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American Christianity faces dramatic change

Please forgive the blatant poaching of a phrase, but for Christians in the United States today, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

Churches are closing more and more often. For a time it seemed like it was the liberal and mainline churches who were being abandoned, but the conservative churches are facing the same trend. Yes, some churches here and there are dong well, but in general, in our society, churches are becoming more and more irrelevant and the biggest growth demographic is the “nones” — those with no affiliation.

Why? Everybody has a theory; no one knows for sure. Liberal politics, conservative politics, not adapting with the times, adapting too much with the times? I’ve heard everything from too many people being hurt by the church, to American Christians having a low birth rate. We’ll probably never have a simple answer for why this is happening.

But it is happening, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Much worse.

And that’s OK, because Christianity and the church will go on.

On March 25 in The New York Times, I read a column by David Brooks in which he wrote about how great it is to be a conservative right now, even though Donald Trump seems to be throwing an ideological hand grenade into the Republican Party.

Brooks cited Thomas Kuhn and his theory of paradigm shifts in science. As Brooks put it, “There’s a period of normal science when everybody embraces a paradigm that seems to be working. Then there’s a period of model drift: As years go by, anomalies accumulate and the model begins to seem creaky and flawed. Then there’s a model crisis, when the whole thing collapses. Attempts to patch up the model fail. Everybody is in anguish, but nobody knows what to do.”

That’s where the Republican Party is right now, according to Brooks. And, I think, where the church in America is too. And for both, it will probably get worse before it gets better.

Brooks thinks the Republican Party will next enter what Kuhn called the revolution phase: “During these moments you get a proliferation of competing approaches, a willingness to try anything. People ask different questions, speak a different language, congregate around a new paradigm that is incommensurate with the last.”

What this new paradigm will look like in the Republican Party or in the American church, no one knows. And here I’ll leave the Republican Party to Brooks and others in his field.

But I think the church in America will change dramatically, probably more than it has since the Protestant Reformation. Denominations could fall, and others could rise to take their place. Worship, the Bible and what it means to be a follower of Christ could all have radical, revolutionary, new interpretations. And then, the best of the new interpretations will have more and more believers coalesce around them, giving a new face to American Christianity.

A face those of us in the church today will barely recognize.

The process will be painful in ways we can’t foresee. And yet the church has survived many upheavals over the past 2,000 years.

It will survive, and something new will be born.

Those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ today, as we face this crisis in our lifetimes, need to have faith. Christ will lead us through to the other side.

After all, it’s not our church. It’s Christ’s. We’re just caretakers, along for the ride. And what a wild ride it will be.

Craig Rose is the pastor at Howard United Methodist Church.