Theologian: The future of the church is local


In Europe, the number of church members is declining – but Christianity remains strong worldwide. However, the structures do not remain stable, but are constantly changing.

Thomas Schlag is Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Zurich, where he heads the Centre for Church Development, where he conducts research into participation and church development.

In this interview, he talks about the future of global Christianity and how it will change.

Decline of Christianity

Question: Mr Schlag, Christianity around the world is very colourful: in Latin America, for example, indigenous traditions are coming into focus, while small new free churches are sprouting up in South Korea. Can general trends be identified despite this diversity?

Schlag: A general trend is the decline of a certain form of institutional Christianity, with traditional structures in terms of hierarchy and authority.

This also means that this usually somewhat more liberal form of Christianity seems to be becoming a minority position worldwide.

As part of our research, a major study has just been published on the so-called International Christian Fellowship (ICF) an evangelical movement.

It attracts relatively large numbers of younger people, particularly in Switzerland and southern Germany.

It shows a tendency that we discover again and again: it is all about clarity. A demand for clarity and a reduction in complexity.

These movements are currently successful – worldwide.

In the USA, but also in South Africa and South Korea – I have a better understanding of these contexts – we find such movements. And in societies that are explicitly modern and characterised by world experience, modernity, globality and digitality.

In any case, the old thesis that the more modern a society becomes, the more secular it becomes, cannot really be upheld. In fact, I think it is simply wrong.


Question: So a simple faith is in demand right now, even in modern societies. Is the world becoming too complicated for people and are they looking for simple answers? There is also this thesis with regard to political populism.

Schlag: You can actually get that impression. A world that is constantly accelerating – and then cuts like corona.

Many people want a place where one question is not followed by ten more. Instead, they want clear paths.

This is also evident in our ICF study. I had previously thought that people go to this free church primarily because of the special community.

That was also important, but the sermons were obviously the biggest attraction. Because these are not the classic liberal sermons with a doctrinal character. Rather, they are everyday lectures. The language and metaphors clearly focus on everyday life.

The point is: if you take this or that path, then you are cutting a swathe through the forest of complexity with Jesus Christ.


Question: There are two groups of free churches: Hillsong Church, which originated in Australia, mainly attracts people who have not had much to do with religion before – the sermons are correspondingly simple and superficial.

However, in African countries, for example, many people are turning to the free churches, who certainly have a solid knowledge of religion. How is it that this programme appeals to these two such different groups?

Schlag: For those who have not previously belonged to a church community, the programme is low-threshold. It is an elementary approach, concepts become clear, even for someone who has never heard of it before.

For example, parables or a word of Jesus are presented in such an attractive way, which also has something to do with the rhetorical style.

The aforementioned ICF study also provided exciting insights into those who are already able to speak in church: According to this, a high proportion of highly qualified people are involved there.

In other words, these are people who know how complicated the world is. But they appreciate the fact that the sermons are easy and quick to grasp because the content is clear. So this idea applies to both groups.

There are always one or two small thoughts that you can take with you into everyday life. So this also has great practical relevance. Then of course there is the social network, where personal contacts and recognition await.

In contrast, many popular church institutions have not yet realised that you can’t just declare community as an offer, you have to shape it in a targeted way. This mixture of simple messages and the way out of the singularity of the anonymous big city is what makes it so appealing.

Clarity and relevance

Question: Does that mean that even highly educated people want to have something to switch off spiritually once a week without having to think about it?

Schlag: Yes, with all the ambivalences that this also triggers theologically. Because the visitors there also realise that if the world really were that simple, some questions would not arise.

It’s more about this experience of clarity and practical relevance.

Evangelicals have repeatedly criticised the established churches for linking faith and intellectuality in an exciting way, but not fulfilling their emotional needs.


Question: Does this also have to do with the sometimes almost civil servant-like nature of the established church hierarchy?

Schlag: I think it’s more of a self-imposed attitude: the more complicated life is, the more complicated theology becomes.

It is a problem that the established churches no longer manage to break down this complicated reality and put into simple words what it is actually about. It has to be well thought out and reflected upon – I wouldn’t go below that level.

But it has to be generally understandable. Traditional communities have not yet adapted to the changes in society. There is still the image of the service church that is available and waiting for people to need it.

But many people today choose what form of community and education they want – regardless of what their parents’ and grandparents’ generation does. There is a global trend towards smaller, more manageable community structures where people feel welcome.

This doesn’t just apply to the church.

Modern urban planning has also noticed that neighbourhoods in urban areas are becoming more important and people are looking for a way out of urban anonymity.

The established churches urgently need to consider what culture they have to offer. Read more

  • Christoph Paul Hartmann is an editor for the newsletter
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