On September 13, 2022, Pew Research released a report modeling the potential future of Christianity in the United States. In it, they developed a model to draw four possible futures for American Christianity.
Pew’s conclusion? By 2070, Christianity in the United States (all forms of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy, all racial and ethnic Christian communities in a single category) will be a minority faith in a nation with a majority of “nones.” In response, I offer seven risks worth taking for pastoral and congregational leadership.
The Pew research team insists that they aren’t prophets and that their formal demographic models are not set in stone. Yet they are convinced all probable futures will result in a far more religiously diverse America with a minority Christian population.
It is worth noting that September 22, 2022, marks the seventh anniversary of Phyllis Tickle’s death (1934-2015). You will remember her contributions as an author and religious publisher. Her most influential book, The Great Emergence, invites the church to think and act boldly about its future—traditions, theology, congregations, and practices. The Pew Report is an explicit confirmation of Tickle’s intuitive and history-based thinking about the future of Christianity in America.
In response, I offer seven risks worth taking for pastoral and congregational leadership. I know you can add to this list.
- Will you risk leading with your heart, from your inside out?
To lead with your heart is to live with “whole-heartedness” (Parker Palmer). Fall madly in love with God, with life, others, and yourself. Be passionate about the church and community you serve and take risks on its behalf. Before dying, no one has ever said, “I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving and self-protective life I lived.” Risk leading with passion. It is to lead out of your true self, your true center. Jesus describes this as the “water that I give you [which] will be a spring of water within you—welling up into infinite life” (Jn 4:14).
In the 21st century, churches must offer themselves to the world —
our energies, our gifts, our visions, our heart —
with open-hearted, full-throated, and unabashed generosity.
But understand that when we live and lead that way, we will soon learn how little we know and how easy it is to fail.
2. Might we risk failure? Will we learn to embrace it?
Pastors and church leaders are called to cultivate a “beginner’s mind,” to walk straight into our not-knowing, and to take the risk of failing and falling, again and again, then getting up, again and again, to learn — that’s the path to a life well-lived, in service of love, truth, and justice. It is to live with “whole-heartedness.”
To grow in great love and service presents great challenges. To do so,
we must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success.
Clinging only to what one already knows and does well is the path to an unlived life. As a child, my mother offered this commonsense wisdom, “Billy, we all fail, and even when we fall flat on our face, just remember, we’re still moving forward! So get up, and try again.” Even failure is a step forward!
3. Will we lead with vulnerability?
It is seductive for leaders to present themselves as the smartest ones in every room, almost “perfect and error-free.” Is it not true that pastors often expend undue energy covering up inadequacies, hiding limitations, or presenting a false façade? After failing more than once as a pastor, I learned that even if I were always the smartest one in the room, I was going to need to get more people in the room! Leaders cannot do it independently if the church is to thrive.
What might that look like?
Ask good questions rather than always having the right answers. Educators and psychologists agree that people who ask good questions are much more likely to be intelligent and innovative than those who always have answers.
Always having “the answer” is often nothing more than a cover
for low self-esteem, a fear of vulnerability,
and a need to dominate a conversation.
Remember Jesus as a little boy sitting among the teachers, “listening” and “asking questions.” As Jesus did, so must we.
4. Might we dare to lead collaboratively?
In recognizing our vulnerability, none of us should pretend we can “go at it alone.” When we ask others, “Can you help me with this? What are your thoughts on this issue? Are you willing to work on this with me?” we courageously express our vulnerabilities. Honest collaboration opens the door to curiosity and engagement.
Collaborative leadership builds strong, engaged teams with ministry staff and congregational leadership.
Involve people in decisions that affect them. Inviting more people to the table
to participate in decision-making creates more substantial buy-in,
builds leadership capabilities for the future,
and builds trust in the system.
Collaborative leaders celebrate and utilize diversity. At the Center, we recognize the value of diversity. The sharing of diverse gifts and ideas is the bedrock of innovation. When diverse perspectives are combined, discussions are richer, and the outcomes are not just productive but shared and compelling.
So, open the flow of information and watch as investment grows in the church’s life. Of course, as we invite more to the table, we will soon recognize varied gifts and sharing of unique stories and backgrounds of those who make up the Body of Christ.
5. Might we risk choosing unity over the desire for uniformity?
The scriptures remind us that the church is to relate to one another “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).
Too many church leaders lack the courage to enter or create opportunities for meaningful dialogue around issues that matter. We fear conflict. We live in “an age of polarization.” David Brubaker’s When the Center Does Not Hold offers relevant, practical help for today’s church leadership–tools and processes that can help you manage yourself and effectively lead others. I recommend it to you.
Today’s leaders must move toward the problems we face,
creating safe spaces and opportunities for open and honest engagement.
Healthy, holy, meaningful conversations around issues that matter is the way forward for today’s church. When we do, we will find better solutions. Conflict and creative dialogue serve as the “grain of sand in the oyster” to produce innovative new ideas, approaches, and solutions when focused on issues and not personalities.
Remember, Paul reminds us to seek “unity of the Spirit,” not uniformity.
6. Will we risk choosing abundance over scarcity?
An abundance mentality believes there is always more, not less, to come. Abundance thinkers are happy to share their knowledge, contacts, and compassion with others. They default to trust and build rapport quickly. They welcome competition, believing it makes the pie bigger and them better. They ask themselves, “How can I give more than is expected?” They are optimistic about the future, believing the best is yet to come. They think big, embracing risk. They are thankful and confident.
We know our brains are wired more toward the negative than the positive,
problem-solving before imaginative and possibility thinking. However,
we embrace our gifts choosing to become our best selves
to face the challenges of the future.
Does that sound like a church you want to be a part of?
7. Will we risk loving our “neighbor(hood)?”
Times of transition for the church offers tremendous opportunity. We can learn our greatest lessons during pain, loss, or crisis. It is here that we dare to change our minds. It is worth the risk.
At the Center, we challenge churches to be careful not to waste the crisis we find ourselves in. Churches benefit from asking such questions as these.
What is at the center of your attention and focus?
What guides the decisions you make?
What is your “why,” your primary reason for being?
What if we dare to align our finances, staff, facilities, and even how we “do church”
around the needs of those around us?
What if we dared to love our neighborhood?
What if we were known as the church that loves those right where we live and work?
In making such assessments, it’s not uncommon to find churches that are “building or Sunday”-centric, “finance or facilities”-centric, “pastor or staff”-centric, or “program-centric,” among others.
Thriving 21st-century churches are discovering a “mission-centric” stance that requires significant risk. What if mission-centric churches of all sizes, polities, and persuasions risked that one thing—to love God and their neighborhoods?