I have been though many Protestant traditions in my life, and I have diligently observed the spiritual landscape for many years. Even though my observations amount to anecdotal evidence, I am engaged enough with Christian discourse to possibly form a pretty accurate estimation on how the next few decades will play out in America. Based on my observations, the future doesn’t look good for Protestantism, but it does look good for unity.
I did this with politics, and I ended up predicting the Trump victory in the general election against all expert predictions. That has to mean something, right? Eh, maybe not. We’ll see. Though the Trump victory is not in a vacuum, it has religious implications as well. More on that later.
Anyway, here is my current forecast…
Reforming the Reformation
Millennials are tired of ‘black and white’ perspectives, so the demographic is conditioned to favor a nuanced Christian ‘other,’ rather than something familiar but tasteless. Millennials might be the most open-minded and ‘search-oriented’ demographic, being the first generation to be children on the internet. This makes them much more likely to weigh their religious options and research another perspective. Being the internet generation also makes Millennials more likely to intentionally encounter other perspectives online than previous generations.
Baby Boomers will likely always choose comfort and stay put, but many of the educated Gen Xers (having much of the same discontentment as Millennials) and some of the Boomers will wonder what the Millennials (their children) are doing and get cautiously curious. Protestantism as I see it could decline more in the next decade (2020-2030) than the past five decades combined.
According to Pew Research, Protestantism as a whole declined almost 7% from 2007-2014. That number could easily spike suddenly, especially with a President Trump, who is already on very thin ice among the most conservative Republicans, let alone the liberal-leaning Millennial Protestants who are trying desperately to separate themselves from the social failures of Evangelicalism.
I see the more educated and theologically-minded Protestant groups (Anglicans, Presbyterians, Southern Baptists, etc.) being able to somewhat predict the crisis they’re about to face. However, instead of leaving their traditions, they will seek to double-down on their convictions, but at the same time seek to dialogue with other Christian groups to a greater extent. They will desperately try to find ways to unite the fragmented individualistic denominationism like a mosaic. The only thing I can see happening is leaders of multiple denominations come together to borrow the framework of an Ecumenical Council to establish a kind of ‘mere Christianity’ that every Protestant can agree upon without having to actually enter real communion with Orthodoxy or Catholicism.
However, such efforts will be fruitless and vain, because without a genuine historical continuity, it would be yet another fragmentation that is posing as a mosaic. Not only that, but the Enlightenment individualism that is inherent within Protestant thought will prevent any true ecumenical unity from being a reality. When it comes to spiritual authority, the ecclesiastical individualism must first be transformed into holism for there to be any hope of real unity.
I see the population of Mainline Protestantism dissolving alongside Evangelicalism, as more and more people (primarily Millennials age 25+) leave for more ancient and authentic traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican) that are more stable, historically rooted, and nuanced. This will especially be true for Millennials who do not yet have children, since a drastic spiritual move is more difficult with the more people involved.
I see many Charismatic and Pentecostal Millennials leaving their tradition for the Eastern Orthodox Church, because they discern a lack of discernment and guidance in their traditions on how to understand and live in the spiritual realm. Many in these traditions are already reading about the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
I see many Anglicans becoming Orthodox as well, as Anglicanism is often a bridge between the West and Constantinople. For many people, camping out on a bridge isn’t enough, so they cross it.
I do think many departing Protestants will become religious nones, but I also think it has probably peaked at this point. I don’t see many Protestants still struggling with the problems that came with the ‘culture Christianity’ of previous generations (since the common view now is that America is not a Christian nation). I think the majority of those people have probably already left. The rest are those who are tired of status quo Protestantism. They are tired of hearing Michael W. Smith on Christian radio stations and singing Chris Tomlin and Hillsong on Sundays. They are tired of fog machines and rock concerts. The dopamine has run dry, and they want the party to end already. They are tired of DIY Christianity, with everyone figuring everything out for themselves as they go along. They are tired of Christianity being perceived as married to the Republican Party. They are tired of religious fundamentalism. They are tired of smiley-preacher pep talks. They are tired of being told gospel tracts, bumper stickers, and street preaching are valid substitutes for actually developing relationships, etc.
I could go on and on about the various things that tire many Protestants, but the main point is that there is a void, and Millennials are noticing it quickly because of their easy access to historical information. What was once a physical trip to the Library is now a tap of the thumb. Educational podcasts are being devoured faster than any College Professor could physically teach. Millennial (Protestant) pastors are reading and appealing to Church History more than their predecessors. Protestant blogs posts are using more and more featured images of Byzantine iconography. Articles of saintly hagiography (such as St. Nicholas, St. Patrick, and St. Athanasius) are sprouting everywhere. Millennials are also very familiar with the chaos of divorce more than previous generations, so the demographic is subsequently more desirous of unity.
I see the Orthodox growing rapidly in their ability to advertise their faith in America (largely due to Protestant converts who understand how to engage American culture). The creation of Ancient Faith Ministries was a revolutionary step in the process of East-West dialogue. The creation of Ancient Faith Podcasts could not have come at a more appropriate time, and many Millennials will become Orthodox from podcasts alone. Of the three main traditional-liturgical forms of Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal), I believe the Orthodox will have the greatest population increase in America simply because they don’t have as much baggage.
The data seems clear, Millennials are seeking roots, and the simple fact is they know innately that Protestantism isn’t going to satisfy such a thirst because it is an ecclesiastical innovation of the West that has no home in the ancient Church. The only logical conclusion from this information is that there will be a Millennial exodus from Protestantism in the coming years. The more engaged and educated Millennials will leave first and completely change the dialogue (I believe this is already happening now), and their friends and family members will slowly understand over time in conversation.
American culture is paradoxical. The election of Donald Trump showed me that we have never been more divided. Yet, at the same time, we have never been more united. People are changing political affiliations now more than ever. In one moment, White Supremacist movements are becoming more emboldened in their racist separatism. In the next moment, the conservative Glenn Beck is suddenly repenting for his past opinions, and having friendly conversations with the liberal Samantha Bee. The nation is both growing in division and unity at the same time.
I write this piece not because I want to see Protestantism crash and burn, but because I genuinely think these things have a real possibility of coming true in the coming years. I long for unity among Christians, and I pray for unity often. And I don’t mean unity like, “we both think Jesus is a pretty cool dude,” and disagree about literally everything else. I mean unity like, “we both share the same Eucharist, liturgy, and theology every Sunday, even if we disagree on a few things.” That is real unity, and that is real hope.
I don’t think we should settle for anything less.