The church must either change or die. With all the social change taking place in North America, I'm convinced that the church of the next couple of generations is going to look radically different from the church as we know it today. If it's going to survive at all, that is.
It's not that the Gospel has become irrelevant to people's lives today--the Gospel never changes, and will never lose its power. But a church that refuses to adapt to the climate of its society will eventually die.
Take climate change, for example. As the world heats up we will experience an increased number of freak weather occurences. As oceans rise, people living along the coastlines (approximately 40% of the human population live within 100 km of the shore) will be forced to relocate. Yes, climate refugees will be a real thing in the coming years. And with a shifting population comes shifting priorities. People in transition will need new homes. Governments will need to figure out what to do with needy people pressing in at their borders. They'll need to ask themselves whether the humane thing to do is to say, "Keep out" or whether they will adjust their priorities and treat other as human beings in need of care, or whether they will lock and load and meet the coming tide of immigrants with violent resistance. The thing is, those immigrants are coming, regardless of government reactions. It's the governments who will need to decide whether the shifting world population will cause bloodshed or whether borders will become permeable and cultures will become adaptable. Even in the best case scenario where climate refugees are able to resettle around the globe in habitable places, the new problem of how to feed the influx of people will come to the surface. Again, society will need to change its priorities. People will need to adapt if these changes are to take place without violence, if civilizations are to remain civil at all.
While the above is very real future scenario, I use it as a metaphor for the church which needs to adapt in light of the huge tides of social change taking place in the West. The climate is changing, and whether we like it or not, the church must change, or die.
What will the church look like, a couple of generations from now? Well, first, we've got to come to terms with church decline. Unless there's a miracle, another Great Awakening (which we can pray for, but that's in the hands of God), the church is going to continue its rapid decline. This means that small churches are going to be gone entirely. Their buildings will become little more than clapboard skeletons that are either bulldozed, left to stand as monuments to a bygone era, or sold to become antique stores or daycare centers. Medium-sized churches will become small churches. Their once full-time staff will struggle to earn a living with second and third jobs. Only the megachurches will continue to thrive. But even those megachurches will shrink--they'll become kilochurches instead. They'll be smaller--but they'll still be able to support staffs of multiple professional pastors.
Since fewer and fewer churches will be able to support full-time pastors, this means it's likely that fewer who feel called to ministry will actually aspire to be full-time pastors. Theological education will be for those who see their future in kilochurches, but those positions will be for the cream of the crop with doctorates in ministry. Pastors with "only a master's degree" will find themselves scraping to earn a decent wage. This will give rise to more and more self-educated pastors, who rely more on computer programs and books, learning groups, one-on-one mentorships, and denominational resources for their education.
Denominations, of course, will have fewer resources to allocate towards pastoral education, because they will likewise decline. As churches shrink, parishioners will allocate more of their giving to the local church to help the congregation survive, to the hurt of the denomination. That will be okay, since denominational loyalties and influences are on the way out.
Of course, all of this addresses the symptoms and not the disease itself. Why is the church declining? Volumes of books have been written on this subject, complete with survey results, statistical analysis, and well-informed projections. I'm not qualified to add too much input beyond my own personal observations. Suffice it to say that as society changes, the church has dug in its heels on so many issues that our culture at large sees the church as irrelevant. And churchgoers refuse to see that they've created their own problems. They continue to blame society, saying, "Kids today are more interested in video games than Sunday school," or "Families today would rather go to baseball games than Vacation Bible School." They refuse to ask themselves, "What are we doing to make our churches so unattractive and irrelevant to people these days? How have we stubbornly refused to keep in touch with the culture? What can we do to change?"
You see, the church must change or die.
If this blog post has felt a little bleak to you, I invite you to embrace the hope I'm going to offer in the coming weeks. I'll be offering a series of "What if the Church..." suggestions. Some of them will be radical. Some of them will be commonsense. But they offer a vision for the future of the church that accepts the reality of numerical decline, while embracing a faithful and hopeful reordering of priorities. Numerical decline of the church does not mean the death of the church. In fact, I think it means the church will become more "real," if it has the courage to change. I hope you'll travel with me in the coming weeks, as I ask some hard questions, and challenge some well-entrenched misconceptions. It's going to be an adventure--and the future's going to be an adventure--as we ask, "What if the church..."