A Vibrant Future For Christianity Without Churches?

A Vibrant Future For Christianity Without Churches? April 25, 2017

A semester has passed since I concluded my class on Religion and Science Fiction. Yet I still have topics to blog about left over from that experience.

One activity from that class was asking students to imagine what the future might hold for some existing religious tradition. One possibility that was mentioned was that Christianity might persist in the absence of institutional structures. In other words, could the gospel message, the Christian faith, continue to be promulgated and perpetuated as it was originally, as a “meme” (in Richard Dawkins’ sense), an idea, a viewpoint, one that spread simply by virtue of its attractiveness to human beings and their capacity to share it with others.

In a sermon not too long ago, Rev, Bob Yount made a related point: Getting people to go to church plays a similar role in the teaching of Jesus to “becoming a Christian”: it simply isn’t in there.

As I hinted already, sometimes the future takes things in a direction that in fact brings us back around full circle to the way things were in the past.

Yet on the other hand, the cultural context of early Christianity was not so individualistic, and whatever infrastructure may or may not have been put in place early on, communities and networks began to form spontaneously as far back as we can trace. And so too today, it may be that it is unrealistic to imagine that, even if Christianity could spread simoly from individual to individual, that it would do so. Those individuals would in all likelihood remain connected at least some of the time. And they would probably form whatever that future’s equivalent of Facebook groups might turn out to be.

What do you think? Can you envisage a bright future for Christianity in the absence of churches? If not, why not? And if so, would that future represent a positive or negative change?

Other blogs have been exploring related subjects:

Nones, Dones and Religionless Christianity, Part 1

Nones, Dones and Religionless Christianity, Part 2

Nones, Dones and Religionless Christianity, Part 3


Religions Dead and Living

from the Daily Sip: the life of God and the death of church?

Overworked? Try a little ritual

Recasting: Can churches adapt or imagine a new future?

This Lent, I’m giving up apologizing for other Christians

The Rapture, Hell and Salvation: How Our Doctrines Can Breed Fear, Suspicion and Judgment

Stephen Woodworth’s piece about the Bible no longer being a book is relevant to the technological changes that are at least a significant part of the shift that is currently going on.

See also the very recent article in The Atlantic about the way that unchurched people voted in the recent election, which was a real surprise (as well as their earlier article about illiberal democracy).

Non-Religious Voters are Transforming the Political Landscape in Good and Bad Ways

3 things you might not know about Nones

Leaving Church to Search for God

And finally, see the article by Elizabeth Drescher, “Nones by Many Other Names: The Religiously Unaffiliated in the News, 18th to 20th Century.”

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  • Neko

    I don’t know about other traditions, but I would find it sad (and frankly unimaginable) if the Catholic Mass ceased to be celebrated in churches. It’s a beautiful liturgy practiced in one form or another for millennia. Unfortunately, the institutional Church in the US is aligned with reactionaries and neo-fascists, so at this point I can’t in good conscience participate. (Which is probably just as well, since I’m not exactly a person of faith.)

    I do think the gospel will remain tantalizing and endure but am anxious about the direction Christianity will take. Religious fundamentalists and theocrats are a threat to liberty, and if the recent election isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    We certainly need to recover a better story than the standard evangelical, “Pray this prayer or you’ll go to Hell” story. We are missing a lot of the historical drivers of the first century, and I’m not even sure we have a good concept of who we are, how we got here, and what we’re saying/doing as a result.

    If people just tried to take what they’re saying/doing in most churches, today, and expect that would survive as a grassroots movement in today’s context, I don’t think it would survive. In the absence of institutional backup, we need a much better story than what’s holding the church together right now, in my opinion (which is occasionally humble).

  • Jim Burklo’s piece about community is also germane: https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/gatherings-a-manifesto/

  • John MacDonald

    I think Christianity has a bright future. It is doing very well in the U.S., and American Culture does a great job of spreading/selling itself around the world! I think the future of American Christianity is following in the footsteps of figures like Joel Olsteen and T.D. Jakes (I love T. D. Jakes new talk show).

