The future of Church in the west?

Following on from my somewhat negative previous post, I have just been reading a couple of reports from this conference.

The discussion focused on the future of Christianity in the USA- and this is clearly potentially very misleading. The global growth of Christianity is a very different discussion. However, the influence of American Evangelical Christianity on the UK religious scene is huge- all the TV channels, the publishing juggernaut and the big name preachers. We watch changes there with interest, knowing that the impact of these changes will be felt this side of the Atlantic.

Brian McLaren believes that over the next period, the Conservative Evangelical denominations (protestant and Catholic) in the USA will “constrict, tighten up, batten the hatches, raise the boundary fences, demand greater doctrinal, political, and behavioral conformity, and monitor boundaries with increased vigilance.”

He believes that this will drive out many, whilst increasing the anxiety and ‘bunker mentality’ of those left inside the denominations. At the same time, he sees a new coalition forming-

That new coalition, I believe, will emerge from four main sources:

  1. Progressive Evangelicals who are squeezed out of constricting evangelical settings.
  2. Progressive Roman Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) who are squeezed out of their constricting settings.
  3. Missional mainliners who are rediscovering their Christian faith more as a missional spiritual movement, and less as a revered and favored religious institution.
  4. Social justice-oriented Pentecostals and Evangelicals — from the minority churches in the West and from the majority churches of the global South, especially the second- and third-generation leaders who have the benefits of higher education.

Scott McKnight points out that Conservative Evangelical Mega churches in the USA (and I believe,the UK equivalents) are in fact growing. He does not believe that ‘Evangelicalism’ is made up of one stream- believing that some incarnations will be around for a long long time to come.

However, what he sees as now having ended is the old ‘Evangelical coalition’-

The evangelicalism that formed in the 1940s and 1950s, more accurately called “neo-evangelicalism,” was a reaction to strident forms of fundamentalism, a call to serious intellectual engagement so that evangelicalism could gain both theological and academic credibility again, and a formation of a big tent coalition to work together for evangelism and theological development. By and large, this big tent coalition combined the Calvinist and Wesleyan segments of evangelicalism, found places for Christian colleges, parachurch ministries, missionary societies, and a plethora of magazines and radio stations, and gave a privileged place to evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and Carl Henry.

But perhaps the most powerful piece was by Philip Clayton who had this to say-

A major national survey recently published in USA Today shows that 72 percent of “Millennials” — Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 — now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Even among those who self-identify as practicing Christians, all of the traditional forms of Christian practice have sharply declined from previous years: church attendance, Bible study, prayer. Doubts are higher, and affiliation with the institutional church is sharply lower. All of us who are still connected with local congregations already know this pattern, up close and personal. Still, it’s sobering to see the trends writ large; after all, we’re talking about almost three-quarters of younger Americans!

The decline of traditional churches and denominations will presumably continue, so that by 2020 the effects will be as devastating in the U.S. as they already are in Europe. (On a typical Sunday, for example, 0.5 percent of Germans attend church.) Numerically, two-thirds or more of mainline churches will close their doors or struggle on without a full-time pastor. Denominations will merge in order to be able to maintain even minimal national staffs and programs. A larger and larger proportion of those who still go to church will attend large “mega” churches, those with 2,000 or more attendees on an average Sunday.

Clayton issued what he called a ‘call to church’-

We churchpeople were the center of American society since this nation was founded. We enjoyed power and prestige; we were the center of the action; we counted presidents, educators, and industry leaders among our numbers. But those days, it appears, are over. We still have a crucial role to play in the world. But it’s no longer a world that revolves around us.

This new role actually makes it easier for us to model ourselves and our communities on the Head of the church, who “has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him” (Isaiah 53:2). As Dwight Friesen puts it in Thy Kingdom Connected, the church can no longer be a “bounded set,” defining itself by the people and ideas it’s opposed to. We now have to be a “centered set,” pointing toward — and living like — the One whose life and ministry we model ourselves on. If we can’t communicate our Center with power and conviction, no one’s going to listen. Oh, and by the way: we have to find ways to do this that don’t sound or look anything like the church has looked over the last 50 years or so.

Finally, Clayton talks about an age of experimentation in church-

What does “church” look like when you take it out of the box, replant it, and let it grow organically? It’s going to stretch and challenge you; it’s going to take openness to forms and practices you’ve never seen before:

  • churches that meet in pubs, office buildings, school classrooms, or homes . . . or virtual churches, like those at;
  • churches that have no leader, or have leaders who don’t look like any pastor you’ve ever known (OMG, what if they have piercings?);
  • pastors who are hosts to discussions, who can listen long and deep to doubts and questions before presenting the answers on which they center their lives;
  • churches that don’t have buildings, denominations, pastors, or sermons; that don’t meet on Sundays; that consist mainly of people who don’t call themselves “Christians”;
  • churches whose participants are drawn from many different religious groups; churches full of “seekers”; churches that consist mostly of silence (like the Quakers) or of heated discussions between participants.

Not only conservatives will wonder and worry where one should draw the line. And that’s the point: we’ve now entered an age where we no longer know how to draw lines, because the old criteria just don’t work anymore — except to exclude the vast majority of the people whom we hope to interest.

All this sounds very familiar from this side of the Atlantic. We are much further down the line that it all.

We have our Evangelical enclaves- who tend to be exclusive, embattled, and increasingly fuelled by an agenda that looks either to African or American Mega churches. Despite their vigour and apparent success, they are largely irrelevant to the larger cultural situation- and their engagement with mission is simply to attempt to create more ‘converts’ to their own kind of belief system. These churches feel to me to be about marketing and mass consumerism.

And then we have the huge majority of spiritually interested consumers, who may have been inoculated against Christianity, but not against Jesus.

And then we have a growing number of experimental pioneers, whose methods are increasingly being adopted by the mainstream traditional churches- through things like Fresh Expressions-

…and all the mixed madness to be experienced at Greenbelt Festival.

We live, my friends, in interesting times, where change is normal, and the future uncertain. But I have no doubt that church will continue, and that the mission of Jesus will be carried forward into new generations. Some will resist any change fiercely, others will embrace it.

But change will happen- it has already happened…