Prospective Grief: Why Church Leaders Resist the Religion Singularity

By Ken Howard

This article is the third in a series on the Religion Singularity. Click here for Part 1. Click here for Part 2.

Ken Outdoor Headshot Square

Organizing and sharing the data about the Religion Singularity continues to be an eye-opening experience for me. It has been enlightening to observe the responses of different groups of people. I’ve observed a couple interesting trends, especially among church people.

A continuing revelation has been how much more receptive to the data secular leaders are than church leaders. Business people, especially entrepreneurs, tend to see the trends and recognize the implications before I finish explaining them. Church leaders, on the other hand, are much more resistant. Some have trouble seeing the implications implied by the data, those who do become very defensive, and it’s hard to get them to see past the danger to the opportunity. And the more ensconced they are in the institutional church and the higher in the hierarchy they are, the more resistant they tend to be.

It’s not that they don’t recognize church decline. Everyone knows that churches are facing tough times. It’s the unwillingness to acknowledge that church demographic trends point to the end of the church as we know it. It’s thinking we can still tweak our way out of trouble or somehow revitalize the current model of church. Because if the Religion Singularity analysis is correct, it’s like thinking that the Titanic can dodge the iceberg.

And I continue to be astonished that no one in the church noticed the implications of this data before I did. After all, I’m no genius and it wasn’t rocket surgery. The demographic data I used have been around for decades and is updated every year. All it required was a spreadsheet and simple subtraction. It’s just that nobody had ever done the math. Perhaps I might have missed the implications, too, had I not stumbled into an science museum exhibit about Ray Kurzweil’s book on the Technological Singularity while I was pondering it.

In any event, I’ve been pondering the source of this resistance. And today, as I was riding my bike to the coffee shop where I do my writing, it came to me. It’s because of grief – a prospective grief at the coming death of the institutional church. And before they can see the potential resurrection of the church in a new form, they have to go through familiar stages of grief laid out by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance.

It became even clearer to me when I saw the following graph,[1] a slightly tweaked, seven-stage version Kübler-Ross’s work, and it left me feeling a lot more sympathetic to the resistance I’ve been experiencing, and a lot more patient with the people offering that resistance. Most of us ordained leaders have a love/hate relationship with the church, but the frustration and anger we feel at the church from time to time is actually born of the love we have for what we know it could be.

Stages of Grief

Change Curve

It’s no wonder we find ourselves resistant to see its impending death, even if we believe there will be a resurrection on the other side.

We’ve got a lot of grief work to do before we can be at peace with the work God is asking us to do.

And we at The FaithX Project can provide a little help through the process.


[1] Graph courtesy of Jo Banks at What Next consultancy.