The Coming Winter: A Forecast for Western Churchianity

interpretation-of-a-dream-in-which-you-saw-c2abautumnc2bbOutside my window I see change is in the air.  Leaves are turning various shades of orange, yellow and red.  The temperatures are dipping.  The days are getting shorter.  I know that winter is coming (again).

In geology there’s a well-worn mantra: “The key to the past is the present.” Essentially, you can create an historical storyline by observing the present world (rocks, strata and fossils). Unfortunately, rocks don’t come with tags so occasionally misinterpretations happen.

When it comes to tomorrow, futurists bend the rule slightly: “The key to the future is the past.”  In other words, what will happen tends to reflect patterns already observable. Master futurists are skilled historians who read the rings of societal changes to project, postulate and predict. Weather forecasters rely upon historical patterns. Baseball analysts predict players’ production using past statistics. Sociologists weigh generational cycles to suggest how current and future cohorts might behave.

Just like we know winter is coming when autumn chills and leaves fall, a futurist stands upon the past to predict the future.

In the past quarter century there’s been a clear shift from linear to loopy thinking. This is particularly evident when you look at history, which naturally tends to repeat itself in very general ways. For example, a year of life contains four very distinct seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter. The specifics (weather, events) might differ but, in general, these seasons are immutable.

In church history we see similar patterns emerge. We see some seasons where the Church is emerging, like leaves in spring. Or seasons where the Church enjoys cultural blessing, influence and power (like summer). Or seasons where the Church hunkers down to survive the dark days of winter. Or still other seasons where there’s decline, but still colorful autumn moments.

Since AD 33, when the Church was born, it has experienced seasonal changes roughly every 250-300 years. An historical analysis also reveals a troubling truth for the Western and Northern Church. It’s not one that’s popular or talked much about, but if history is an indicator, then “winter” is on the way. The darkest, coldest and most desperate season for the Church will be the next 200-300 years in Europe, Russia and North America.

Of course, “winter” isn’t anything new for the Church. It was born in winter, but eventually experienced a spring, summer and fall. Here’s a simply stated history of the Church:

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AD 33 – 325 (WINTER): The early and post-apostolic church faced horrific persecution, heresies and struggles. In many places it operated underground.

AD 325 – 451 (SPRING): The church centralizes and nationalizes under Constantine. Two Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) are the bookends to this ecclesiastical “spring” serving to prevent heresy and produce creedal Christianity.

AD 451 – 800 (SUMMER): The church spreads influence (and power) beneath emerging papal Catholic Christianity, most notably Gregory the Great.

AD 800 – 1054 (FALL): Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor, as Church enjoys cultural favor. Unfortunately, the good times don’t last. In 1054 A.D. the Eastern and Western church divide in what’s termed “The Great Schism.”

AD 1054 – 1225 (WINTER): After the Eastern and Western Church split, there’s a period commonly referred to as the Dark Ages that produces cultural and biblical ignorance.

AD 1225 – 1517 (SPRING): The crusades and rise of the university spark a cultural spring. Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus and the Renaissance (rebirth) create a new day for the Church.

AD 1517 – 1730 (SUMMER): Using Gutenberg technology, the Protestant Reformation reshapes Christianity and produces modern denominationalism.

AD 1730 – 1995 (FALL): The Great Awakening and Rise of Evangelical and non-denominational Christianity. In a post WW2 culture, the church shines through foreign missions, parachurch ministries, megachurches and “industrialized” and cultural Christianity.

In 1995 the first deep frost of post-modern culture descends.  Few see it, but everyone felt it (and many ignored it).  On April 4, 1994 Netscape was founded.  Within a year, the Internet or World Wide Web (www) became a buzz trend.  A new digital alphabet also emerged.  JPEG. GIF. MPEG. MP3. MOV. PDF.  Within a decade a cyber culture changed the world deeply wounding institutions grounded to analog, print and industrial technology.

If the past is our guide, the next 200-300 years will signal desperate and difficult times for the Northern and Western Church.  Could we experience another Dark Ages?  Or face persecution like the early and post-apostolic church?   The evidence suggests that winter is on the way for European, Russian, Canadian and American churches. On a global front, the Church has moved south and east. Some of the largest churches in the world are now in Africa and Asia. Meanwhile the American Church has followed in the steps of Europe and Canada. Less people identify themselves as Christians (a.k.a. the “nones”). Fewer people attend church (a.k.a. the “dones”). Christianity’s ability to influence national morality is diminishing. In fact, the most radical “alternative” lifestyle in America today is a conservative evangelical Christian.

