I’ve Seen the Future

Andrew McGowan

My native Australia was described by one 19th-century observer as “the most godless place under heaven.” Up to a point, the description fits. Like Europe, Australia is a very secularized society, with low levels of active religious affiliation. And like the USA, we have little tolerance for establishment religion in civic life. We antipodeans have, perhaps, the worst of both (Old and New) worlds.

When I first came to the USA over 20 years ago, the contrast was unmistakable. For all the insistence on church-state separation in the U.S., the sheer level of religiosity was one of the most striking things about life here. Prayer pops up in all sorts of places, even when excluded from strictly civic spheres. Sports players cross themselves, kneel, and glance at the sky when they succeed. Community leaders talk about God quite a bit. And lots of people go to church (and synagogue, temple, and mosque). Heaps of people.

Yet, over the last two decades, the change in the USA itself has been palpable. There are still heaps of people in church, but they are getting older and often not being replaced. Many churches are unable to maintain full-time ministry, and others are closing. Exactly why, or why now, remains a bit mysterious – perhaps a nation partly founded on dissenting religious observance just took longer to have the end of Christendom appear unmistakably in cultural as well as constitutional terms.

This “bad news” story has to be faced before we can get to the good part. The pre-eminence that religion and its institutions have had in the USA is just not going to continue.

Once we realize this, it becomes tempting to prognosticate about the future. But most of the prescriptions I have seen so far are, frankly, selfserving and not very convincing. Dressing up one’s own likes and dislikes about the institutional church and its accoutrements - buildings, rituals, clergy, seminaries – in the garb of “prophecy” does not make prejudices more profound.

Though we don’t know the future, we actually have a better idea than that. Let me tell you about it – I’ve seen the future.

That is, the forms that religious life takes in the already secularized parts of the West deserve serious attention by U.S. churches. Places like Australia might help congregations here think about what comes next, and what has to be done. What can or should we imagine?

First, there is no single story. Trends are not rules; different denominational networks and local congregations will fare differently. There are success stories, as well as downward movements. Some successful groups, older or newer, will be small, but larger churches or networks do have an advantage. When duty or custom are not enough to draw congregants, those churches will flourish which can offer the things questers find most significant – well-planned and executed worship, robust social outreach programs, a sense of community.

A second observation may at first give Reflections readers pause. The strongest recent predictor of sustained growth in Australian churches generally has been theological conservatism. Yet many conservative congregations are also dwindling. So there is a correlation, but not a causal relationship. In fact the Australian National Church Life Survey suggests that clearly articulated vision and confident capable leadership are the real causes of numerical success where it occurs.

Many may be tempted to confuse the singlemindedness of fundamentalism with the actual content of that movement’s doctrine. One challenge faced by Christians of mainstream, traditional, liberal, or progressive mind is, then, to articulate a vision of their own existence which is authentic and bold enough to catalyze their worshipping communities. Being vague enough to focus on those who believe little and don’t expect much asked of them ethically is not likely to work; the difference between “inclusion” and “mission” remains to be discerned further.

A third thing to note is that the existing institutions, even the buildings, however much in question, are not redundant or irrelevant. They are enormously important for ensuring a vibrant future. Phoenixes need ashes to rise from, after all. What (other) community enterprise, school, or political campaign would not envy the churches their visibility, their facilities and, yes, their endowments? Treating these with contempt isn’t prophetic, it’s short-sighted and selfish. How to use them freshly and wisely to address new possibilities is the challenge.

Last but not least, the past is worth considering as well as the future. The churches have been in retreat before. Those who led, taught, and prayed at such times kept the faith and bequeathed to their successors not success but hope. Some trends will continue downward, given the reality of secularization. Hope, however – that theological virtue – is not subject to empirical trends but persists, and does not fail us (Rom 5:5).

The Rev. Andrew McGowan, an Anglican priest, is dean of Berkeley Divinity School and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies and Pastoral Theology at YDS. He is the author of Ancient Christian Worship (Baker, 2014) and other books. Before coming to Yale in 2014, he was warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne and a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne.