The struggle is real…
In some ways, 2018 was rough for communities of faith. If you’re in the caring-for-humans business while many measures of human flourishing are on the decline, well… you’ve got your work cut out for you.
For example. U.S. life expectancy has been dropping since 2016, dropping again this year because suicide rates are at a 50-year peak. The opioid crisis continues to ramp up, especially in economically struggling rural communities. Meanwhile authoritarian nationalism has both decreased vital refugee resettlement agencies opportunity to welcome refugees, and created barriers for ministry with immigrants.
Simultaneously, changes in the tax code significantly reduced overall charitable giving for the year, and many changes in state and federal laws, not to mention more general shifts in the culture, undermined the basic shared values of people of all faiths.
Leadership has consequences, and those who lead our nation right now frequently work at cross-purposes to the very values their religious traditions ostensibly espouse.
Finally, there’s the whole enervating thing… it’s hard to find anywhere in North America where theology, worship, the traditional foci of religious community, are as central as they used to be, having been replaced in the meantime by many important considerations like social service and civic engagement… but you have to admit, it’s hard to know what to do with theology and doxology when the culture has largely shunted it to the edges.
Reasons for hope…
However, humans are a resilient lot. And religious life is about that resilience. So in spite of the very real challenges, perhaps precisely because of the challenges, these trends for 2019 anticipate such resilience.
- Communities are going to discover surprising internal resources for long strategies. Many faith communities have heretofore not thought about the long game. Often survival is the name of the game. Having seen now that those work for ill and self-interest have been playing the long game for quite some time, we will see communities begin to catch up, and initiate and deepen strategies that effect moral change.
- New coalitions and orgs will emerge. Healthy congregations are increasingly spinning off non-profits and other organizations to provide needed social services in their communities. Often religious communities are especially well-positioned to accomplish such work. As members of the community, even those who consider themselves dechurched, noticed the effectiveness of religious community, they will work their way back to communities of faith in order to be a part of such creativity.
- More people of faith will intentionally cross-join (like multi-platforming) current orgs in order to strengthen one another. We are already seeing this with increased membership in organizations like the NAACP, more people of faith out campaigning for candidates, and coalition building campaigns Poor Peoples’ doing the heavy lifting of coalition building.
- Increasing numbers of all people of faith will pay attention to history more, and the news of the moment less (some tweets in particular). We hit major news and Trump fatigue in 2018. Of course the negative always sells, so people won’t stop reading the tweets and the articles, but increasingly we will see an ad fontes movement, back to the sources, back to the history (the popularity of Hamilton: The Musical is one gauge of this), and so for communities of faith, an excellent opportunity to remind everyone that we do this every religious service: public reading of ancient texts.
- We will discover play, creatively working at the intersection of content worlds and social justice advocacy. Everybody is watching Marvel now, and Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter, and so much more. These content worlds provide fans multiple opportunities for social justice activism, and religious communities will increasingly discover the value of such exercises in civic imagination (see, for example, Harry Potter as Sacred Text and the Harry Potter Alliance).
- Religious communities will discover the power of organizing to advocate for state level and regional ballot initiatives. Tex Sample in his Working Class Rage lists this as one of the great discoveries of social justice organizing bridging working class and progressive values. We all know now that defending voters rights, reforming campaign finance, and electing moral leaders, matters. But it’s also true that the people can enact change with smart and strategic ballot initiatives.
- Because people of all faiths (Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish) are discovering that what they share in common (love of humanity and creation) supersedes any differences, interfaith community and organizing will increase. Watch for more interfaith youth camps, interfaith cooperative ministries, and so much more. This is a trend that will accelerate and flourish.
- Men are going to get out and support women. Because women won a ton of elections in 2018, and because we have come to realize the inherent dangers of the narrow vision white men have when they are given the power to govern unilaterally.
- Because the federal government and many state governments are dramatically curtailing funding for human services, non-profits and churches will pick up the slack… but they’re also going to champion in myriad ways the moral value of a mixed economy. Almost all people of faith engaged in social service recognize that often the churches simply can’t do for people what excellent human services funded by the state or federal government can do. But in the absence of good services (feeding programs, shelters, health care), religious folks do try to figure out how to help. It’s just that they’ll never build things big or robust enough, which is why we keep advocating for the real value of a mixed economy.
- There will be a shift from star leaders to fantastic teams, and the layering of community and new media will facilitate this. We’re already seeing this in many places and spaces, but it’s a transition that will accelerate significantly in the next few years. As faith communities are constituted increasingly by the truly engaged, those with great gifts for leadership will take on rolls that strengthen faith communities as a whole, and the expectations of individual star leaders will lessen.
- It’s really true, attendance frequency is declining, only the engaged remain, but we will see a final reversal of the trend summarized by Sam Reiner in 2018, who wrote: “While the overall attendance decline will hit churches of all types and denominations, growing churches will typically be the more theologically conservative congregations. The Millennials will either go to conservative churches, or they will not go at all.” In other words, Milennials and the generation after them will increasingly discover churches that center their progressive values, and they will connect, contribute, and transform.
- Finally, this will all trend because overall religious communities will rediscover the abiding connection between social activism and faith, worship and organizing, prayer and preparation, theology and justice. It’s not that religious engagement is a thing to be added onto the already sanctified moral agenda of these various communities, but because deep and right engagement with our religious traditions is the way we are re-centered and activated to be the very change that can recover what is lost, free what is bound, and heal what is broken.
I’m reminded of that fascinating quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his essay after his year in New York:
“God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God….American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of ‘criticism’ by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the church and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics….In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics…Because of this the person and work of Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.”
It would be intriguing to hear a similar word from leaders in faith communities other than Christian… and in fact we are hearing them today, in the writings of Eboo Patel, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, to name only two.