Many who've tracked culture & generational change have suggested we'd be in a time of institutional shift. The pandemic accelerated this movement.
Ryan Burge recently offered a graph on Twitter showing generational institutional confidence from General Social Survey data.
We already know at the local church level the challenge of reaching younger generations. In North Georgia most of our communities have an average age of 38, yet the average church will look much more like 65+. Being out of step with the different generations or our communities didn't occur overnight.
The other levels of Church life may be even slower to grasp the new realities. Specifically for the UMC, & likely for other mainline denominations, the challenges of denominational decline, plus the fracturing along social/political issues, on top of the issues of an aging denomination & diminished funding, are all exacerbated by the pandemic.
A decade ago, Lovett Weems wrote about the impending death tsunami, yet in many ways we did little to prepare adequately. Where some institutions may have taken steps of financial preparation & reset for this reality, I'm not sure that we've made as many organizational changes driven by vision, or even generational realities, as much as by financial need. The pandemic has shown our weakness of imagination & adaptation.
Many mainline denominations are theologically & historically complex, yet are also super-institutional. We are often heavy in form & function, keeping the older generations satisfied, while continuing processes from 50+ years ago. From congregation, to annual conference or regional organization, on to the national & international levels, this poses a significant challenge.
I'm reminded of this again as research once more shows that younger generations are spiritual, yet not institutional. I recall Ken Callahan advising our church back in the 90's that the younger crowd are sprinters, & not marathoners like the older gen, when it comes to church involvement, commitment, & institutional loyalty. We were hard pressed back then to develop church programming for sprinters. Today we're still confronted with the need to be a church for sprinters.
What will church, & Church, look like in the US as we imagine 2025-2050?
I'm sure the under 50 year old crowd- especially those recently outside church coming into the faith family- are the best ones to define worship, discipleship, & witness that help them to follow Jesus. If the church & Church can prioritize substance, & not get hung up by particular style or process, we'll be able to adapt. Relying on more voices to bring life back to our institutions, & create a vitality that meets the needs of today & tomorrow, will be our great task. I'm excited for the younger crowd to take a lead in these matters. That is, as long as they continue to adapt & flex in response to the times, & don't make the same mistakes we've made of creating institutional processes set in stone for 100 years.
If the last 2 years are any indication, then these "Roaring 20's" will continue to be volatile. Unless your prognostications from December 2019 have held up well through pandemic, we do better to reorient church & Church toward essential priorities which excel in engaging the next generation & those outside the church in the whole life of faith.
Church will probably look more like a hybrid blend of both in person & virtual worship, discipleship, & approaches that build up faith conversation & community. Church will look more like a local & global movement of people following Jesus who are adaptive & relationally organized-- or some more chaotic, creative, transformational descriptor of religion than "organized religion" -- which matches with historic, apostolic faith while also flexing to modern generational life.
This will be an exciting time for church despite the challenges of this necessary generational shift!