As some of you might be aware, I attended a small school called Lincoln Christian University (LCU) for both my undergraduate and masters degrees. If you’re not familiar with LCU, it is a school whose primary purpose is to train up the next generation of church leaders, whether that mean preaching pastors, worship pastors, youth pastors, or more. I originally went there myself with the intention of becoming a Christian church pastor, but after seeing that it wasn’t really for me, I switched to the only “non-churchy” major of business administration. But having lived all four years in the campus dorms, I’ve gotten to see my fair share of the inner workings of the church, and I still have many friends today working in church settings.
A few days ago, LCU announced some pretty major changes that shook students, staff, and alumni to our core. While they aren’t closing as other schools like Cincinnati Christian University and Florida Christian University had to, LCU is significantly shrinking its footprint. This includes no more on campus life, no more sports teams, and most of the majors have been eliminated, including my own business administration major. Alongside the announcement, the president of the LCU was very candid with people the reasons why they had to make these very difficult decisions, and I have to say, I really applaud and appreciate the honesty exhibited in that memo.
Included in that memo was an explanation that over the last decade or so, LCU has noticed a divergence between the school’s core beliefs and the beliefs of newer students. This divergence has naturally posed a lot of challenges for the school, particularly as I believe the school would like to stick with its roots as much as possible. Now, you’re not going to hear me say that LCU should change to meet the beliefs of the next generation even though I would probably find myself more agreeable to the next generation. I respect where LCU is coming from just as I would respect the traditions of a Hindu or Buddhist follower.
But this is an issue much larger than LCU, so allow me to step away from the narrow frame of LCU. LCU is not the only Christian institution facing these “next generation” challenges. As noted above, several other Christian universities have already closed their doors, and church attendance in general has plummeted over the last several years. Which leaves a lot of questions. Should these Christian institutions alter their beliefs? Is there something these Christian churches can do to draw more people in without altering their beliefs?
Perhaps the hardest question of them all: is the Christian church going to die?
Spoiler alert: I don’t think it will, but we’re almost assuredly going to see changes over the next several decades. Before I share where I think the church is headed, let’s rattle off some factors going into my thinking. (Note with all these issues that you’ll definitely find exceptions, so consider these to be generalizations and not hard facts that apply to 100% of churches.)
- Church as a social center: Whether people would like to admit it or not, many people have historically gone to church simply because it is a good social outlet. Again, you’re not going to hear me say that is necessarily a bad thing, but with the advent of things like social media, people are increasingly having their social needs filled through over non-church avenues. This decreases a person’s necessity to use the church as that social outlet.
- Low pay / poor benefits for church pastors: One of the hardest things I’ve witnessed amongst many friends is how little church pastors are supported from a monetary perspective. Of course, I don’t think these people are going into ministry for the money, but the reality is that these people still need to put food on the table for their families. I know many friends who are barely making above minimum wage and have zero health benefits, and watching them stress about health insurance is really sad. I know several who have left the ministry entirely to take jobs at like Starbucks simply so they can support themselves and their families. For many churches, this means the only takers they can get for these jobs are basically super underskilled people, and that’s putting it nicely. I’ve heard way too many stories about how these underskilled people will blatantly plagiarize sermons from online sources, so it’s pretty clear these people have no moral upstanding. Not the kind of person you want leading a church!
- Modern social issues: Over the last several years, Americans have seen quite the change in a number of core social issues, including gay marriage, abortion rights, and trans rights. The Christian church has had a very hard time reconciling these issues. While there have been pockets of churches that have been more embracing of these changes, most of them have quietly tried to act like they’re not a thing so as not to cause conflict, and they’ve gotten away with it in many smaller, rural churches because those congregations simply don’t experience those issues firsthand. But as American society continues to trend this way, even the smaller, rural churches are going to have to handle these issues more directly, and especially given the previous point, I don’t see many churches handling those scenarios well.
- COVID-19: I’ll be frank: I think the Christian church really messed up the handling of COVID-19. Whether you agree with them or not, most churches took a hard stance that largely aligned with far right views, and I think that hurt them bad. I think even a lot of people who would consider themselves “centrists” would agree that the church really screwed up here. Between the discouragement mask use and vaccinations, the church painted themselves into a “far right” corner, and I’m not sure they can ever drop that identity going forward.
