“The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be.” So said legendary baseball catcher Yogi Berra in the 1970’s. Anyone who has ministered in mainline churches in the United States in the last 30 or so years can sympathize. Denominational churches’ futures seem bleak. The United Church of Christ was born in mid-20th Century ecumenical excitement–In 1957, birth rates were rising (the post-war baby boom was in full swing), churches were thriving, Sunday Schools prepared the next generation for church leadership, and congregational life flourished. Today, due to changing demographics and rapid societal/technological transformation, United Church of Christ congregations don’t resemble our 1950’s forebears at all. Churches that cannot adapt close at alarming rates. There doesn’t seem to be great reason to be hopeful for the future of our beloved denomination.
On July 12th, 2016, Simon and Schuster published the much-anticipated book “The End of White Christian America” by Robert P. Jones. Dr. Jones is the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and a scholar and consultant in both religion in the Untied States and sociology. He has studied the demographic trends of the United States and has written what he calls an ‘obituary’ for white Protestants. An oft cited statistic demonstrates just how much change the mainline (and evangelical) Protestants have seen since the late 20th Century: “In 1993, the year Bill Clinton took office, a healthy 51 percent of Americans ‘identified as white Protestants.’ In 2014, ‘that percentage dropped to 32,’ ” cites Sam Tanenhaus in a New York Times Book Review. Add to that demographic shift the increased individuality of Millennials, new religious movements, multicultural and multi ethnic communities and one can see how Christian congregations might have been caught unawares by the rapid pace of change in the early 21st Century.
What might happen, though, if we reframe the story a little bit? Yes, the culture has changed and so will the church. And change is almost always painful. What might it mean that our communities are more diverse than even the UCC founders dreamed of in 1957? Isn’t that a good thing? Can’t we envision “God Still Speaking” through the United Church of Christ 30 or 40 years from now? The Prophet Joel certainly thought so: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28). Is God calling us to get out in front of such a demographic shift, instead of falling behind, merely responding to change?
Another helpful way to reframe our situation is to remember that mid-20th Century white Protestantism was the exception, not the rule. While many of our members feel nostalgic for the good old days (read: 1950’s) when congregations had to put up extra chairs in the sanctuary for Easter worship, such high church attendance was not the norm throughout the history of the United States. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark point this out well in their 1992 book “The Churching of America 1776-1990.” They demonstrate that the post-WWII period in U.S. history had the highest percentage of religious adherence (See chart). In other words, the church has been here before!
So, to reframe: We can choose to lament that the future didn’t turn out like we had hoped. Or, we can remember, that our faith in Jesus Christ drives us on to meet challenges. Sure, our congregations have changed and our expectations have changed. But what in modern life doesn’t change? Our unique leadership skills, personalities, and gifts are what God has nurtured in us “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)–in service to our congregations and to the world. What if we look at the world unfolding before us as an opportunity and a challenge rather than a disappointment? My hope and prayer is that we will learn from Jesus what it means that “The fields are ripe for harvest.” (John 4:35)
Rev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.