A good question: What will the church look like in 40 years?
Each month we ask one question, and get four answers. First: How will the UK church look in 2053?
‘Christianity won’t be normal, but it will be exciting’
It’s tempting to say what I want the church to be like, or what I think readers will like, because I don’t want to upset anyone or to be misunderstood. And of course it’s really difficult to predict a future that far ahead in any case.
In 40 years’ time there will be faithful Christians worshipping, living the faith, reading the Bible, sharing community, celebrating the sacraments and speaking up in public places about Jesus Christ. There will be a smaller number of them than now and they will worship in a fewer buildings. It won’t be “normal” to be a Christian any longer, but it will be as exciting, life-changing and challenging as it is now.
There will be far fewer parish churches used for worship and more “chapels” converted into dwellings. Many local churches have come to the end of their mission, not because of unfaithfulness, but just because of demography. Some denominations will be much smaller or reconfigured. New groups of Christian fellowships will emerge, often inter-cultural or expressing the culture of a migrant group. There might be a greater concentration on larger church gatherings to which people travel – we need to learn from the impact cathedrals are making. And there will be some who combine occasional visits to that kind of gathering with a more intimate and informal experience of a local Christian group, either at work or near their home.
Churches with roots deep in tradition and which are in close communion with fellowships in other parts of the world will have the greatest resilience, whether that’s the Roman Catholic Church (which combines a high sense of unity with a willingness to adapt locally and to live with diversity) or Pentecostal churches.
There will be some great concern or issue that divides Christians from one another, but it won’t any longer be sexuality. It might be about how we live in relation to creation or to technology, or something else completely that I can’t yet imagine. Perhaps the “new atheism” will have receded, leaving our cultured despisers singing a new tune.
But the UK church will probably be smaller than now, and more strikingly different from the society around (it will have little left to lose), a counter-cultural witness to alternative forms of living, offering a connection to deep traditions of faith and to the wider world as well as to the possibility of God. We are facing something as far-reaching as the dissolution of the monasteries.
It’s daunting of course, scary even. Big cultural changes are. But Christianity has shown a great ability and readiness to adapt and change and to remain faithful in tough times. If I live to be 92, I’ll be searching for those with whom I can share bread and wine and know that Christ is present and I’ll find them. And whatever happens, God will be loving all of us and calling us and redeeming us in Christ. And no matter how unfriendly the cultural winds, the Holy Spirit will be blowing.
Susan Durber is principal of Westminster College
‘Attendance will have dropped by 90 per cent’
Before the future can be assessed, we really need to evaluate present trends. Fortunately, the recent publication of the results of the religion questions in the 2011 census allows that. The number of Christian adherents in England dropped by 3.8 million people between 2001 and 2011. That’s a lot to lose, but during these 10 years some 4.3 million church funerals have taken place. At the same time, many churches have been active in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and perhaps 1 million have joined the church, while another 0.5 million have left for various reasons.
Thus the majority of the decline in the number of Christian people is because so many are dying. That process will increase as a third of churchgoers today are 65 or over. The Church of England actuaries have predicted that their attendance will have dropped 58 per cent by 2030 and 90 per cent by 2057. If those figures become true, then by 2050:
1. The number of people ticking the “Christian” box on the census form would be just a quarter of the then population, instead of three-fifths today, and most still elderly. Some will still want to get married in church and/or have their baby baptised.
2. If Muslims continue to increase at their present rate, then by 2050 they will be as numerous as Christians in Britain.
3. Church attendance will have dropped to 1.5 per cent of the 70 million people then in Britain.
4. The number of congregations (30,000) will be three-fifths as many as in 2010 (51,000), and their average size 35 people instead of the current 70 people.
5. News coverage of Christian activity will be minimal, and Christian satellite broadcasting largely Asian and African. Secular and multi-faith schools will have replaced Christian schools, and Christian organisations will have declined to perhaps only a fifth of today’s 5,000.
6. The Archbishop of Canterbury will have lost her seat in the House of Lords, after the Church of England became disestablished. Denominations have become far less important.
7. On the other hand, immigrant churches will continue to flourish; much of the social work of churches will be done by those of non-British backgrounds.
8. Perhaps half of today’s larger (500+) churches will have survived, still attracting up to 50 per cent of all those going to church. 10 per cent of churchgoers will go mid-week (as now).
9. Evangelism will continue as a low priority. Alpha courses will be obsolete. The number of leaders will be fewer than now, but many more will be part-timers.
10. The Lord will still be building His church and the gates of hell will not have conquered it even if many of its members have “gone to glory”.
Peter Brierley runs Brierley Consultancy for church leadership
‘Archbishop Hannah proposed a radical solution’
By the late 2020s, India and China overtook the United States as the leading economic power, while Africa, harnessing renewable energy, largely eradicated the drought and disease that had plagued that great continent for so long. After multiple crises, the West failed, to recover its economic equilibrium.
