Friday, April 15, 2011

Looking into the Future

If the trends remain where churches continue to adopt alternate worship forms, while distancing themselves more and more from their inherited traditions, what might the future look like 10, 20, 30 or more years from now?  Prediction is always a risky and tricky business, and what follows certainly does not reflect the insights of a trained sociologist.  It is simply a sense of what might be based on personal observations over the last couple of decades.

  • Larger congregations - those with memberships in the thousands - will generally continue to move away from the inherited traditions and will embrace cutting edge change.  Those with blended worship and the few that still accommodate some semblance of a traditional service will abandon those transitional forms as the baby-boomer generation dies off.   Within about 30 years many of these 'mega-churches' will appear little different than any other Evangelical mega-church.  Of course, there are numerous churches that are already at this point.  With the departure of those who may still cherish the old forms (a largely aging group well into their retirement years) there will no longer be a need to retain anything of traditional, liturgical worship.  Exceptions will exist, but I predict they will be very few. 
  • My sense is that if traditional forms survive - and they will! - it will be in the smallest congregations (300 and under), some of them in predominantly rural settings.  The rural churches, unfortunately, will suffer the greatest attrition as family farms disappear and the population to sustain these churches becomes so thin as to make it impractical.  Pastors in these small churches may well have to become bi-vocational in order to remain at these posts.   Fortunately, if these smaller churches are in cities with an adequate industrial base or other vocational options, pastors will be able to find occupations sufficient to support their families.   The long-term future may therefore be with small congregations in cities large enough to support a sustainable economy. 
  • It may be necessary for some to become specialized church planters, planting mission starts that are committed from the beginning to a traditional-liturgical worship setting.  These 'missions' may very well remain small for their entire history, but they will provide additional 'outposts' to keep the traditions alive in a living congregation.  We need to shed ourselves of the thinking that 'bigger is better.'  In fact, smaller parishes, such as those in the earliest history of the church, are best able to maintain internal discipline.
  • At present our institutions are not equipped or committed to prepare this type of church planter, so this too may need rethinking.  With the aid of technology and the ability for online learning, new academies or institutes may need to be formed to develop such specialized leaders.  Although I realize that residential communities provide the best environment for formation, this model will have to be modified to accommodate a geographically diverse group.  In some ways I think that Nashotah House, where I am currently pursuing graduate work, may be providing a model worthy of looking at further.  They are deeply committed to residential learning, especially since the chapel is the center of their life as a community.  However, they are blending in semi-residential programs with intensive formats in order to work with students who cannot relocate for a full-time education.  I realize that our own seminaries are also adapting similar programs as well.  However, in 30 or 40 years will the existing institutions still be committed to training traditional pastors?  I don't know.  With the change in leadership swinging one way and then the other, it is hard to predict where the denomination will be in several decades, especially with additional institutional pressure to survive.  
I very much want to see the church of my youth survive to future generations.  However, I realize that it will not survive the same way as it has for me.  I grew up in a congregation of 3,000.  It is here I first learned the liturgy, beginning with TLH.  Yet the world has changed dramatically, even within my 50 years lifetime.   Demographics have shifted and communities are changing to meet new economic challenges.  The church of tomorrow must take this all into account, but not for the sake of changing its identity, but rather to determine how best to keep these churches staffed and sustained.   Like the Celts in the darkest centuries of the Middle Ages, we may be called to preserve the traditions the rest of our world is losing; preserving them for a time when they can be appreciated and utilized by larger communities of believers.   However, this preservation will occur in much smaller communities, not unlike the monasteries of old that existed in the very midst of the predominant pagan culture.  

1 comment:

Pr Mark Henderson said...

A very stimulating reflection, Donald. Much of this would apply "down under" too, although we've never had congregations of 3000, and 300 would be considered large by our standards!
Bi-vocational pastors are definitely on the horizon here, too. Interestingly, some of the smaller church bodies here with smaller membership bases - from confessional Presbyterians to Russian Orthdox - have survived this way for many decades.