Jayeel Cornelio – “The Global Challenges of the Church of the Future”

Jayeel Cornelio

“The Global Challenges of the Church of the Future”

Concilium 2018-4. Kirche der Zukunft
Concilium 2018-4. The Church of the Future
Concilium 2018-4. La Iglesia del futuro
Concilium 2018-4. L’Église du futur
Concilium 2018-4. La Chiesa del futuro
Concilium 2018-4. A Igreja do Futuro

Thierry-Marie Courau OP, Stefanie Knauss et Enrico Galavotti (eds)


There are two master narratives concerning the future of Christianity. One is optimistic, the other pessimistic. The optimistic outlook claims that the Church will emerge triumphant. Against all odds, the Church will fulfill its divine mandate to evangelize and convert. The pessimistic view, on the other hand, anticipates its inevitable decline. It contends that Christianity, like any religion, will lose its influence in the future.

Prophetic visions of the Church are repeatedly rehearsed depending on one’s religious predispositions. But convictions are not enough in thinking about its future. One reason is that the Church is not a monolithic institution. A sociological view sees it not as a mystical body of Christ, but organizational configurations that take different forms as local congregations, denominations, parishes, and bureaucracies. Christianity, in addition, has many traditions. The most dominant is Catholicism, which constitutes 50% of the world’s Christian population of more than 2 billions1. Protestantism and Orthodox Christianity constitute 37% and 12%, respectively. 1% come from other Christian groups. Individuals in these communities have theological persuasions and practices that compete with one another. The movement of people and ideas brings these tensions all the more to the surface, which is why it is more useful to talk about global Christianities in the plural2.

At the same time the Church is embedded in a wider environment. This means that inasmuch as it proclaims timeless truths, it has to contend with broader changes at the level of society. This is why social contexts need to be factored in when trying to understand the place of the Church in the future. These contexts are social concerns of continuing importance for society and religion. They are arenas of uncertainty. Scholars in foresight studies maintain that uncertainty, which ‘problematizes decision making in the present’, can inform what is said about the future and how it is to be achieved3. While spelling out these contexts in full is impossible, a few are identifiable that will remain compelling in the years to come.

The social contexts I intend to discuss here are salient qualities of global society: inequality and generational shifts. These are two of the global challenges of the Church. They present themselves as opportunities for the Church to lend its institutional and cultural resources4. Indeed, it needs to exert its influence because the way global society is mostly organized by secular institutions sidesteps the potential contributions of religion5. At the same time, this approach is in keeping with the view that the Church is a global phenomenon. It is a complex institution, alongside businesses, non-government organizations, and other actors in civil society that make globalization possible.

This article proceeds as follows. The first part will deal with the global condition of Christianity. It spells out the different facets of the Church as a global phenomenon. It complicates the prevailing view that Christianity is moving to the global south. The second part will focus on two inescapable challenges: generational shifts and global inequality. While not exhaustive, their respective discussions will provide some nuances regarding the issues at stake at a global level. Taken together, these challenges reveal the limits of globalization as a hopeful process. And yet they point back to the potential contributions of the Church. Thus the shape of the Church of the future is yet to be seen. While Christian thought offers a triumphalist eschatology, the Church of the future, in a sociological sense, is instead actively achieved. Put differently, the Church of the future is not a given; it has to be imagined and constructed if it were to be desirable.

1. Church as a global phenomenon

A common theme in writings about the future of Christianity is that it is moving to the global south, which roughly constitutes Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The projection is that by 2050, 72% of Christians will come from these regions6. Although this view has become commonplace, it needs to be interrogated. The most recent statistical data show that by 2060, Christianity will maintain its global proportion of 31.8%. It was 31.2% in 2015. What supports the claim is the noticeable decline in Europe from 24% to 14% and in North America from 12% to 9%.

But the growth is uneven in the global south. The biggest growth for Christianity will take place among the people of sub-Saharan Africa from 26% to 42% in the same period. By contrast, the same growth is not expected in Latin America where in fact it goes down from 25% to 22% and in the Asia-Pacific where it remains unchanged at only 13%. At the same time the claim overlooks the trends in other religions. Islam’s global proportion, for example, will pick up its pace from 24.1% to 31.1%, thus matching Christianity by 20607.

