Does the Future Have a Church? And in What Form?

By the Rev. Ken Howard

“Does the Church have a future?” is the wrong question.
The real question is, “Does the future have a Church?”
– Attributed variously

I think I agree… I would only add, “And if it does, in what form will that Church be?” 

It was a little over three years ago in 2017 that I published my research paper, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” in the 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 astrophysics-y or SciFi-ish 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, 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.

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 we are producing new Christians. My 2017 projections indicated that by the end of the 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 when you factor out the “Nones,” the average membership of those institutions could be less than half that, which means that all of our ecclesiatical institutions – from congregations to judicatories to denominations – will have become unsustainable in their current forms. 

And that’s B.C.: Before Covid accelerated those trends and crushed all of 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 now “attends Church” (in either physical or virtual form).

I’ve always found it a great spiritual irony that the name for this institution has become so attached to and identified with its physical manifestations, but comes from the Greek word “ekklesia,” which 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?

I do believe that the future will have a Church, but neither I or 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 three things that will be essential for congregations who want to survive and thrive in 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 congegation’s “Minimum Viable Belief” because it usually requires shedding everything non-essential.

A willingness to experiment in service of the vision. I often call this Rapid Iterative Prototyping because it spells R.I.P., and because it involves using our God-given imaginations, testing out 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 be helped to see your blind spots. The thing about blind spots is that, by definition, you have no idea what they are, cannot find them on your own, and must have help to see them.

And while FaithX can help with all of these essentials, it is the last one that we can be most helpful with, bringing our unique strategic missional planning approach and tools like MapDash for Faith Communities, Neighborhood Missional Intelligence Reports, Missional Context Reports, and other services and resources.
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