This past weekend I was able to attend a twenty-four hour retreat focusing on the future of the Northeast Association of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ. While we gathered to talk specifically about some of the goals of the Association it was important to discuss the future of the Christian church in general. There are trends that impact all of organized religion and it was important to address them and relate them to our own future.
A couple of interesting facts (the source was our Associate Conference Minister I am sorry I cannot do any better than that) that were shared. The first fact I would like to share is that nationally only sixteen percent of U.S. citizens are in church on any given Sunday. In Wisconsin we do a little better, our average here is eighteen percent. The second interesting fact is that over seventy percent of churches in this country have less than one hundred people in worship. The second matters a lot when you consider that it generally takes nearly one hundred people in worship to maintain the salary of a full time minister. The message contained in that says close to seventy percent of churches in this country can only just barely afford a full time minister.
What that says about the future leadership in the church is significant because the future of the church may not include salaried ministers in many churches. It may mean one minister covers multiple churches. It may mean that there will be many churches that have dual career ministers. It may mean that churches rely more on lay leadership. It may mean that we begin to look at other options.
Within our faith communities we must begin to carefully look at what the church is going to look like in the future. Are there going to be congregations as we know them, or is the church going to begin to look more like a New Testament model of house churches and small group meetings? Groups such as these may have to rely on itinerant teachers to help keep the message on track. As planning for the future begins to take place are we thinking about the money we are putting into the buildings and if it is appropriate? Are we beginning to think about the opportunities that we offer leaders for our faith communities for tomorrow? Are we looking hard enough at what it means to be a faith community and keeping the options open for the future?
There have been dozens of books written in the past couple of decades focusing on the problem of church decline and how the future is going to look different. None really lay out a plan nor can they, nobody quite knows what it is going to look like. We can project, we can point to the difficulties, we can even point out all the reasons that decline in church attendance and participation is happening . . . but we cannot tell how it will go.
I imagine the possibility that a faith community would consist of online chat forums of committed people sharing ideas and then gathering their friends locally to do work projects and mission trips.
I imagine that more groups would be meeting in people’s homes.
I imagine that all of us who are part of today’s ‘system’ are going to have to let go a little and give the next generation freedom to do things differently.
I could imagine coffee shop communities of faith, pub communities, and outdoor communities.
I just read something that went like this, “People often confuse the soul of Christianity – the faith part of it – with the religion of Christianity. Faith is the water, religion is the cup. You need the cup to share the water and the cup helps you partake of the water yourself. But water always remains separate from whatever container it is in.” (Johnshore.com)
I believe the soul of Christianity to be in the teachings of Jesus. I would just suggest that we have no idea the shape or makeup of the container for the future and must remain open to whatever works the best.