Every season brings change.

But change isn’t easy. Change hurts, halts and humbles. Change redirects, reorients and replaces.

That’s why we can’t get too comfortable. Change is going to happen. Culture is always evolving, shifting and moving. Churches must relevantly interact with their culture or become obsolete. In fact, every church building has a date of origination that communicates hidden messages to their communities. A building advertises values and vision. It reveals priorities, prejudices and promises. A facility is the face, the first thing a visitor “sees” of physical importance. Have you noticed how the steeple has gone the way of the stegosaurus?   At one time steeples were the first physical things someone saw from afar, announcing a church was ahead. Church bells marked the time, announced services and even warned the community of danger. Today, steeples and bells are irrelevant. Change happens.

The question isn’t why things change, but will you change? Currently the Church faces the greatest cultural shift since the Renaissance and our darkest days might certainly lie ahead, at least here in America. We got pretty comfortable in our tax-free, non-profit status. And we embraced Gutenberg and clock technology (two inventions that reimagined modern culture). We like our time and space. In fact, we’ve largely defined “church” as “time” and “space.” We even say we “went to church” (translation: we attended a certain space in a particular time).

But like any new season, change is blowing. In the past quarter century a whole new cyber, digital postmodern world has emerged that’s spelled C-H-A-N-G-E to all institutions, organizations and communities.

What’s this mean?  What will the Church look like in 25 or 50 or 100 years?

  1. Worship will likely move from a “service” to an “experience.” Postmoderns thrive on sensory situations and embrace spiritual spaces that make them “feel” closer to God. As rising 3D technology, holographic visuals and virtual reality capture our cultural eye, people will naturally gravitate toward experiential discipleship, ministry and worship. If your church services are “sit and soak” then you’re on a death march to irrelevance.
  1. Preaching will likely become more interactive and brief. Because postmoderns process information visually that means the monologue is history…at least long audio-driven sermons. Think YouTube and Twitter. Think Ted Talks or Sight Bites. Think Dr. Oz or Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Messages must also create friendships. Pastors must embrace a major paradigm shift and move from “me” to “we” through designed messages that get people talking with each other.
  1. Churches will likely become spiritual health centers. Some futurists predict by 2020 most people won’t attend a church. In fact, many former church buildings are now coffee shops, homes and bars. The frame exists, but the purpose has been reimagined. Tomorrow’s church will likely be a 24/7/365 spiritual health center. We need to re-purpose our facilities away from performances and events to opportunities that stretch spiritual muscles and grow disciples.

Our culture has changed and the church also needs to reimagine itself (not just reform and restore) to embrace and enjoy this new 21st century landscape. Not everyone will like the changes. We’ll no doubt fail as we find our legs in this new world.

Winter might be coming for the American church, but don’t forget that some of the best cultural events happen during this cold season. Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year’s Eve. The Super Bowl. Valentine’s Day.   Yes, it can be a brutal season. But it can also be a blessed season…for those who ski, sled, skate, snowshoe, snowboard, snowmobile, and ice fish.  The early and post-apostolic Church thrived under persecution.  Even in the Dark Ages, God was working some great things.

Winter is on the way…no doubt they will prove the worst and BEST days for the Church.

 

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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 September 28, 2016, in American church, Christianity, Church Decline, Church History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “But it can also be a blessed season…for those who ski, sled, skate, snowshoe, snowmobile, and ice fish.” I almost thought you were trending, but you left out snowboarding. Sorry, you must be a Boomer.
    MIke

    • Nice catch, Mike! And it’s been corrected. And, no, I’m no boomer…but, if the truth be told, I also prefer to stay INDOORS during the winter. I got the “winter” knocked out of me growing up in snowy, bitter-cold Montana. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  2. A first time reader of the blog – I can relate to so much of this. I was drawn away from a traditional Anglican church in the UK in the early 1970’s. I had my first PC in 1990. Our family was torn apart when the leadership of the church we were attending in 1995 announced that much of their theology was misguided. I have been using the web since 1997 (dialup connection) and created my first web site in 2000 that later became the foundation of my blog that has gradually developed into the story of my journey through Christianity. I’ve never doubted the existence of God but my understanding of what that means has changed significantly on more than one occasion.

    It’s been an interesting journey – looking forward to reading more of your blog.

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