Four church trends for 2023
December 29, 2022
In 2020, I offered a few predictions for the new year. You may recall that at that time, we were in the midst of a pandemic. People all over the world were adopting new patterns of living, reconsidering old priorities, and embracing a decidedly different future. It was a true wilderness moment, one in which we left the bondage of everything that held us back and which inspired many of us to believe things would change for the better. Indeed, during that courageous period, we marched toward a Promised Land in which churches and their leaders would embrace the technological age and all it offers for evangelism, discipleship, mission, and spirituality.
In 2020, we were in the wilderness. Now that we in the church have returned to Egypt, things are not nearly as interesting, and thus it’s difficult to make predictions. Thankfully, we have a biblical narrative that offers a meaningful frame for the times we live in but offers tales of consequences when we bow down to golden calves and long for the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s not all bad news, though, so let’s get started.
Denominational splintering will further erode Protestant witness, but it won’t be that bad when all is said and done.
One major news story this year has been the upcoming “split” in the United Methodist Church (UMC). I put the word “split” in quotations because it’s more of a splintering than an actual schism. Some churches have decided to join the conservative “Global Methodist Church” because of longstanding disputes over human sexuality. Others have left because the United Methodist Church has moved too slowly toward full inclusion. Still others have decided to disaffiliate from the denomination to become independent churches, free of the burdens of cooperation with others.
A recent article in Politico tracked the divisions in the UMC as indicative of the divisions we see in politics. If history rhymes with the present moment, we should expect the country to follow the schismatic paths of the 1840s and 50s to lead toward… well, we’ll have to see for ourselves. In any case, divisions in the church do not portend peace and prosperity in our nation.
Those outside the church use this enmity as a reason to wag their fingers at the institutional church, and rightfully so. Jesus was not kidding when he said that others will come to know God by seeing the way we love one another. Church splits have never been a “good look” to the world outside.
But it’s not all bad, either. My Episcopalian and Lutheran friends always give me that knowing look you get when someone wants to say, “Don’t worry, it will all be OK,” but won’t because you’re likely to argue with them. Many in the UMC see this splintering as a shedding of dead weight, a pruning of the vineyard. It gives us an opportunity to be a church that does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly.
Aging buildings, and smaller congregations unable to support them, represent a greater crisis than divisions over human sexuality. We’ll start to feel it this year.
While we were focused on culture-war issues, the mother-of-all-church-crises started coming into full view. You may have noticed it while driving through town: a sign announcing that First Christian Church now meets at First Baptist Church, or that the Seventh Day Adventists are now gathering at the Lutheran Church. Why? Because neither congregation has the financial strength to support its physical plant by itself, and they have been forced to find ways to cross borders and start working together to survive.
Of course, that also means that where there were once two buildings, now there is only one. What happens to these old buildings? Yes, many become restaurants, brew pubs, or condos. But many face an uphill battle because of their status as historic structures. What if the church has a cemetery? The cost of relocating a cemetery is a deterrent to redevelopment. One church in East Tennessee neglected its roof until it caved in and was condemned. Even if a buyer could be attracted to this property, it would cost $750,000 just to demolish it to make way for new development.
What did the church hierarchy do in response? They threw money at it, appointed a new pastor, and created a new program to revitalize it. You can guess how that’s going.
This is the real crisis: hundreds of millions of dollars of church property are emptying, and denominational officials have no plan for dealing with it. NONE. If you’re not feeling it yet, you will. Most churches are only one new roof or new boiler away from catastrophe.
As attendance numbers struggle to return to pre-pandemic levels, anxiety will push leaders to experiment.
If the pandemic itself didn’t kick us all out of our thrones of complacency, accelerated, steady decline will. While my assertion is only anecdotal, it appears that very few churches have seen attendance figures return to pre-pandemic levels. Churches that were able to maintain their budgets during closures are now seeing financial support falling off. Reduced budgets apply pressures to programming, and the cycle continues in a downward spiral.
As they say, the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action while expecting a different outcome.
This year, I find it more difficult to offer predictions for the new year than I did two years ago, in the throes of the pandemic. However, here are church trends to watch—and reasons for hope—as we head into 2023.
Anxiety can be a powerful motivator, pushing individuals and organizations to seek out new solutions and ideas to overcome challenges and achieve their goals. In times of uncertainty, anxiety can drive us to experiment and take risks in the hopes of finding a better way forward. This can lead to breakthroughs and innovations that may not have been possible without the pressure of anxiety. In many cases, this can also lead to increased collaboration and teamwork, as individuals and groups come together to find solutions to common problems. Overall, anxiety can be a driving force for innovation and progress. The future of the church belongs to those who will, through faith, grasp the vision of a different church and a different future. Systemic anxiety can either cripple or spark innovation. Which will prevail?
The long-predicted collapse of the mainline church is happening. This is forcing an assessment of the church’s mission that is long overdue.
For years, experts have warned that declining membership and interest in organized religion would lead to a decrease in the influence and relevance of the church. Now this prediction is coming to fruition, as many mainline churches are struggling to maintain their congregations and financial stability.
This situation is forcing an assessment of the church’s mission that is long overdue. As the church faces declining attendance and support, leaders are being forced to reevaluate their approach to ministry and outreach. Some are looking to modernize and adapt to changing societal attitudes, while others are doubling down on traditional values and practices.
Regardless of the approach taken, the church must change to remain relevant and effective in today’s world. This may require difficult decisions and sacrifices, but ultimately it will be necessary for the church to adapt and thrive in the face of declining support. By reassessing its mission and finding new ways to connect with people, the church can continue to play a meaningful role in the lives of its members and the broader community.
How will churches respond to these challenges? I often reflect on how the current model of “contemporary worship” used in most mainline churches was a style created over 30 years ago, designed when we wrung our hands about the shallowing of church participation by Baby Boomers. Now that we are out of the wilderness and back in the comfort of the fleshpots of Egypt, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of Christ’s church. Difficult, but… there is always hope.
Where have I found hope for the church? I found hope in Charlottesville at the “Unite the Right” rallies, where a group of young, inexperienced clergy organized a powerful witness of love in the midst of violence and palpable hate. Or in Standing Rock, as clergy gathered and marched toward police in riot gear as a member of the Sioux Nation smoked a pipe and waved an eagle feather on the hilltop as we walked by. I find hope where I see church leaders doing authentic ministry without asking permission from their bishops. I find hope when I see glimpses of faith that leads people to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.