The thing about demographics is that you never have an excuse for being caught off-guard. When you know things like generational breakdowns, demographic trends, etc. you can generally have a pretty fair idea of where things are going to be in ten years.
So: Given dechurching rates, generational giving patterns, and generational wealth distribution, there's a very real possibility facing American Protestants: We might be 15 years away from churches with under 150 people being unable to afford a full-time pastor. Any church of that size or smaller, will have a bivocational pastor or, perhaps, a pastor with a split appointment, as sometimes happens in rural America with Mainline churches already. One friend of mine started his pastoral ministry with a dual appointment in North Dakota split between two parishes in two small towns, for example. That model might still work for sub-150 people churches.
But it gets a little grimmer: Churches of 150-350 people simply might not be economically viable. Why? Several reasons: First, a church of that size is going to have a large enough workload that it isn't really plausible for a bivocational pastor or pastor split between multiple parishes to manage. Second, a church of that size may not have enough money to afford a full-time pastor, let alone an office manager, who probably will also be needed for a church of that size just to handle the various administrative tasks a congregation of that size naturally generates. Third, a church of that size is going to have a hard time finding a space to host them every week if they don't already have a building—but if they have a building, then that's another expense item in the budget.
One lesson to take from this is that churches in those ranges should probably be regarding the years we're in now as the proverbial years of plenty, as counter-intuitive (and depressing) as that might seem. In another ten years, basically all of the baby boomers will be retired and their financial resources will largely be taken off line. So while we still have boomer money in our churches, we need to be thinking about how to set ourselves up to survive when they're gone. That will likely mean making some system changes to how the church functions to adapt to leaner times. But it should also mean a very strong emphasis on evangelism and outreach today alongside discipleship so that perhaps we can avoid that leaner future by reversing certain dechurching and giving trends. The base line commitment for these churches right now should be "we are going to make it easy for people to enter our church building and meet our community" and "we are going to be serious about pouring into younger church members to build them up for future leadership."
But there is a second question this raises: If very small churches are going to shift toward bivocational pastors and if churches under 350 people that can't do a bivocational pastor simply won't exist, then a heavier burden shifts toward the larger churches, which is where the refugees of these shuttered churches will end up out of simple necessity—they won't migrate to the <150 churches because their arrival would push those churches into the same crisis as the 150-350 churches. So they'll have to go to bigger churches, which is going to mean bigger churches will grow slightly in terms of numbers while likely shrinking slightly in terms of budget due to shifts in generational giving patterns. In other words: Millennials don't give as much as boomers so these larger churches may have more people and less money in the medium-term future.
So what of these bigger churches? It is easy to criticize megachurches; certainly I have published no lack of hard criticism of them over the years. And yet if current patterns hold, it is probable that they will have to serve as the ark that keeps the American church afloat before, we pray, setting us down for a season of growth and renewal in the more distant future. There's something unhappy about this situation, not simply because of what it means for smaller churches, but also because it places a heavier burden on larger churches at the very moment when many of their leaders seem to be rethinking many of their established practices and patterns.
The pattern for megachurches over the past 40 years of the attractional era is relatively well-established at this point. Their origin was in marketing research done by figures like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, which found that many young suburbanites (read: young boomers, given that it was the late 70s) didn't attend church because it felt irrelevant and disconnected from their daily life. To counter that objection, Hybels and Warren pioneered an approach to church life built around creating memorable Sunday morning experiences defined by relevant, TED-talk style sermons, high production value music, and so on and by creating tons of demographically targeted programs and events happening throughout the week. This is what I have described in the past as a "church as spiritual NGO" model that exists to mostly, in the words of Hauerwas, help salve the personal wounds of post-industrial professionals.
This model did succeed spectacularly at getting butts into pews... or theatre seating, more likely. It mostly failed at everything else that matters. Discipleship largely didn't happen in many of these churches. Indeed, many of their leaders have shown very little evidence of being a disciple of Jesus themselves. Catechesis mostly didn't either, which is perhaps why 70% of self-described evangelicals seem to affirm a species of Arianism. So even as their role in the American church is about to grow far larger, America's megachurches find themselves in a time of flux and uncertainty. So the obvious question this raises is what will come of the megachurches and, given what we've already published here at Mere O, is there a future where the megachurches can play a role in the establishment of a reformed catholic church in America?
I think there is, but there will need to be a mindset shift for many evangelicals if we are going to pull it off. There are two necessary shifts, in fact.
First, our churches will need to shift from seeing ourselves as islands set apart from our community to being in some sense responsible for our communities. This is slippery and so we need to be careful. The point is not that our churches should not live as people called out by God to live distinct lives as his witnesses. Of course they should. Nor is the point that our churches should adopt some bizarre ecclesial version of an all-comers policy in which belonging is divorced from belief, sacramental life, or piety. The church is the people of God, the people called by God. The sacramental life of the church is intended for the support and sustenance of those people, not for the purposes of giving non-Christian people self-interpreting spiritual experiences that align perfectly with their individualist conception of reality.
The shift I have in mind is not a rejection of those beliefs, but rather a shift in how we understand the calling on Christian believers. We are a kingdom of priests, which is to say we show the nations what God is like. Indeed, in John Jesus says that Christian love is a kind of "final apologetic," (to borrow from Francis Schaeffer) for the claims of Christian faith. And so even as we live as a called out people answerable to God's claims on us before any other, the practical application of God's claim on us is that we would pour ourselves out for our neighbors so that they too might know God. This posture is quite different from a posture of defensiveness and separatism, which is a more natural posture for many conservative Protestants in America.
