Your Church Should Plan For 2040: Here’s Why

Your Church Should Plan For 2040: Here’s Why December 5, 2019

Are you thinking about church planning for 2040?

In our 24-hour world hyper-mediated culture it’s hard to plan for tomorrow morning, let alone next month. Many organizations have tightened-up five-year planning processes, focusing instead on 3, 6, 9, 12 month goals and objectives.

Change is such a constant, and so disruptive, long-range planning is considered somewhat passé.

Nevertheless, if you can step back and take the long view, you gain much needed perspective. And if there are major changes over a certain span that will dramatically change church as we know it, then planning now for those changes is worth the time.

In fact, it’s imperative.

2020 is a perfect year to do this. It’s 20 years until 2040 (otherwise known as the end of the world as we know it, according to climate change projections).

But how to do such planning, and why? 

At the conclusion of this post, I’ll outline a couple of formats for an all-church planning retreat. But in order to get everyone on the same page before that event, it’s worth it for them to read the following (plus links you provide to parallel articles for your own region and religious tradition)

Low wages, affordable housing, and class warfare

The Brookings Institute, one of the least partisan think tanks on the planet, invites us in a recent report to Meet the Low-Wage Workforce.

According to the report, “More than 53 million people—44% of all workers aged 18-64—are low-wage workers by our criteria. They earn median hourly wages of $10.22 and median annual earnings of $17,950.”

Pair this fact with another fact, that just eight men own as much wealth as half-the world, and you can begin to imagine that income and wealth disparities will present themselves as one major factor impacting congregational ministries.

Inasmuch as many churches have been formatted to meet the needs of the middle class, the to half the population living below middle class will mean significant shifts in how individuals and households participate in the life of the congregation.

Additionally, congregations seeking to be in their cities and neighborhoods for good will need to be involved in planning conversations emphasizing affordable housing, designing appropriate density, and preparing for changes related to climate change, not unlike the 2040 plan recently adopted in Minneapolis.

Churches can ask themselves, “How will our church physical plant participate in such urban planning? What can we do that contributes to affordable housing, or provides resources for various housing needs in our city?”

They can also ask, “How will we show up at the right tables at the right time to influence such decisions in ways that benefit our neighbors and bring faith insights into housing and wealth distribution?” (Zechariah 7:9-10, Proverbs 31:8-9)

A meditation text for reflection on poverty and housing and church planning for 2040: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. Therefore, thus says the LORD: Now, I am devising against this family an evil from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time.” Micah 2:1-3

Changing Regional Demographics (with NWA Growth As An Example)

I personally live in a city that will grow very, very quickly over the next 20 years. Right now about 90,000 people live in Fayetteville. By 2040 the project is for over 140,000 people to live in this city. Our region (Northwest Arkansas) is projected to grow from 500,000 to 800,000 in that same period of time.

Here’s an article with specific projections by city.

WEB EXTRA: Projections for population growth in Northwest Arkansas

It’s good to sit with such projections for a time and ask a simple question, “How is the church to be faithful during such demographic changes?” In our case, how are we called to meet and be good neighbors to all those who arrive?

Part of this is about outreach and growth, certainly. But it’s also and even more importantly about neighborliness. We know our community will be increasingly diverse (see below) as we grow, so how do we make connections to other communities of faith, and support them.

Such patterns of growth (or if you live in areas of decline, the same is true) present gospel-centered justice issues as well. Such growth has both benefits and costs. How do we offer good news especially for the poor in the context of massive infrastructure development? And since immigration is such a significant portion of total growth and change, how are we responding with welcome to new immigrants in our midst?

Is it incumbent upon the church to think especially about homelessness, food deserts, incarceration rates, and much more, as a community grows or changes?

Or consider regional transit. In our city, there’s no weekend busing. This means no one can take public transportation to church. There’s a regional transit plan developing for 2040, so it makes quite a bit of sense that churches in particular, interested in giving access to worship for all people, would advocate for expansion of public transportation for weekends, not just for church, but looking back up at the top of the page, for all those workers who use public transportation to get to their jobs on the weekends.