Alrighty, so with those factors out of the way, I think we’re ready to talk about where I think the church will be heading. Generally speaking, I see it going three ways. The first way is that nothing is going to change for a lot of current churchgoers. Back to the point about “church as a social center,” a lot of people still go to church today because they like the social group associated with it. They might not say that is the case, but if they were really honest with themselves, I think that’s the precise case for well over half of Christian church attendees. They’ll also rationalize it by stating that they’re doing good work to support the community, and while I definitely applaud any community service work, the reality is that you can obviously do community service work without a religious context. And again, I’m trying not to cast any judgment here. So long as these church members aren’t hurting anybody or any group, why would I not want them to enjoy each other’s company and do community service work?
The second way is that we’re going to see the continued decline of Christian churches over the coming years, and this is directly correlated to the point above about social issues. While there are some churches who are (and will) successfully reconcile these beliefs, it’s going to be “too little, too late” for many people, and they’ll just stop going to church. Moreover, COVID-19 put many churches into a “far right” lens, and I simply don’t think that many people with a even a minor left-leaning lens — not even a far left lens — is going to want to be associated with the Christian church. To be perfectly candid, I find myself in that camp. This is going to sound very harsh, but I think many people like me are frankly embarrassed by the church at this point.
But not all hope is lost for those who value the Christian faith! The third, most interesting way I think the church will evolve is that we will see the resurgence of more liturgical services, like Catholic or Episcopalian mass. In our “go go go” Western society, I think there is a strong hunger for deep spiritual connection in reverent settings. I honestly haven’t been to many of these liturgical services myself, but every time I do, I always think, “Wow… that was a very nice change of pace from my everyday activities.” I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that people will always long for some sort of spiritual connection, and given that many people still find their roots in Christian traditions, I can see how Christian liturgical services could experience a huge upswing in the coming decades. There’s something about the quietness of the service and architecture of beautiful buildings like cathedrals that really grounds that spiritual connection, even for somebody like me who is very open to other religious traditions.
Before we wrap up, let me be perfectly clear: I have no idea where the church is actually heading. I could be 100% wrong with my thoughts, but as a machine learning engineer, it is literally my job to recognize patterns and make predictions (inferences) on how events will go in the future. 😂 The first two predictions are pretty much a given since it’s basically restating reality as it stands today. The third prediction is a little more bold, and if I had to assign a probability to it, I’d say there’s a 50% chance of that happening. And when I say that prediction #3 could happen, I mean that for a narrower slice of people, so I’m definitely not saying most churches will become more liturgical in nature. For better or worse, I think prediction #2 — that people will leave the church entirely — is probably the one that will impact the greatest number of people, and we’ll probably see the closure of more churches than not.
To bring this full circle, let me state that I do not relish at all in these difficult decisions LCU has had to make. I’ve sort of seen “the writing on the wall” for them for years now, but I don’t wish ill on them at all. If anything, my heart breaks for all the friends I have with direct connections to the school who in all likelihood will lose their jobs.
My intention here is that for my friends still in vocational ministry, it might be time to take a good hard look in the mirror. The last thing I want a church pastor to do is to try sticking it out for another 20 years only to lose your job and have no plan for retirement. For you all in ministry today, you have to do what is best for you and your family, and that may mean looking at new opportunities outside the church sooner than later. And again being extra clear here, this is not a belief-based discouragement. I’m not saying, “Get out of your jobs because I disagree with your beliefs.” It’s still 100% possible to support your current faith in something like a volunteer capacity. I simply don’t want to see anybody go down a road that could potentially leave them in ruins.
Let me end here with the same prayer I pray for myself on a regular basis: May God give you wisdom and peace. Wisdom is going to look different for everybody, and it’s ultimately not up to me to tell you what that looks like for you. And we all definitely need peace, especially my friends at LCU. Make no mistake, it’s been an absolutely devastating week for many people close to LCU. Heck, it’s been a rough last few years for the whole world.
Thanks for reading. Grace and peace, friends.