The idea here is that when you confront evil in your neighborhood or city or state, your response should be a sense of grief, even tears, and then a movement to address that evil because you have a responsibility before God for your neighbor. Too often the posture of evangelicals, particularly when they feel threatened, has been a defensiveness which abdicates from the task of evangelism and Christian hospitality altogether because it is viewed as too risky. (And, yes, before you ask: Part of addressing that evil may well include political activism. But that is, all things considered, only one part of the response and a relatively small part at that.)
This is the chief critique I have of how Rod Dreher has developed his work in the days since The Benedict Option. The defensiveness that pervades Live Not by Lies undermines the possibility of hospitality and evangelization—a point that I tried to get at in our interview about the book and that Leah Sargeant also raised in these pages. The proper template for Christian hospitality and how we respond to evil is Bishop Myriel.
But if that is the case, our churches will have to shift from an inward facing orientation of defensiveness and toward something quite different. (Dick Keyes's booklet Chameleon Christianity might also be worth revisiting in this context.)
So, the first shift: Away from defensiveness and toward responsibility, away from viewing ourselves as wholly separate from our home place, either from a posture of defensiveness or from a posture of superiority, and toward seeing ourselves as belonging to that home place, in some sense, and therefore having a responsibility before God to love and care for the place.
The second shift: We need to shift from a programmatic model for the megachurch to a cathedral model for the megachurch. What I mean by the former should be clear enough from what has been said above. What I mean by the latter is something like this: So when you think about the church in geographic terms—the church in a midsize city like Lincoln, the church in a global city like New York, or the church in a rural place like Barney, ND—it opens up some interesting possibilities for the relationships between Christians in a place and for their life together in that place.
The pattern here is what you can observe in denominations that still have a parish model that mostly holds in a region. There will be a number of smaller churches, but then there is also likely to be a couple larger ones in the city as well—and if you have an episcopal polity, there will be a cathedral church somewhere in the diocese that is usually the largest and best resourced of all the churches. That cathedral church is an ordinary parish church in itself. But it is also something of a gathering hub for the diocese as a whole and, sometimes, even for the city more generally. It uses its resources to help smaller churches as they can, to facilitate certain forms of Christian work that others cannot, and even to offer itself to the city in certain ways.
It seems plausible to me that one effect of dwindling financial resources and dechurching is that geographically linked churches that do not share a denomination may find themselves thrust into various sorts of partnerships out of simple necessity. In Lincoln it is not uncommon for pastors from different churches to meet together for prayer and encouragement. Many churches in the city pray for other churches by name as part of their corporate prayer on Sunday morning. Our three PCA churches in Lincoln also meet together once a year for a collective public service with all three churches worshiping together on Sunday morning. So these kind of partnerships are possible, I think, and we should perhaps consider pushing into them a bit more, particularly as our churches are likely to become more resource poor in the years to come and in need of the support from other churches that might have resources that they lack.
To get practical: For the reasons already given above regarding money, I expect that the days of megachurches being able to have staffs of 50 or 60 people with pastors targeted at highly specific roles and lifestyle programming are nearing their end. I once saw a megachurch with an "empty nest pastor," whose job description was providing care for couples who were not yet senior citizens (they had another pastor for seniors) but who were middle aged and whose kids had left the house. That is taking the demographically tailored, programmatic model to new extremes, of course, but it is not at all odd given the principles of the attractional megachurch. My argument is that this whole model should be rejected and replaced by something different and, indeed, that it will have to be rejected as the American church becomes poorer.
That said, many of these megachurches will still have considerable real estate holdings as well as more financial resources than other churches in the community. My argument is that megachurches would do well to think about themselves as being part of a fellowship of churches bound together by geography and serving in some sense as the proverbial "cathedral" for that communion.
So: What happens if that large building is made available to host a Christian school during the week at discounted rent rates which allow the school, in turn, to keep tuition rates lower and more accessible to families? There are churches already doing this. Push it more: What if the church further subsidized the cost of tuition or supported the school in other ways? I know of one Lutheran school that charges $500 per student per year because they are so heavily subsidized by several wealthy local Christians who have adopted fairly simple lives that allow them to be extravagantly generous. The outcome is that that Lutheran school is actually larger than the neighborhood public school!
What happens if the church uses some of its classroom space or a smaller property it owns during the week to provide mental health services to people in the community? There are churches already doing this too. Or what if the church made some of its classroom space available during the week for a Christian college or seminary to meet there, as happens already at schools like Bethlehem College and Seminary, Indianapolis Theological Seminary, and some Reformed Theological Seminary campuses?
Relatedly, what if these larger churches used one of their larger rooms to house a theological library to make the great works of the faith available to their parishioners and any other area Christians who wish to read them? I know of one church in Omaha that has built such a space—and they did it on the cheap, relatively speaking, because when a local Christian college announced its imminent closure the pastor called the school up and asked if he could work out a deal with them to get first dibs on the books in their library. And so now despite that college's closure, the books they accumulated over the years are still being used for the building up of God's people.
The point here, I think, is that while the realities of generational transition and dechurching can lead to some extremely grim scenarios for the American church, it is precisely the challenges posed by those scenarios that might call us to greater creativity and generosity to one another.
A few weeks ago I met with a pastor for coffee. It turned into a three hour conversation. At one point I mentioned my fatigue with the laments of pastors and ministry leaders about how hard and challenging our context has become. The pastor lit up. Then he said, "I love being a pastor in this moment. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I can't imagine doing anything else." If the spirit of that pastor were to spread not only among our clergy, but among our laity as well, I suspect it would transform the American church entire.
UPDATE: One reader writes in to say that my outlook on the post-boomer landscape may be too bleak. Millennials have plenty of money. What's more, they actually give at higher rates than boomers according to one Barna study. I still have some questions, but those two links suggest that I may be too pessimistic in my thinking about what things will look like in another 15 years.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).