In a recent conversation with a group of folks in theological education who were pondering the relationship between the academy and the Church I was asked what I thought the future of congregations would look like. My response was that I have no crystal ball and would be suspect of anyone who offered a definitive answer to that question. But apparently there is a robust cottage industry in prophetic proclamations, futurists, tarot card readers, fortune tellers and latter day channelers of Nostrodamus. So, I ventured that if I had a guess about the future of the church I could risk a prediction.
At the risk of misreading my tea leaves, here’s my guess: there will be a continued increase in the variety of expressions of the church experience. We will likely continue to see bleeding edge growth in house churches, cell groups, multi-sites, mega churches, emergent, in addition to the existing varieties in styles among traditional congregational models. This will continue to challenge traditional congregational churches who choose to retain the 19th century American mainline and evangelical model, though they will manage to retain, if not attract, members—even in a culture that continues to become more and more secular.
To offer an oversimplification: one third of those who seek church will settle on one form of church for their needs and will remain relatively well connected there. One third of churchgoers will be seekers and wanderers going from one type to another. One third will commit to formal and institutionalize church for a smaller portion of their lifespan but will eventually cease to attend or support it as their spiritual needs cease to be met by any expression of organized religion or they shift to a stage in life where the church cannot sufficiently address their life structure needs.
This is purely an unscientific sociological hunch and does not take into account the possibility of a Fourth or Fifth Great Awakening and the movement of the Spirit. But if there are other great awakenings my hunch is that they will tend to be localized, and, likely situated among ethnic Christian populations in the United States. In fact, some perceive a resurgence of vitality in the congregations in American among ethnic and immigrant populations as mainline and established traditional congregations, which were products of previous generations, decline.
Certainly the challenge to theological schools to provide education and training for clergy and congregational leaders can feel overwhelming in this context of change and flux. How do seminaries prepare leaders for something that is yet uncovered or defined? If theological schools cannot realistically attempt to prepare leaders for churches that no longer exist, what churches will they prepare them for? Added to the changes in the congregational landscape, the changes in the educational enterprise alone are enough to challenge the ways and means of theological schools: a shift in the epistemology of what constitutes learning; models, ways and means of pedagogy that challenge longstanding assumptions about teaching and learning; changing perceptions of the value of extended formal education validated by degrees; the emergence of a generation of learners formed by media and technology who bring a world view and self-understanding that is contrarian to traditional schooling. One change that is a source of high anxiety is the almost fundamental shift in the understanding, role, and task of teaching. Any teacher today who does not understand web 2.0, knows how to produce media, or is adept at keeping up with the ever changing educational technologies feels the threat of becoming obsolete almost daily. It does not help ease one’s anxiety to hear ditties like, “In the near future there will be two kinds of teachers: those who teach online and those who used to teach.” Yikes.
Copyright (c) 2010, Israel Galindo