In this regard the claim that the Church is moving to the global south puts aside crucial nuances. It is also analytically problematic. The north-south divide is, for one, geographically inaccurate. A big proportion of countries in Asia is in the northern hemisphere. Moreover the divide reeks of ethnocentrism. That Christianity grows in the global south is associated with economic backwardness. It is not surprising, for example, that Pentecostalism, which is quite expansive in these regions, is wrongly associated with only the poor. To illustrate, Pentecostalism takes different forms around the world. El Shaddai, a charismatic group in the Philippines, is a gathering of urban poor Catholics. And yet there are many other charismatic fellowships that attract middle-class young professionals in the country and elsewhere.

Thus a re-orientation is needed in understanding the state of the Church. The global connections and tensions need to be investigated carefully; Christianity is not strictly confined to national configurations. One way of thinking about this point is in terms of religious networks. Missionary networks are not only regional in orientation. The movement of missionaries remains global. While many missionaries still come from North America, as in the case of Protestant groups, missionary networks have become diverse. The phenomenon of postcolonial missionary work is a good example. In many cases these are pastors who come from postcolonial societies to minister to their own people who have migrated to, say, Europe. This of course does not discount the big role of African and Asian clergy serving in Western congregations.

The global connections are also in terms of congregational and even parachurch alliances. The most obvious example is represented by international Bible societies that are very ecumenical in character. Catholic and Protestant groups in different countries work together to publish and distribute Bibles around the world. Megachurches are another example. They are part of global alliances that make possible the circulation of their preachers and worship leaders. As a result, these religious groups adopt the same theological persuasions and even the same repertoire of songs. Similarly, religious networks sustain global religious events. While clearly initiated by the Catholic Church, the World Youth Day is a prime example of a global event that attracts youth from different religious backgrounds. The success of the event relies on wide networks of youth workers, an obvious manifestation of the global scale of contemporary Christianity.

But the significance of global religius networks for the life of the Church is not only about scale. These networks make it possible for religious movements to emerge. Charismatic Christianity is a very good example of a religious movement that influences parishes and congregations of different traditions around the world. It relies on complex networks of evangelists, seminaries, publications, and websites. The same can be said of social movements related to such issues as climate change, human rights, and religious freedom. Faith-based activists rely on global networks to address what they believe are issues about which the Church cannot be silent8. Global networks are thus not only about expanding institutional membership. They make more pronounced the ability of local communities to respond collectively to global concerns. The character of the Church of the future rests on how its actors are able to do so.

2. Global challenges

The previous section discussed how far the Church is a global phenomenon. This section discusses two of its global challenges: generational shifts and global inequality. They are constellations of present-day concerns already affecting the Church. But because they are long-term concerns they also provide various possibilities for the Church. That these challenges are global also means that the Church of the future will continue to assert its global presence through its reaction to these challenges.

The point is that the influence of the Church is not a given; it is achieved. After all, religious communities must ‘reflect on globalisation by filtering its perceived impact on their activities and place in the world’9. This section is not an exhaustive discussion of all the challenges in a global context but are illustrative of global concerns that affect not just Christianity but also other religions and social spheres. Other scholars have focused instead on specifically religious issue such as, say, interreligious tensions10.

(a) Generational shifts

The first global challenge has to do with generational shifts; age patterns have social consequences. The median age of Christians around the world is 30, which is a little above the overall median age of 2811. One can say that Christians are generally young, but regional differences have to be considered. The youngest Christian populations are in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia-Pacific. By contrast, the median ages of Christians in Europe and in North America are much higher.

Some observers have used these data to suggest that the youth of the global south will determine the interests of the Church of the future. One problem with such a claim is that the religious lives of young people in Latin America, Asia, and Africa are not homogeneous. In fact, the youth in the global north cannot be essentialized either. The liberal-conservative stereotype about the north-south divide is inadequate in capturing the complex religious lives of young people today.

Such complexity is revealed when one considers what is at stake for the Church: abortion, same-sex marriage, cohabitation, divorce, celibacy, and the leadership of women and LGBT. In discussing each of these issues, context matters especially because religious and moral dispositions are shaped by the broader social environment, which, apart from age, includes ethnicity, class, geography, and denomination. My goal in this discussion will thus be modest. Two issues are explored here: changing religiosities and changing moral views.

