Letter from the Dean

By Gregory E. Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School

During World War I, George Fairman composed a hit song that used the first words of the chorus as a title: “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.” There are many people who feel that way today. And understandably: the medical, racial, economic, and political tensions that all of us feel are not simply palpable, they are throbbing. 

Churches feel this and are in a state of transition. All of us are aware of the decline in those who identify as Christians in the U.S. The Pew Research Center calculates that in 2020, 64 percent of Americans identified as Christians, 30 percent were “nones,” and 6 percent belonged to other faith traditions. The researchers estimate that Christians will be less than 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2070 if recent trends of switching religious traditions continue.[1]

The pandemic accelerated changes within churches. Scott Thumma, a professor at Hartford International University, is engaged in a five-year study of congregations (Pew studies individuals), exploring the changes the pandemic brought. He has discovered a number of patterns—some predictable and some surprising. In 2000, the median worship attendance among congregations was 137, in 2020 it was 65. We expected numbers like this. The decline, however, was not uniform: in 2020, 10 percent of the congregations had 70 percent of the worshipers, while 44 percent of the congregations had 6 percent of the worshippers. This means that many small congregations will probably disappear in the near future. Professor Thumma has also found that the number of congregations with 20 percent or more of worshipers from groups other than the white majority has grown from 12 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2020—i.e., the number of mixed racial congregations has doubled. This is a healthy and welcome trend. Finally, he noted that 22 percent of the mainline congregations believe the pandemic has threatened their future, while these numbers drop to 14 percent of the evangelical churches, and only 6 percent of Catholic and Orthodox churches.[2] Churches in the U.S. are changing.

There is one more set of demographic shifts that is important to remember. While Christianity is waning in the U.S., it has plummeted in Europe and exploded in Sub-Saharan Africa. One Pew study that has remained fixed in my mind first appeared in 2011. Researchers pointed out that in 1910, 66.3 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and 1.4 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa; in 2010, these numbers had dropped to 25.9 percent in Europe and climbed to 23.6 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa.[3] A subsequent study estimated that by 2050, the percentage of the world’s Christians living in Europe will be 16 percent while 38 percent, or nearly one in four of the world’s Christians, will live in Sub-Saharan Africa.[4] We cannot think only in local terms, nor can we even think in national terms; we must think globally.

How should a divinity school respond to these changes? Yale Divinity School has been affiliated with mainline denominations for most of its history, although since the 1960s the School has become more diverse ecumenically and racially. Today, the future of mainline denominations is in jeopardy. The “seven sisters” that have undergirded Protestant Christianity in America and—by extension—the culture of America have diminished more than any other group. While we will continue to support mainline denominations, the future does not lie with them. 

Ministry will need to be broadly conceived in the future. This does not mean that there will not be a place for a professionally trained minister; there will. It does mean that those who serve in this capacity will need to be prepared to support both in-person, remote, and hybrid forms of communities—a daunting challenge. It also means that ministry will need to be understood to include those who lead communities other than churches, e.g., nonprofits or chaplains in various settings. One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the movement among corporations to hire chaplains. This is a testament both to the decline of churches and the continuing needs that people have for a spiritual life with moral direction.

We will also need to work globally, especially in parts of the world where Christianity is thriving. One quarter of our faculty are international; however, they are Europeans or Canadians. We have several solid exchange programs, but they are with major European universities. We cannot ignore Africa or other parts of the world where Christianity is flourishing, i.e., Asia and Latin America.

As Bob Dylan sang in a song that I remember well from my youth, “The Times They are A-Changin’”. These changes create new opportunities and possibilities, opportunities that we must seize. We should not fear change, even if it is painful at times. It is important to remember that we are not the first generation to see the ebb and flow of Christianity as a religion. In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy which gave Henry VIII control of church property. Beginning in 1536, Henry closed the monasteries, priories, friaries, and convents under his control, actions that changed England and the place of Christianity in it. In May 1540, about a month after the closing of the last monastery, John Plommer is reported to have written: “Ther shall be a new world [af]or mydsummers day.”[5] Plommer was right that the old order controlled by monasteries was gone. However, Christianity was not: Christians found new ways to function.

How do we face the changes taking place today? In this bicentennial year of Yale Divinity School, the Fall 2022 issue of Reflections offers a myriad of insights about where we should go. I have hinted at some of my own thinking above. However the future unfolds, I hope that we will remember Paul’s reflections on the transitory nature of life when he said: “we walk by faith not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Even if we do not know where we are going, only that we are going, we are not going alone.

[1] Stephanie Kramer, Conrad Hackett, and Marcin Stonawski, “Modeling the Future of Religion in America,” Pew Research Center (September 13, 2022) https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/09/13/modeling-the-future-of-religion-in-america/

[2] Scott Thumma, “An Endemic Church: Exploring its Perils and Possibilities,” The Lorin Sabin Ensign Lecture, Yale Divinity School, October 12, 2022.

[3] Luis Lugo and Al;an Cooperman, “Global Christianity—A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” Pew Research Center (December 19, 2011) https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/

[4] “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050,” Pew Research Center (April 2, 2015) https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/04/02/christians/e

[5] Cited by James G. Clark, The Dissolution of the Monastaries: A New History (Yale University Press, 2021), p. 469.