Religious Decline in the United States

All projections say the same thing. The United States will experience over the next 20 years the kind of decline we saw in the last century across much of the rest of the West, Europe in particular. This by no means means religion is on decline globally. Quite the opposite. But religious affiliation will continue to decline in the United States, and perhaps even accelerate.

In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace

I don’t honestly know how to plan for this. Seriously. Like as a pastor I want my congregation to grow, not decline. I believe in the community of faith and the good it can do in God’s world. That being said, I’m also open to the idea (and sometimes even look forward to) that Christianity will become the minority faith in the United States rather than the culturally dominant one.

In the process, the church may become more faithful to the way of Jesus. That remains to be seen. What we can do now is an imaginative exercise that can increase empathy.

Imagine as a congregation: what will it look and feel like for the church to be the minority, in the way some other faith communities (Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist) are today? 

My own denomination projects steep decline over the next 20 years. Given the patterns in our own congregation, I have trouble imagining this actually happening, but nevertheless, to get an eyes-wide-open perspective on things, it’s worth all of us reading this study, together with the national study linked above.

Will the ELCA be Gone in 30 Years?

The article makes a series of recommendations worth discussing. Many of them are the traditional pietist solutions Lutherans have often proposed at times of significant transition: Go back to basics (Scripture); participatory Christianity, translate into the idioms of the people. These aren’t bad proposals, but somehow I personally highly doubt such strategies will reverse the trends we are seeing, at least in part because there are larger factors at work such as:

The 2040 Climate Change Projections

Everything is going to change with climate change. Of course it will affect commerce, industry, transportation, and our daily lives. Climate change will also impact the church. So, before a congregation takes a planning retreat for 2040, they might want to get a realistic and hopeful perspective on climate change and our opportunities to still avert some of it.

About 2040

Having done that, the church can then also study projections on how the core ministries of the church will be affected, and Interfaith Power & Light has produced some of the best resources for this. It’s executive summary is worth quoting in full:

The impacts of global climate change threaten all of God’s creation and will make it more difficult for people of faith to care for those in need. With expected increases in drought, storm intensity, disease, species extinction, and flooding, the impacts of global climate change will increase the lack of food, shelter, and water available, particularly to those living in or near poverty. Although global climate change will affect all human populations across the globe, it will hit those living in poverty the hardest because they depend on the surrounding physical environment to supply their needs and have limited ability to cope to climate variability and extremes. According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, devel- oping countries are expected to suffer the most from the negative impacts of climate change.

Though many understand the devastating impacts that climate change will have on human communities around the world, few understand the impacts that climate change will have on core church ministries such as refugee resettlement, feeding the hungry, and disaster relief. The impacts of global climate change is already calling on the church to provide more financial resources and volunteer services to meet the growing needs of people in poverty in the U.S. and around the globe.

Refugee Resettlement

In order to maintain their current level of assistance, as global climate change increases the number of refugees, faith-based organiza- tions and churches will need to dramatically increase their support to help refugees coming to the US. For instance, to maintain the same percentage level of support (40.6 percent) for refugees coming into the U.S., Church World Service and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service will have to support an additional 82,989 refugees each year, costing an estimated $278.4 million, six times the current budget for Church World Service and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Food Security

Through crop development and finan- cial support many denominations and faith-based organi- zations provide food security for hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Fifteen faith-based organiza- tions and denominations partner with the Foods Resource Bank (FRB), a non-profit program that works through projects in the U.S. to provide financial assistance to com- munities abroad, enabling them to become food secure.2 In 2006, the FRB and its members contributed $2.5 mil- lion dollars to these impoverished communities.3 Cur- rently, National Council of Churches (NCC) affiliated denominations and communions account for more than 48 percent of FRB’s funding. To meet the growing need in food security caused in part by global climate change, NCC-affiliated denominations and communions would collectively need to provide $2.24 million a year to devel- oping countries, a substantial increase in current budget.

