Monday, September 06, 2010

Big Changes Are Coming

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At a recent seminar I learned of big changes coming in the church, and in particular for mainline protestant (hereafter MLP) denominations like Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopals. That wasn't the main topic of the seminar, but a lot of what I learned could be put under that heading.

Where We Are Today

The condition of the Church in the US varies with geography: in the Pacific Northwest, we have Washington and Oregon vying for the title of "State with the lowest percentage of church-goers"; in the southeast, Atlanta's NBC affiliate forecasts the weather for "tomorrow morning, when you go to church...."

This fall's entering class at Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, Georgia) is the largest in many years -- 72 incoming graduate students (median age: 24) whereas San Francisco Theological's statistics aren't nearly so happy: fewer than a dozen entering this fall.

Unsurprisingly, profiles also differ by denomination: Presbyterians are supposedly the richest (per-capita) of the major denominations (including the Mormons?), but this statistic may be skewed by the Waltons (think Wal-Mart). Presbyterians have a high average educational achievement, and in this country that usually means a low fertility rate. Yes, the Presbyterians are shrinking. (Why all this focus on Presbyterians? I attend a PCUSA church, and the speaker used to work for the PCUSA. Also: most of the attendees were Presbyterians.)

The Presbyterian denomination is something like 93% white, with a median age of about 58 (vs 36 for the country).

By the way, the under-21 population in the United States is 52% non-white. You don't have to be a statistician to think that the Presbyterians may be shrinking. So are the Lutherans (97% white). At this point I'll mention that the speaker (Professor Nishioka) and I were the only non-whites in the room, which made our little group over 90% white -- yep, a Presbyterian gathering.

Rummage Sale Coming

I haven't read The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle, but it says that every 500 years or so the Church goes through a "rummage sale," and we're due for another one (the Reformation was about 1517, with the Great [East/West] Schism about 500 years before that, and Gregory the Great about 500 years before that.)

Can you imagine what the world looked like during the Reformation, or while the Great Schism was in progress? If Tickle is right, the church in a few decades will be as alien to us today as the Protestant/Catholic combination looked to pre-Reformation eyes back in the 16th century.

Beyond that, there's a generational cycle (at least in the US) described by Strauss and Howe: the "millennials" are coming of age. Here's a drastically oversimplified version of the concept: we generally have in the US a cycle of 4 generations:

80+, went through WW2 civics built institutions
older boomers adaptives maintain institutions
boomers, experienced Watergate idealists destroy institutions
Gen X, 30s-40s reactives ignore institutions
(not even worth getting mad about)
Millennials (not GenY) 9-29 civics again?? build new institutions?
This cycle supposedly transcends region, gender, race/ethnicity. Immigrants? They face a delay, because an immigrant from say Korea thinks of himself as a Korean living in America; his children are Americans (who happen to be Korean) but soon catch up (or are caught up) in the generational cycle.

With both of these cycles coming due, so to speak (the oldest Millennials -- born 1981~2001 -- turn 30 next year), we are in for a wild ride.

Meanwhile, during these tumultuous times, we hear of congregations offering The Model of how to do church in the 21st century; in times of upheaval, we love certainty (any port in a storm?). My comment, though, is that it can be treacherous to trust in programs rather than in the Lord (Isaiah 50:10-11).

Millennials: They'll change more than the Church

These are the first people who come of age during the new Millennium, and yes they are different.

How different? We used to think infectious diseases were boring because they were all cured -- then AIDS came along, as did nasty nosocomial infections, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and so on. This was just one of many crises of faith in our institutions, and it's part of the world these Millennials were born into. They haven't done the nuclear attack drills, but they've had school lock-down drills. Millennials refer to Wikipedia more than printed sources, and they switch very rapidly between tasks.

Millennials have experienced the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression -- which is beyond the memory even of their boomer parents. Some 60% of Millennials have been in institutional day care (vs. 2% of boomers); 20% have at least one immigrant parent, and 10% have a non-citizen parent. They are the most racially diverse generation in US history -- as mentioned earlier, 52% of them are non-white.

So what's next?

Trends used to start in the northeast and radiate southward and westward. Today, however, outfits like McDonald's do their test-marketing in Spokane (Washington) or Grant's Pass (Oregon). Trends, in other words, start now in the northwest and spread east.

So if Washington and Oregon have the lowest percentage of church-goers in America, what does that suggest for the future?

Similarly, with the under-30 set being more diverse, having spent more time in institutional day-care, and caring less about institutions than previous generations, what does that suggest for institutions like the Presbyterians and Lutherans, which are older (median age) than the national population and less diverse (93% and 97% white, respectively)?

That they -- that we -- will have to change. Our speaker described an incident where he was asking a lot of young people what might convince them to "come to church." He wasn't getting anywhere, so at some point he started praying, and something awful happened: he heard a voice. (This has only happened to him a few times, ever.) Anyway, here's what the voice said:

"Nishioka, why do you keep asking them to come to you?"

Good point, that one. We will have to change, because we've built it and they're not coming.

1 comment:

Scottrick said...

Excellent "summary," Collin! Thank you for pointing out how our own gathering reflected back at us the demographics that were discussed! A point that I missed, even though (or perhaps because) I was watching "through the camera" so-to-speak.

Your thoughts...provoking! Thank you.