The Climate’s Changing, So What if the Church…

The Climate’s Changing, So What if the Church… March 12, 2023

It’s been said that Christianity must change or die. So, too, the church must either change or die. It’s time we asked ourselves, “What if the church…”

What if the Church? Man standing in front of stained glass
Photo by Breno Cardoso

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. But a church that refuses to adapt to the climate of its society will eventually die.


The Example of Climate Change

Take climate change, for example.  As the world heats up, we will experience an increased number of freak weather occurrences. Oceans will rise, and 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 others as human beings in need of care. Perhaps they will lock and load and meet the coming tide of immigrants with violent resistance.

Immigrants are coming, regardless of government reactions.  Governments 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 must adapt if these changes are to take place without violence if civilizations are to remain civil at all.

While the above is a 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 spiritual and social climate is changing–and whether we like it or not, the church must change or die.


Shrinking Churches

What will the church look like, a couple of generations from now?  First, we’ve got to come to terms with the church’s 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 staff of multiple professional pastors.


Educational Difficulties

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 become vocational ministers.  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 the internet, computer programs and books, learning groups, one-on-one mentorships, and denominational resources for their education.


Declining Denominations

Denominations, of course, will have fewer resources to allocate toward 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.


Why is the Church Declining?

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.

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 if the church had the courage 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 common sense.  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.

The 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, too—as we ask, “What if the church…”

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