Disaster Relief

As witnessed during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the faith community continues to serve as first responders to those impacted by disasters, provid- ing essential food, water, and shelter to individuals who cannot fend for themselves. With an expected rise in severe hurricanes because of global climate change, the faith community will be asked to provide a greater amount of disaster relief, not just in terms of financial resources, but also in terms of human services such as temporary shelter, meals, volunteers for home and church repairs, counseling, and medical care. If, over the next 30 years, as the current trend indicates, more than half of hurricanes are category 4 and 5, to maintain the same level of finan- cial support, the faith community will need to increase funding for relief and development by more than 42 percent. It is evident that the cost and damages by hurri- canes will only increase, calling on the faith community to provide more support to congregations and communities in need.

While ultimate ownership of creation is God’s, we have a responsibility to care for all of God’s creation—both human and nonhuman. And as God’s people, we have a responsibility to work for justice and protect the “least of these,” those communities that are in need. The impacts of global climate change threaten all of God’s creation and will make it more difficult for people of faith to care for those in need. The increase in greenhouse gas emissions is warming the Earth to dangerous levels and will continue to result in increased drought, storm intensity, disease, species extinction, and flooding.5 These impacts will increase the lack of food, shelter, and water available, particularly to those living in or near poverty. Although global climate change will affect all human pop- ulations across the globe, it will hit those living in poverty

“And the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.” Genesis 2:15

The reality of the growing global climate change crisis calls for the church to be not just reactive in its response to global climate change but to prescribe to the world a need to reduce carbon emissions in order to prevent the catastrophic impacts of global climate change. Global cli- mate change’s impacts are already being felt and will con- tinue to be felt, requiring the church and the larger global community to help impoverished communities adapt to the changes. However, these impacts can be lessened by reducing global carbon emissions globally and in our own communities. Churches can help mitigate carbon emis- sions by reducing their own carbon footprint and insist that businesses and governments do the same.

Demographic trends by 2040

Last contextual item we should review. Birth rates are declining, and the nation is becoming much more diverse.

Both of these are true.

Birth rates are the lowest they’ve been in 32 years, and it’s a steady and increasing decline over the last four years. It hasn’t reversed as a recession has ended.

Some say it’s a sign of despair. Others say it’s indicative of how financially difficult it is for people to raise children today (so remember that 48% of Americans are in low-wage jobs). These are probably both true. So what can or will the church do to create real, sustainable hope, hope enough that people of faith trust to bring children into God’s good world?

And our neighbors are increasingly diverse. Overcoming and repairing racial divides and xenophobic forms of national are incumbent upon the church if it is going to be responsive to the actual kind of world God is bringing about around us.

Remember that our founding religious text in Genesis mentions more than once a call to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28 and 9:7, among others). It makes little sense to remind ourselves of such a text if we are creating contexts of despair while commanding empty injunctions of growth.

That same ancient text, our Scripture, also says: You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:19

The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:34

The US will become ‘minority white’ in 2045, Census projects


Planning for 2040

  • Read everything above. Make sure everyone has read all of it, and perhaps take at least one hour at the beginning of the session to give everyone a chance to review reading material and catch up.


  • Start with open discussion. What are your reactions to this news about our economic situation, your regional patterns, national patterns of religious decline, and demographic changes?


  • Conduct an asset-mapping exercise, like the one described by Luther Snow in his The Power of Asset-Mapping. At it’s most simple, asset-mapping is creating a list of all the assets you have (personally, congregational, communally, etc.) and then creatively connecting the dots to see what emerges. You don’t sort according to kind. Instead, you throw them together somewhat scatter shot and see what the Spirit might do connecting surprisingly disparate assets to each other.


  • Alternatively, if your congregation is up for an exercise in civic imagination, have them read Henry Jenkin’s blog post linking to a variety of “by any media necessary” strategies for social change. Use these stories to spark imagination, then take time to brainstorm in groups the social change you seek by 2020 and the medium, cultural resources you might access to work for such change.


  • After the retreat, publish a summary of your results in the wider community, and invite some kind of community input session, such as an online survey or a follow-up session inviting neighbors and community leaders.


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