For 50 or more years now, the news about Christianity in the U.S. has been that church membership and attendance has been shrinking and that especially predominantly white Mainline Protestant congregations have struggled the most.
There certainly have been exceptions to that. A great local example of exception is the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) in suburban Leawood that the Rev. Adam Hamilton started in 1990 with 10 or so members and that today has a membership of more than 20,000.
But COR is a true outlier.
Focusing just on the U.S., however, tends to create a distorted view not just of Christianity around the world but also of religion around the globe generally. The world, it turns out, seems to be becoming more religious, though that takes many forms, including some highly destructive ones rooted in a fundamentalist approach that sees the world in black and white.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, has written this insightful RNS piece about what global Christianity looks like in 2019 and what the trends are. It's well worth a read, and not just for Christians. But because Christians are more numerous in the world than adherents of any other religion, it's hard to ignore the impact they have.
To begin, where is Christianity growing? In the Global South, Africa and Asia particularly. As Granberg-Michaelson notes, "Last year, nearly 50 million more Christians were added in Africa, making it the continent with the most adherents to Christianity in the world, 631 million."
He notes that predominantly white congregations in the U.S. are declining, but says that "where there is growth in American Christian denominations, it is driven mostly by nonwhites, whether Catholic or Protestant, evangelical or mainline. Over the past half-century, 71 percent of growth in Catholicism, for instance, has come from its Hispanic community. In the Assemblies of God, one of the few U.S. denominations to show overall growth, white membership slightly declined while nonwhite membership increased by 43 percent over 10 years."
American congregations and denominations that want to avoid sliding into oblivion must learn from these global trends and must come to understand that what worked in the 1950s and '60s, say, simply doesn't work anymore. Anyone paying attention knows that, but change is hard. Change always faces resistance even when that resistance ultimately leads to death or irrelevancy.
One thing Mainline Protestant congregations need to understand is how and why Pentecostal churches have been bucking the decline trend. Why are people finding answers, comfort and support in emotional styles of worship? The author notes that "as the yearning for authentic spiritual experience moves from the head to the heart in this new environment, spirit-filled communities are flourishing."
In some ways the changes experienced in Christian congregations and denominations in the U.S. over the past several decades are mirrored by the kinds of changes experienced by the newspaper industry. There are many differences between the two, of course, but the survivors will be the ones who stare death in the face, adapt to new ways of doing things and, above all, don't abandon their primary reason for existing at all.
I agree with the author's conclusion, which is this: "If there is a theme in what lies ahead for the church as we enter a new year, it is that the white Western Christian bubble that has powerfully shaped Christianity for the past four centuries is now beginning to burst. Future expressions of Christian faith will be shaped by its interactions with non-Western and nonwhite cultures. This will present challenges to the established church in the U.S. but may hold the keys to its revitalization."
Do you agree?
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WHY POLITICIANS SHOULDN'T WEAPONIZE RELIGION
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who may run for president, too, has written this piece in The Hill about the need to protect religious liberty. While Gabbard usually is described as a political progressive or liberal, her thoughts about this are quite in line with this Patheos.com article written by my friend Russ Saltzman, one a Lutheran pastor, now a Catholic, and someone who's almost never been called a liberal. See? Sometimes thinking people can see eye-to-eye.