After the UK’s massive economic crisis in 2030, funding dried up for Christian churches, and for most other religious institutions as well. Divisions in the Church of England had already caused some congregations to splinter – mainstream Anglicans struggled to maintain the traditional national and parochial structures, while more extreme factions set up their own training and worship centres. The same pattern was repeated across the Christian denominations and other religions.
In 2033, the weakened systems collapsed, an event now referred to as the Great Implosion. Archbishop Hannah, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury a year earlier, called a national Synod, to which she invited leaders of the mainstream Christian churches, from the other major faiths. She proposed a radical solution, which was passed after three days of intense debate. Following that historic Synod, all parish churches were closed and the remaining resources used to maintain the great cathedrals and a few of the larger churches. Other denominations and faiths were invited to share the buildings, if they were willing to contribute towards ministry and upkeep, and to assent to the new Common Creed of Good Faith, adapted from Jesus’ new commandment, the Golden Rule, and an acknowledgement of the supremacy of love: I believe in the Divine Spirit whose nature is Love and who is calling all people to unity within the Divine Being. I will treat others with the love and respect with which I wish to be treated.
While Christians still had their ancient Trinitarian creeds, the Jews their Torah, and Muslims the Qu’ran, the new alliance was characterised by love, mutual respect and tolerance, between all faiths, ethnicities and between men and women. If believers could not get to a cathedral, they met in each other’s homes, usually sharing a simple meal around the kitchen table. In time, the local, informal worship and fellowship generated a resurgence of faith among many communities, and all the people of the Common Creed flourished. For many years, this alliance has stood as a bulwark against the fundamentalists and the atheists.
Since then, the world has suffered biological warfare, an outbreak of the deadly Trans virus, and further flooding. The Christian church in England is now woven into the lives of many people in a new way, and the old denominational divisions have largely disappeared. Though in fellowship with all those who assent to the Common Creed, the church remains faithful to Jesus Christ.
Christina Rees chairs the campaigning group, Women and the Church
‘Groovy liberalism will be long dead’
In 2053, there will be only three kinds of people in church. First, there will be those present church members who will still be alive then. Minus those who’ve wandered off in the meantime. And immediately we have a problem. A glance around your own congregation will quickly show that rather more of us can expect to be dead in 2053 than alive. That’s no problem – If we are being replaced faster than we’re dying.
That brings us to the second kind of person: our children. Christians do have more of them, on average, but the drop-out rate among the rising generation is a lot higher than among those of us who are older. The pressures on them to abandon the faith of their parents are enormous. The secularist education system. Peer pressure. The value system of popular entertainment. The tendency for young adults to create identities for themselves by repudiating those of their parents. The results can already be seen in most churches: a chasm between the ages of 14 and 40. Unless those youthful departees can be won back, it augurs ill for the church of 2053.
Which brings us to our third category. The church of 2053 will also contain those who have been converted in the years since 2013. Historically, the overwhelming majority of people who have become Christians have done so between the ages of 15 and 25 – and there is not the least sign that this is changing. That means that churches that fail to connect with young people are doomed. Yet the “connection” cannot be at simply any price – we must communicate the hard and distinctive content of Christian faith. Merely wrapping contemporary platitudes in pious waffle may make churches tolerated by outsiders – but it will never win them.
This was the folly of liberalism in the 20th Century, and is being repeated by liberals today. Through decades of belonging to different churches, and teaching and preaching in many countries, I have met a huge variety of Christians, with vastly differing ideas – but there is one kind of person I have never met. I have never met a “liberal Christian” who came to the faith from outside – from a previous life spent entirely as an atheist, Hindu etc. That is why 20th-Century liberals died out, and why their too-groovy counterparts in the present (themselves lapsed from more orthodox versions of the faith) will do so too. Well before 2053.
In the wider world, China will have to drop the last of its hostility to Christianity and pursue a pro-Christian foreign policy. It is visible to all that the mindset generated by Christian faith encourages the commercial ethos that is making China rich. And as China exerts itself abroad, it must first dominate south-east Asia, whose economies in every single case are dominated by their ethnic Chinese minorities – and who are already even more highly Christianised than China itself.
In sub-Saharan Africa, China has already invested huge amounts of money, effort, and people as it seeks to secure the last great untapped mineral deposits of the earth. In doing so, it binds itself to the interests of Africans. So, as sub-Saharan Christians continue to be attacked by the Muslim north – which they will – the Chinese will increasingly intervene on their side. Everything points to China as the great defender of the faith in this century. Who’d have thought it?
Meic Pearse is professor of history at Houghton College, New York
This article was published in the March 2013 edition of Reform.