The Future of Religion

The Pew Research Center recently released a report on the future of world religion. Using population growth projections, researchers have predicted which traditions will increase in membership and which traditions will decline in the next 35 years. The report summarizes what global religion will look like by 2050:

– The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.
– Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.
– The global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010, while the Hindu and Jewish populations will be larger than they are today.
– In Europe, Muslims will make up 10% of the overall population.
– India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, surpassing Indonesia.
– Four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

When looking at projections for the U.S. alone, the report predicts that “Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, and Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion. Muslims will be more numerous in the U.S. than people who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.” In addition, those who identify as “unaffiliated” will increase from 16% to 26% of the total population, even though the percentage of unaffiliateds will decrease globally. PF_15.04.02_ProjectionsOverview_usReligComposition_310px

Projections are incredibly important for our time, especially since global religious affiliations are changing so rapidly at this point in history. I’m excited to share with you that CARD is working with demographers and sociologists at the University of Northern Colorado to develop projections for the United Church of Christ. (This process is also known as forecasting.) This spring, we will be working to create projections around congregational and membership growth and decline, local church clergy supply and demand, giving patterns, potential places for new churches, and other important ministry matters using different future “scenarios” in key areas.

Rather than just calling these analyses projections, I like to think that we are engaging in future-casting for the UCC. We aren’t simply looking toward a future in which we have no control, but we hope to see and carry our vision of ministry into the future as well. Thus, future-casting recognizes our own agency in shaping that future; the projections themselves just provide the foundation from which we can engage in our visioning.

In general, there is a lot of speculation about our future as a denomination–I’ve heard people say that the retirement of boomers will create a clergy shortage in our churches, that our aging membership will not be replaced by younger generations, and even that the UCC won’t be around in the next 50 years. As a researcher, I don’t want to speculate without concrete information. Some of these things may be true, and some of them may not be true. But we are attempting to make an educated, informed guess about what the UCC might look like in 5, 10, 20, or maybe even 50 years. The preliminary report should be available at General Synod this summer in Cleveland, and I hope that it generates a conversation about how the whole system can actively work to address some of our most pressing challenges and, perhaps, dispel a few myths. I look forward to seeing what we can learn from this critically important research, and I suspect that some of the trends identified in the Pew Research report will be reflected in our report.

Re-interpreting faith for the “now” is the task of every generation…may our future-casting help us to do just that.

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