Gallup reported a significant decline in membership at American churches, synagogues, and mosques in 2020.
In a little over two decades, membership in faith communities dropped from 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.
There are numerous reasons for this decline, from the rise of nones (those claiming no religious affiliation) to the influence of Christian nationalism.
In fact, Good Faith Media’s Tony Cartledge wrote an excellent column this week offering the church’s departure from the teachings of Jesus as a prime reason for the decline.
The purpose of this column is not to provide reasons for the decline (even though we must acknowledge them in order to rebuild), but to see this news as an opportunity to deconstruct bad theological praxis in order to build new faith communities that emphasize our better angels.
For the purposes of this column, we will focus on the Christian church.
Opportunity No. 1 – Recalibrate theological doctrines around love, mercy and grace.
For too long, the church concentrated its efforts on the “correctness” of doctrinal issues that seem to abandon love, mercy and grace. Instead, emphasis was placed on conversion and conformity with the goal of controlling behavior.
A theology and faith practice centered on love, mercy and grace seeks to welcome, restore and empower.
Future faith communities will be more interested in meeting people where they are in life, accepting them in love, extending mercy and grace when needed, and empowering them to replicate these practices in their lives and relationships.
Opportunity No. 2 – Deconstruct the patriarchal nature of faith, while implementing an egalitarian theology and praxis.
Religion has been and continues to be dominated by males, too many of whom espouse attitudes and behaviors detrimental to the gospel.
A true egalitarian theology needs to replace patriarchal dominance, leaving a genuinely equal playing field for both males and females.
The “stained-glass ceiling” of the church is a real issue, as women are often ignored, overlooked or oppressed by the patriarchal system. That stained glass needs to be shattered so that both males and females can be seen as equals, living and serving side-by-side.
Future churches should actively advocate for an egalitarian understanding of gender for everyone’s thriving.
Opportunity No. 3 – Embrace a raceless gospel.
As my colleague Rev. Starlette Thomas continues to remind us, race is a human construct refuted by the gospel. The future church should reject this construct, seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus.
A raceless gospel is not a colorless gospel, but a way of celebrating cultural diversity while seeking justice for all.
While race seeks to classify worth based upon skin tones, the raceless gospel begins with the worth of our common humanity. It then works towards creating a just society for all.
Opportunity No. 4 – Abandon all elements of Christian nationalism.
Throughout the church’s history, powerful individuals and groups melded political agendas with the Christian faith. In most of these instances, the worship of God was fused with the worship of a nation-state.
The gospel is both universal and timeless, meaning that government leadership and political pundits do not own the rights to the gospel and they do not get to define the meaning of a disciple.
According to the scriptures, any worship outside that of God is idolatry.
While faith can shape our politics, politics should not shape our faith. Jesus died for all people, not just the ones wearing the color of a particular nation’s flag.
Opportunity No. 5 – Reject the unrestrained capitalistic system fueled by personal and corporate greed. Replace it with an economy upon equitable opportunities, just systems and generosity.
If Jesus is to be the example of the future church, then we must seriously look at how he approached and thought about money.
Did Jesus ever own anything of significance? Probably not. In fact, evidence suggests that he did not own any land, acquire an inheritance after Joseph’s death, or attempt to prosper financially from his ministry.
Jesus was all about living humbly and generously. If the church of the future could replicate Jesus’ attitude about money and encourage others to follow, then there might be a lot less hunger and poverty in the world.
Opportunity No. 6 – Repent from theological doctrines and practices that caused trauma to good people so that an inclusive gospel can welcome all of God’s children.
In conjunction with recalibrating our theology on love, mercy and grace, we need to repent of the damage we have already caused and to seek new paths that bring about restoration and wholeness.
From LGBTQ persons to people from other faith traditions, the Christian church has often used harsh rhetoric to dehumanize, and destructive practices to wreak havoc on people.
From this, we need to repent. In its place, we need to instill the sacred practices of hospitality, kindness and decency.
If the church of the future can be accepting, kind and decent to others, then God’s grace and hope will emerge for all.
Opportunity No. 7 – Stop treating God’s creation as an inanimate resource and start caring for the planet as a living resource contributing to human existence.
Some Christians believe that God created the earth for human consumption, instead of as a synergistic ecosystem. As caretakers of God’s creation, the church needs to be a global leader in encouraging and practicing environmental justice.
Instead of treating the earth as a never-ending resource at our disposal, we need to reinstate biblical practices that focus on responsible treatment of the lands and waters.
The earth is the most valuable resource we have. For it to remain renewable, we must do our part to care for and nurture it.
There is much to mourn about the decline of church membership across the country. The current trend does not look hopeful, as the church continues to slide into insignificance and irrelevance.
However, if we see this decline as an opportunity to adjust and rebuild, then the future of the church can be as bright as it was in the first century.
CEO of Good Faith Media.