Four Truly Surprising Future Trends for the USAmerican Church

shaping-the-futureRecently, church researcher Ed Stetzer cited four “surpising” future trends for the church.  I have no disagreement with him, though it was a pretty safe list…and hardly surprising (despite the baited headline).  Most of his four trends revolved around the “end of nominalist” Christianity.  Essentially the cultural Christians will go the way of the dinosaur, checking “none” as their religious preference.  Since we’re pretty much seeing this now, it’s hardly a future trend…nor all that “surprising.”

Most futurists who peer more than five years forward are prone to error and therefore are excused for their safe prophetic announcements about anything “future.”  I hope you’ll do the same for me.  Nevertheless, I feel somewhat confident that four (truly future) trends will mark the U.S. church in the next quarter century…and I suspect these will also truly surprise many:

1) The end of the lecture (a.k.a., sermon) on Sunday morning.  I have a new book set for release in January detailing this huge change for the emerging, postmodern Church (now rising in American culture).  Currently, the vast majority of churches (most still run by baby boomer modern ideologies and practices) remain woefully wedded to a rhetorical strategy to communicate and disciple: a 30-50 minute spiritual/biblical monologue or lecture.  Protestants think this is the way it’s always been, but that’s not true.  The Reformation in the 1500s elevated Scripture and the homily (now called a “sermon”) was expanded to become an academic tool to persuade, explain, reveal and proposition.  The Catholic and Orthodox churches, far more ancient, still prefer the short 10-minute homily.  So what’s going to replace this Sunday lecture?  I believe it’ll be an interactive, visual experience where the preacher operates more as the guide from the side than a sage from the stage. It’ll be the only way to recapture postmodern attention and affection for Christianity (and has proven popular already).  The generations born since 1960 have largely left the Church, including the Millennials (which enjoyed the greatest season of children’s and youth ministry the modern Church ever produced).  Sermons, like college lectures, will go the way of the dinosaur.  They simply do not communicate effectively in a YouTube, Twitter, Google world.

2) The end of the church building as a primary gathering spot.  This is a tough church pill to swallow, given the 1500 year history of tax-exempt status for churches (originally started by Constantine in his state religion reforms of 325 AD). But as western and northern governments, including the U.S. government, becomes more antagonistic towards Christianity, these tax exemptions will be questioned, debated and eventually lifted.  In America, crippled by debt, church property becomes a source of revenue long considered off limits.  When tax-exempt status is removed, many church buildings will head straight for foreclosure.  Currently, banks are holding countless church loans in default because no financial institution wants to call a church’s loan, but don’t expect that to happen much longer.  Many current church buildings will become community gathering spots. The older the building the more attractive it’ll be for conversion into a private home, bar, restaurant, coffee shop or retail store. Larger buildings will serve local governments or convert to community centers, office space, learning halls and gyms.  Persecution will drive USAmerican Christians back into their homes. Small will be the new big.

3) The end of denominationalism and ecclesiastical labels. Future Christianity will have various expressions (charismatic, conservative, liberal, etc.) but the modern labels (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Assembly of God, Baptist, Nazarene) will disappear.  Postmoderns view truth in two categories:  Absolute and personal.  Moderns were grooved by Renaissance mechanism and Enlightenment rationalism to put everything in a box and objectify truth, including Christianity.  But emerging generations don’t think outside the box…they think without boxes.  Consequently, postmoderns value the journey, the experience and the conversation.   Authentic Christianity will truly rise and replace cultural churchianity in the coming years and replace the labels attached by modern church leaders in the past 500 years.

4) A new age for the northern and western Church that’s marked by biblical ignorance and intense persecution. Every 250 years or so, there’s a turning or a season (just like spring turns to summer and summer turns to fall).  As a student of church history, it’s easy to see these seasons (and I’ll write about them in the future), but roughly every 1000 years there’s a period of darkness, ignorance and persecution for the Church.  The first-century church was born into this “winter” season (AD 30-325) and experienced a second “cold” season during the Dark Ages (c. AD 1000-1250).  We’re now set for a third ice age for northern and western Christianity.  Consequently, the Church will be most vibrant in the East (China, Korea, Thailand) and South (America and Africa). Actually this last trend is already happening.

