None of us can predict the future. But we can see the things that are happening around us and realize that they will have an impact on our religious life in the coming decades. As I survey our landscape, I see three important trends for leaders to recognize.
Evangelicals are rejecting their next generation of leaders. Now, I know that “evangelical” is a tricky word. There is a deeper, historic meaning, and there are many evangelicals in the mainline traditions. But I mean it in the present sense that sociologists use. They are also referred to as “Born-agains.” They’re the robust non-denominational (and often Baptist) movement that has been the dominant voice of our religious landscape for the last thirty years.
We saw it on Twitter last week, when 64-year-old John Piper, a leading evangelical, tweeted: “Farewell Rob Bell.” A heresy trial erupted, with 40-year-old Bell in the center, and suddenly Bell was receiving publicity that might make Lady Gaga blush (If you’re not impressed with Twitter, then please note that Bell was also on the front page of the "New York Times" over the ordeal).
Bell was just the latest in a series of younger leaders. We saw the rejection with the Emerging Church Movement, as an evangelical publishing company wanted to lift up the next generation of leadership. They brought together the best and brightest young men, and then realized that they didn’t like what they had to say. In the evangelical pursuit of theological purity, many younger religious leaders claim that their questions are stifled and doubts are not tolerated.
There is a distrust of large churches. I, personally, take a lot of jabs at mega-churches. I grew up in one, so I have that gut frustration toward them. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. Megachurches came along in the wake of denominational demise and they were largely geared toward Baby Boomers. They often took out the crosses or anything that might make the space look religious, so that seekers might be comfortable. Now, we see younger generations longing for crosses, icons, candles, deeper community, and smaller gatherings.
Aside from the megachurch though, there also seems to be a distrust of the big, downtown, landmark mainline church. I’ve been trying to understand this, and I’m not sure exactly why there is such discontent. As a woman, I wondered if it was jealousy or resentment. Are women frustrated that we have barely been able to dismantle that stained glass ceiling? Do we feel aggrieved that our churches' prestigious pulpits are the least likely to have someone like us standing in them?
Or does it have to do with advocacy work? In our denominational structures, it’s pretty common to have powerful pastors pushing for particular positions. This can range from offering helpful insights to holding denominations hostage with threats of cutting off money, suing over property, and promising impending schism. Are smaller church leaders exhausted from having large church pastors throw their weight around and make menacing promises in order to get their way in our denominational structures?
Though these things are annoying, I think it goes beyond gender and advocacy issues. Some men seem just as irritated. It seems that large congregations have staffs that most churches can’t support, resources most can’t tap into, and programs most can’t replicate. As Christianity evolves, we know that we can’t continue to try to reproduce Fourth Presbyterian Church in our small towns. We’re going to need to try different models. We’ll have to experiment with other ideals.
Congregations are closing. Many of our mainline churches blossomed during the post World War II era, so they have cultural assumptions that don’t hold up any longer. For instance, the vast volunteer workforce that women once provided, the elbow grease that kept our churches running, cannot be sustained as women maintain careers. Another assumption? Many people who are under the age of forty have jobs in retail, and most people who work in retail have to clock in on Sunday morning.
So what will we do as the wonderful generation that kept these churches thriving with generous stewardship and service passes away? It’s a painful process, but it’s also a great opportunity for us as we can begin to imagine how we will form new churches and revitalize community in a new generation.