The Demographic Destabilization of Institutional Christianity

Can you imagine the death of Christianity? Can you imagine a world without the Christian Church? For many anthropologists, the death of Christianity is merely an eventuality like it has been for most human religions throughout time. But for many believers, the death of Christianity is an impossibility. They are incapable of imaging the total annihilation of the Christian Church. And why not? New research suggests that the human brain is quite literally incapable of imagining (or even preparing for) its own death and annihilation, though it can easily conceive of other people’s demise. So, the death of something as integral to one’s identity as religion is likely to be just as hard to imagine.

Yet, this may prove extremely problematic for the Christian religion, especially since the Pew Forum just announced that Christianity is still in rapid decline while religious “nones” are quickly increasing.

If things continue unchanged and unchallenged, then the death of institutional Christianity is precisely what will happen. And believers won’t have to imagine it. They will be forced to live through it.

Since the publication of Kenneth Howard’s 2017 article, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” there has been an increasing demand to understand the root causes and historical foundations for why institutional Christianity is, in a word, dying. What Howard’s research indicates is that the percentage increase of new Christian denominations and worship centers is actually outpacing the plateaued percentage of Christian believers around the world. The inference being that churches and denominations are fragmenting (i.e. internally dividing due to conflict or other factors) faster than they are growing.

At its current rate of disintegration, institutional Christianity will have fragmented itself into near extinction by the end of the twenty-first century, having been reduced to miniscule and, thus, financially unsustainable and culturally uninfluential congregational tribes (the “religion singularity”).

The result of five years of research, two years of open-source review, and almost a year in peer review, “The Religion Singularity” traces the emergence and impact of a worldwide church demographic crisis that has recently entered a critical stage, but has been developing without attention for more than a century.

The crux of the crisis described in the article is this. For nineteen centuries, Christianity experienced strong and steady growth in the total numbers of Christians, worship centers, and denominations worldwide. Since then growth in the number of Christians has continued largely unchanged. But growth in the number of denominations and worship centers, mostly due to fragmentation and schism, turned sharply upward in recent decades, substantially exceeding the growth rate of the total Christian population.

This in turn will send attendance and membership numbers in every denomination into a free fall that will soon make denominations and churches unsustainable in their current institutional forms. Denominations are unlikely to survive in any form. Churches on the other hand, given their smaller size and more organic structure, worship centers may be more likely to survive the religion singularity than their larger counterparts, but only if they are willing to become vision-guided and experimental. Stated plainly, we are witnessing the death of institutional Christianity as we know it, and we have already passed the point of no return.

You can read Ken Howard's article for free as part of the Global Center for Religious Research's commitment to continued exploration into uncharted and unique areas of study.

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