In terms of changing religiosities, a pattern is discernible in the West, especially in North America: the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. In fact, in 2015, 35% of Americans below 30 years old did not have any religious affiliation. This figure increased faster than researchers anticipated. What is interesting about these ‘Nones’, as they are called in the literature, is that they are not militant atheists. They have their own spiritual practices – including prayer – that draw inspiration from different traditions and philosophies. An intriguing fact: 70% were raised in religiously affiliated families, most of whom are Christian12. But such spiritual explorations are not necessarily unique to American youth. My own work on Filipino Catholic youth shows that they, too, are flexible about their religious convictions and practices13. Although they consider themselves Catholic, they draw inspiration from various religious resources. In addition, many of them may not attend Mass regularly but are active in community engagements where they find religious meanings. While these Catholics have a clear religious affiliation and Nones do not, these two groups share discernible commonalities. Whereas Nones are choosing their religion, the Catholics I interviewed are reinterpreting religion in ways that make it meaningful on their own terms. Their case complicates the stereotype that Christianity in the global south is by default pious and conservative.

How moral worldviews are changing for the Church’s youth around the world is also complex. I have mentioned a few controversial issues above. But for the sake of discussion, same-sex marriage is worth considering because it grabs the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike. The global divide over this issue is typically associated with economic advancement. Rich welfare states have legalized same-sex marriage, setting the international norm for developing countries. But a generational pattern is also noticeable. Young people in North America, Australia, and western Europe are more open to same-sex marriage than adults. Is the same pattern discernible elsewhere? The general trend might be that Catholic and Protestant groups outside the West maintain their resistance to same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that there are now LGBT-friendly Christian communities in such places as Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Mexico, and even Nigeria. These communities are attracting young people who consider themselves affirming and open-minded. They might constitute only a minority at this point but their situation is indicative of the shape of the Church of the future. Same-sex marriage and other related concerns such as the appointment of LGBT leaders in Christian communities will be a battleground as the international norm is set in place by legal structures. Young people are very much part of these tensions.

(b) Global inequality

The other challenge that the Church of the future faces is global inequality. In spite of the World Bank’s goal of shared prosperity for all, social realities point to a different future: the ageing of developed societies, the emergence of new geopolitical conflicts, the fractures of the welfare system, and the rise of right-wing politics and violent extremism are all tied to social inequality or disparities in income and access to basic goods and services. Attempts to address inequality through science and technology are welcome but far too often they benefit the affluent first. In addition, the world’s poor are most vulnerable to disasters and climate change that exacerbate inequality14. There is no sign that any of these problems will fade out soon.

How is global inequality affecting the Church though? The answer lies in what it means to be Church. One understanding is to associate Church with global social action. Churches in developed countries have been involved in addressing inequality around the world. Their missions are often accompanied by humanitarian work. There are also Christian humanitarian organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and World Vision. They are part of the global tapestry of the Church. But at the door of the Church in the West are many glaring instances of global inequality, chief of which is the concern about immigrants and refugees. Some Christian groups have been on the defensive, while others have been very responsive. The Church is very much implicated in politics of inclusion and exclusion.

Theological discourses are another example for how global inequality affects the Church. The growth of Christianity among the poor in developing countries might explain some shifts in theology. Liberation theology may have generally weakened in the wake of neoliberalism but there are permutations in relation to specific issues. Parishes and faith-based organizations draw inspiration from Catholic Social Teaching, for example, to bring back human dignity to global debates about climate change and epidemics. But it needs to be emphasized that the global south is not all poor. The expansion of the middle class has paved the way for a self-driven theology that focuses on salvation, spiritual growth, and character to frame such biblical concepts as discipleship and calling. In some cases, this theology comes close to prosperity preaching. In contrast to their activist counterparts, such communities, however, are not necessarily political. The extent of their political involvement, as in the case of megachurches in Singapore, has to do with the defense of the heteronormative family. In Hong Kong, many Christian leaders have distanced themselves from democratic protests led by the youth.

I end this section by connecting global inequality and generational shifts. Presenting a coherent picture of what the Church does in relation to these issues is impossible because local contexts still matter. As the examples above show, some patterns are glaring, while others are still emerging. The crucial point is that uniformity is not to be expected from the Church of the future. One reason is that there are hot-button issues that will continue to divide Christian communities and individuals. Same-sex marriage and attitudes to prosperity are two significant examples.

At the center of these developments are the youth and what religion means to them. Young people deserve attention not only because the Church is relatively young in terms of demographics but also because they are the leaders of the Church of the future. Will they still be around? Indeed, within their group we find greater flexibility towards religious beliefs, practices, and even affiliation. Theirs is an ethos that owes much to personal experience and an ongoing search for authenticity. This means that the hierarchy of the Church and its promulgations do not immediately earn their respect or submission. Unfortunately, it does not help that the hierarchy has to face numerous accusations of patriarchy, clericalism, and even corruption.

