church leadership needs to be prepared to emphasize training and equipping more – which in many instances means freeing up the pastor from other duties (administration, etc.) to focus on what really matters – teaching and preaching the faith to everyone and anyone, anytime they’re able.  That requires not only the support of the congregation but the self-discipline of the pastor, as it’s easy (and sometimes rewarding!) to get involved in other aspects of the ministry.  

    A lot of rearranging needs to happen in many congregations.  But having people in the pews that see this as well and are willing not only to support it but to demand it is critical!  I hope that you and your family are good advocates for greater emphasis on preaching and teaching at your church!

  5. Sarah Says:

    I agree with all of the above. As for the website:

    This will bring up the list of all the Secret Church videos. All of them are excellent! Well…I’ve done four of them and they were all excellent. (“Angels, Demons and Spiritual Warware,” and “The Gospel, Possessions, and Prosperity,” and “Exploring the Holy Spirit”, and “How to Study the Bible” – Just started the Old Testament Overview.)I LOVE his emphasis on the fact that this is NOT merely for your own edification, it is for taking the word and God’s truth to others in our communities and around the World. That is the entire reason we are here! If you don’t watch the whole thing, Make sure you at least listen to his analogy at the beginning of Angels, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare about the ship.

  6. Lois Says:

    I think there’s a direct correlation between #1 and #4.

  7. Paul Nelson Says:

    I think you’re on to something there!

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