    Europe, you will be assimilated! Resistance is futile. lol

  • What do you think? Can you envisage a bright future for Christianity in the absence of churches?

    I’m not sure about that. I do think that the churches are a problem.

    At present, the churches are too political. That’s particularly true of conservative evangelical churches, and perhaps of catholic churches. And I see that as a turn-off for many people.

    On the other hand, I do think that a sense of community is part of what Christianity offers. But I think community can exist in many different ways.

    I wonder — can there be a “Facebook church” or a “Twitter church” (and similar), with the Internet as a way of building communities.

  • Roger K Newton

    Is it relevant in discussing this topic to consider “fresh expressions” – new ways of doing church for the unchurched and “emerging church” – church done differently for those familiar with but possibly disillusioned by or alienated from institutional forms of church. In both cases context seems to be key. As people naturally change they may no longer feel that they fit in with the context that originally attracted them. It is natural for them to move on. The community is forever changing in membership and numbers. Unlike institutional churches, as happy for someone to move on as for someone to join. The measure of success being, are we meeting the needs of the community rather than are we maintaining/increasing revenue/membership?

  • RolloMartins

    The Church will survive. It has to. Simply because the teachings of Jesus are so powerful. But the next Church will be unrecognizable by the old Church.

  • Brandon Roberts

    my opinion is you can worship god anywhere you don’t need a church

    • OK, but the blog post is not asking whether buildings are necessary, but about institutional and organizational infrastructures.

  • bobyount

    Christianity would more easily flourish without the institutional church if followers were to develop the attitudes, values, and motives of Jesus. The banding together would be for the purpose of meeting the needs of hurting people and sharing the joy of continuing deeper relationship with God. Too much of what passes for Christianity as related to the institutional church is for the purpose of self preservation of the institution not being a reflection of Jesus where we are.

  • summers-lad

    I used to try a thought experiment: what if all organised religion was banned by law for a month? By “organised religion” I meant public services of worship and anything else related to the publicly advertised activities of the church. The ban wouldn’t extend to prayer meetings, Bible studies etc if they were held in people’s homes and conducted entirely by volunteers (i.e. with no paid clergy). The point of my thought experiment was to imagine what effect this would have on church life after the month-long ban expired. Would church-going for many people turn out to be little more than a habit? How many would return to where they had been before? Would people develop different forms and methods of worship that wold be less dependent on a formal organisation?
    For several years now I have not been part of an institutional church but have belonged to a house-based* fellowship which works in this sort of way. I have found it more supportive and more open to my involvement than my formal church was. Hebrews 10:25 says not to give up meeting together, and I find more meeting together in small groups than in many formal services. But I also see things which larger churches can do which we can’t, and have started occasionally visiting “institutional” churches in my area. I think it is important to let our forms of church evolve, and to learn from other ways of doing it. But if it disappears, we – or God – will need to reinvent it.

    * The “u” on my keyboard is a bit sticky, so I originally typed this as “hose-based fellowship”, which suggests an unusual method of baptism.

    • Rex

      Hi summers-lad. I’m glad your banning church for a month is only a thought experiment, because I see the shadow of the Third Reich (or Stalin)approaching when scientists treat society as an experiment. Science must have democratic ethics, or it’s just another dictatorship, as I’m sure you know. I like people who use their brains as a test-tube.
      I agree people go to Church for social reasons, along with belief in a God who often they’re not sure about. Christianity is the common context so each person knows approximately what the others believe. This provides topics of conversation and makes social interactions less hit-or-miss. We feel safer when we can reliably predict how others will react. The church context provides this. That’s the big problem with Islam today, their predictability is being eroded by extremists.
      Reinventing the church is a marvellous idea. As the two biggest moral problems today are dishonesty and malice, a reinvented church needs to promote honesty and goodwill as ethical priorities.