Young people are also at the center of global inequality. While there are those who are enjoying the prosperity of economic growth in some parts of the world, many others are disenfranchised not by choice but by heightened vulnerabilities. The illustrations above have shown that inequality exists not only between but also within countries. These experiences color young people’s response to the Church, which can either draw from its resources to respond or simply back off.

The realization here is that whatever the Church does or does not do can spell the extent of its relevance to today’s youth. In this light, the Church of the future is an achievement because it first depends on what the Church does now in relation to its future leaders. But at the same time the Church of the future rests on whether young people themselves find inspiration from its resources in the here and now.


This paper began by spelling out the global character of the Church. The prediction that Christianity will move to a specific region is not consistent with the state of affairs. It is one thing to rely on statistical data. But statistical data betray the otherwise rich engagements that the Church as a network of congregations, parishes, missions, and movements is accomplishing around the world. What this shows is that inasmuch as the demographic profile of the typical Christian may be changing, the Church’s incarnation in other parts of the world has not fizzled out. The character of the Church of the future is tied to the complex processes of globalization.

It does not mean, however, that the future of the Church is secure with global society. On the contrary, it needs to establish its position again and again. This is because the most pervasive systems of global society have a tendency to marginalize religion. The global and secular systems of capitalism, international relations, and the scientific enterprise have taken over much of the conventional tasks of religion in welfare, education, and even everyday life. In this light, the active networks discussed above are performative attempts by the Church to assert its presence as a worthwhile institution in contemporary global society15. It has successfully created communities and fostered new identities. The Church of the future needs to imagine how it can continue to take advantage of these networks to sense and address global challenges. Young people are implicated in however the Church chooses to respond.

The sociological analysis that underpins this paper aligns with how Pope Francis understands the world today as a polyhedron, a community of many identities. In his view, the globalization of the Church must be reworked not as a mode of colonization from the center that homogenizes every place it reaches. The Church of the future can benefit from a polyhedral perspective. It recognizes many modes of differences that are not only cultural. This article has framed these differences in terms of generational shifts and global inequality. These challenges demand humility from those who constitute the Church of today. Such an attitude resists the arrogance of a triumphalist eschatology. The Church of the future is contingent upon the Church of today that listens and responds to the world it inhabits.


This article presents the global challenges that matter to the Church of the future. The first part traces the different facets of the Church as a global phenomenon. It complicates the prevailing view that Christianity is moving to the global south. The second part focuses on two challenges: generational shifts and global inequality. While not exhaustive, the discussion will provide some nuances regarding the issues at stake at a global level. The character of the Church of the future rests on how it responds to these present-day issues that will linger in the years ahead.


Jayeel Cornelio is the Director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. He is currently a visiting professor at the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His first book is Being Catholic in the Contemporary Philippines: Young People Reinterpreting Religion (Routledge, 2016). With Jose Mario Francisco, SJ, he is currently writing a monograph on popular Christianity for Paulist Press. A co-editor of the journal Social Sciences and Missions, Cornelio was named one of the 2017 Outstanding Young Scientists of the Philippines.


Director, Development Studies Program
Ateneo de Manila University
Loyola Heights
Quezon City Philippines 1108


  1. Pew Research, The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050, Pew Research Center, 2015, p. 231.
  2. H. Cox, ‘Thinking globally about Christianity’, M. Juergensmeyer (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions, Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 245.
  3. C. Selin, ‘The Sociology of the Future: Tracing Stories of Technology and Time’, Sociology Compass 6 (2008), p. 1885.
  4. J. Beckford, ‘Globalisation and Religion’, V. Altglas (ed.), Religion and Globalization: Critical Concepts in Social Studies, vol. 3, London and NY: Routledge, 2011, p. 46.
  5. P. Beyer, Religion and Globalization, London: Sage, 1994, p. 71.
  6. P. Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. xi.
  7. Pew Research, The Changing Global Religious Landsape, Pew Research Center, 2017, p. 10, 29.
  8. J. Beckford, ibid., p. 5.
  9. dem.
  10. H. Cox, ibid., p. 252.
  11. Pew Research, ibid., p. 66.
  12. E. Drescher, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 8.
  13. J. Cornelio, Being Catholic in the Contemporary Philippines: Young People Reinterpreting Religion, London and New York: Routledge, 2016, p. 76.
  14. J. Urry, Climate Change and Society, Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity, 2011, p. 6.
  15. P. Beyer, ibid., p. 71-72.