A Less Religious Future

May 30th, 2012

What is the future of the church in America? Clearly, change is in the air. Every denomination in the country is now in decline. The number of people who are unaffiliated with a church is dramatically increasing, especially among young adults, many of whom find church boring and irrelevant. More and more people of all ages are dissatisfied with status quo church life. Large numbers of people now identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” The third largest religious group in America is now the religiously unaffiliated. There is no longer any doubt that the old institutional way of doing church in America, which worked so well for so long, is not working anymore. Although efforts are being made to recalibrate the old ways, they are unlikely to turn things around.

That does not mean I’m worried about the church. I’m not. Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s church. People will always want and need Christian community and worship and a place to serve God and others. But over the next few decades, the church in America, if it wants to be vital and relevant, will have to reinvent itself, as the church has done throughout the world over the centuries. Although the changes will make many of us uncomfortable, they also bring the possibility of adding new life and passion to Christ’s church.

I don’t have a crystal ball about the future of the American church. But significant changes are already in motion. In her fascinating new book, Christianity After Religion and other writings, Diana Butler Bass lists numerous trends on the horizon. For example, Bass believes the American church will become less institutional and more organic.

Less focused on programs and more focused on spiritual practices.

Less inward focused and more outward focused.

Less bureaucratic and more locally nimble.

Less clergy dominated and more lay led.

Less exclusive and more inclusive. Less concerned with buildings and budgets and more concerned about advancing the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Less interested in passive worship and more interested in participatory worship.

Less concerned with doctrinal issues and more concerned about experiencing God and serving others. 

Less concerned about church membership and more concerned about building authentic Christian community.

Another way to put it is that the church of the future will be, in the words of Diana Butler Bass, “less religious and more spiritual.”

If Bass is correct, the future of the American church will be closer to the spirit of Jesus and the early church than we are now, which will be good news indeed. But the changes won’t come easily or quickly, and many churches will fight them to the end. In fact, many churches will choose to die rather than change from a religious institution to a spiritual movement. Sadly, this is already happening in large numbers across the country. But like it or not, the American church is changing along with our country. It will be interesting to see what God does with us in the decades to come!

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