What Will Happen to the Church in the 21st Century?

Locked into human history, the Church suffers like Christ did at the hands of worldly men. This is our tragedy — and our triumph.

(photo: Register Files)

Last summer I produced a 23-part podcast series on the history of the Church called Triumphs and Tragedies. The series was basically one episode per century, with a few extra episodes thrown in for very eventful centuries.

I produced the podcast because I sensed that many Catholics at this time are confused, bewildered, angry and upset at the condition of our Church. When we consider the whole drama of Church history we will realize that the troubles we face in our own time period are nothing new. In every age in one way or another the Church has been troubled by heresy and corruption within and persecution from without.

Jesus said it would be this way. He told his disciples that they would be persecuted, tortured, imprisoned and even killed. He said, “Unless you take up our cross and follow me you cannot be my disciple.” This was not one of the alternatives. This was a mandate.

So the Church has often faced both triumphs and tragedies. This is the great unfolding adventure of Christ’s Church in the world. Locked into human history, it suffers like Christ did at the hands of worldly men. This is our tragedy. This is also our triumph.

One of the truths that came clear as I researched and recorded Triumphs and Tragedies was the understanding that Church history unfolds in 500-year epochs. The first 500 years was that of the Roman Empire. The second 500 years were the Dark Ages where it seemed the Holy Spirit had left the Church, but during that time the Spirit was working behind the scenes in the establishment of the monastic system. The third epoch was the blossoming of all that took place in the previous epoch. This is the period of Christendom: the High Middle Ages. The third epoch begins in 1517 with the Protestant Revolution. This is the age of revolution, and we are coming out of that epoch into a new time of transition.

Many people listened to the Triumphs and Tragedies podcast and benefited from it. So this summer I decided to look to the future. My podcast is a weekly analysis of John Allen’s 2009 book The Future Church. We are not 10 years into John Allen’s future and it is worthwhile seeing where his predictions were accurate and where they missed the mark.

John Allen structures his book around 10 underlying trends that are shaping the future of the world and therefore the future of the Catholic Church. These trends are real, but they do not often make the headlines. Instead they are long term, big picture trends that are moving the Church like the tide moves a surfer. It is inexorable and powerful and below the surface.

These 10 trends will change the Catholic Church beyond our imagining and the change is already taking place. What got me thinking was the understanding of how we respond to the challenge of change. One of the basic instincts when faced with change we cannot control is to hunker down in our little comfort zones. We retreat and take cover. We build a little fortress where we shelter with like-minded people. If we are not careful we start to blame everyone else outside our little fortress. We blame them for the problems. We blame them for the change. Frightened by the challenge of change, we peer over the parapets and take potshots at everyone outside our little fortress.

The other extreme is that we embrace every change that comes along and so sacrifice stability for relevance. This is the tack of the modernists, and this extreme is also dangerous and damaging. This extreme opens the doors to every abuse, every sin, every heresy with an attitude of “tolerance” which is only another mask for relativism.

Instead we need to see the changes coming along and pray for discernment and wisdom. As Catholics we need to adapt where we must adapt and refuse to change on the matters which are eternal. To discern the way forward in times of transition is the work of prayer, thought, study and contemplation.

John Allen’s The Future Church does not have all the answers, but it provides statistics, analysis and projections into the future based on the facts. I am convinced from reading John’s book again that we are on the cusp of the most exciting period of Church history, that God has not abandoned his Church and that the changes we will see will be seismic in their effect and global in their reach.

The Church in the 21st century? I believe this is when we will at last complete the great commission. The faith will be spread throughout the world, but what that Christian religion will look like, how it will speak and how it will act is the great unknown and the great adventure.


You can listen to Triumphs and Tragedies and John Allen’s Future church at Fr. Longenecker’s website. Read his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com