In the end, I do agree with Stetzer’s final conclusion:

The lasting effects of these shifts will force churches to make a critical decision. They will either become a cultural church that allows the societal trends to dictate their ever-changing beliefs. Or they will become a counter-cultural church that faithfully adheres to Scripture and proclaims the gospel in a carefully considered way. The latter church will offer real hope in the midst of an adversarial culture and is the only real future for the American church.

The Bottom Line:  The Church of tomorrow will need to be Christ-centered, culturally-relevant, intentionally missional and strategically fluid to find traction in our postmodern culture.  And I’m betting it will be smaller, leaner and more irresistible (Acts 2:42-47).

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About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on June 10, 2014, in American church, Christianity, Church buildings, Church Decline, Preaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Insightful stuff, Rick. The beginnings of your future trends are already beginning to show. Thought provoking!

  2. Rick – you stated in one of the FB posts that Stetzer was operating from a paradigm that is 25 years old (or something like that). This may come as a surprise coming from someone older than you who has only preached in traditional churches so far, but I’m going to take a step past you and claim you are also operating from an old paradigm. Maybe only 7-10 years old, but it’s been in place a while – the postmodern emerging (and Emergent) church. Postmoderns have already gotten their MDiv’s from Len Sweet and have been doing this with only mild success for a while. The next generation behind them is further refining what “church” means – and I think they’re ready to even move beyond postmodern…from the “guide on the side” to being shown the way (and given the chance) to be the hands and feet of Jesus. As you say, the buildings might go away, and also worship might look more like Romans 12:1-2 instead of Psalm 150, and (Lord, please make it so!) structures of leadership have a good chance of turning more into discipleship, rather than administrative. Maybe we’ll even quit calling it mentoring and use that church word – discipling! It’s exciting to think that Christianity in our lifetime might go from worshiping God, the Constitution, and the Republican Party and move back to what it was intended to be – loving God and loving others to the point of actually having an impact on the world!!

  3. Actually, Dan, someone else (at Facebook) said that Stetzer was operating 25 years in the past, not me. Let me be very clear: POSTmodern is a term I use to refer to the cultural age we live in now. The MODERN age is loosely defined as 1500-2000 AD by most social historians. I do believe we’ll have various expressions of POST-MODERNITY (just like we did of MODERNITY) for the next couple hundred years or more.

    I look at massive cultural change through the lens of MEGA techs that can change cultural languages. The MODERN ERA (AD 1500-2000) hinged upon three mega-techs: the Gutenberg Press, the mechanical clock and the telescope. These techs moved civilized culture out of the previous age known as the Dark Ages. The Renaissance was on the back end of the Dark Ages but a new age doesn’t start without a tipping point and these techs did not tip culture until 1500.

    We are now in a POST-modern world thanks to three relatively recent megatechs: television, internet and cellphone. These three techs flattened culture and reinvented time and space, producing fresh cultural languages that tipped in AD 2000. In fact, the cellphone now is a combo of all three…a.k.a. “smart” phone. Until the invention far in the future, if history proves anything, of new mega-techs, we will operate within post-modernity for centuries.

    I’m well aware of armchair sociologists who decry the use of “post-modern” labeling but it only reflects a general ignorance of the larger scope of history. I’m more interested in the sweeping chapters that compose this book about humanity rather than twists and turns and plot lines within the individual chapters. For me, to throw away “post-modern” as a tag for the age produced by television, cellphones and internet is premature and intellectually suspect.

  4. OK – I’m tracking with you a little better now. And I agree with these clarifications. I was focused more on the philosophical approaches of Moderns and Post Moderns, and I’m sure you’ve found philosophies change much more rapidly than the cultural changes based on mega techs. As you said, the various expressions of post modernity are coming, and I’ve noticed a shift away from “there is no absolute truth” already, just a decade down the road.

    But here’s another question, since these shifts are mega tech driven: Do you think these mega shifts will continue to come more quickly, since the tech advances are coming so much more quickly?

  5. Hi Rick- I’m really trying to understand these changes in preaching you are speaking of…are there any good examples of “guide on the side” preaching available on the internet? Is it like Roman Mars TED talk or RadioLab Live? Thanks!

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