USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

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Thriving (or Just Surviving): 2023 Trends to Watch in Religion and Society

Thriving (or Just Surviving): 2023 Trends to Watch in Religion and Society

Thriving (or Just Surviving): 2023 Trends to Watch in Religion and Society

If CRCC’s annual trends to watch have been growing more ominous in recent years, then 2023 feels like a pivotal year for many of the issues we’ve been tracking: 

  • Will congregations recover after the trauma of the pandemic? 
  • Will Twitter survive Elon Musk? Or will alternative social media platforms provide a better home for thriving communities? 
  • What will become of all the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts spurred by the murder of George Floyd, now that racial justice is not making headlines? 
  • Locally, can progressive movements use newfound positions of power to make a dent in the social issues that plague Los Angeles?

Like our final (tongue-in-cheek) prediction about political prophecies, much hangs in the balance this year. Here is a look at where we see each of these trends moving.

For faith leaders, the state of emergency is not over, it has only shifted. 

Based on many conversations with clergy leaders and ministry groups, 2023 will be a defining year for faith groups, determining their ability to bounce back from the pandemic.

The nation has been on pins and needles since March 2020. While the official state of emergency was lifted in 2022, the year ended with a spike in COVID infections that sparked indoor COVID protocols being reinstated. Meanwhile, people’s habits around worship have changed over the course of the pandemic, sometimes irrevocably. 

For faith leaders, there are two looming questions: Is it possible to expect that congregational life will get better in terms of in-person attendance, ministry growth and congregations’ financial health? And do faith leaders have the capacity to guide congregations through these shifting times?

The high level of pastoral burnout and discouragement does not offer much optimism. As one Los Angeles pastor mentioned in a conversation about the state of the church, “No one is winning!” Even those congregations that managed to survive the pandemic “are just barely hanging on,” in terms of metrics for congregational vitality. 

Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, recently offered some encouragement for church leaders. Most churches are small, he said in an Instagram interview about his new book, noting that many see 20-25 people on a Sunday. But small congregations can still thrive, he added.

As CRCC’s Najuma Smith-Pollard likes to say, a “thriving remnant” can point the way to future possibilities. 

Choose your own virtual dystopia.

Last year’s person of the year, Elon Musk, became pariah of the year when he bought Twitter. Twitter’s spiral into a platform for misinformation and hate speech has caused a lot of people to rethink their social media engagement. Even Twitter’s founders have opened accounts on Mastedon, an open-sourced social networking platform in which individuals can host servers with their own rules, while connecting with other servers. 

There have always been alternative social media platforms–particularly those where conspiracy theories and racism thrive–but Twitter’s courting of right-wing users has left other users to look elsewhere. In addition to Mastedon, there’s BeReal, Post.News, Telegram and Discord. Such platforms will create spaces for people to come together around shared values and beliefs, helping organize virtual versions of “thriving communities,” particularly for those interested in less institutional forms of spirituality. The proliferation of social media platforms trying to be less crappy, however, also means the proliferation of silos. The big platforms, meanwhile, use algorithms to curate your feed into what will keep you coming back for more.

The pandemic taught us that virtual communities, as valuable as they can be, do not provide real fulfillment. And yet, people act contrary to their desires. We might take breaks from social media and say we want an IRL community, but we still log back on and seek connection in our preferred social media silo. 

While there are new alternatives to pick from, ultimately, our conclusions about the Metaverse last year haven’t shifted greatly: We are still playing in billionaire’s playgrounds, and technology continues to allow us to build our own virtual realities.

The nationwide reckoning on racial justice falters.

Since we started tracking trends annually in 2016, we have pointed to the rise and eventual commercialization and co-optation of our country’s most recent efforts to create racial justice, which peaked in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. This year, we see diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts gradually fading as they are subsumed into institutions, from organized religious and spiritual movements to university administrations to the seats of political power. 

DEI efforts are at least a better alternative than silence and indifference. Yet, without acknowledging and thwarting the ways that power seeks to privilege itself, institutions are doomed to recreate the inequities that DEI initiatives are meant to correct. The most obvious liability of the current DEI approach is that hiring a DEI consultant or appointing DEI professionals to key positions becomes merely performative, producing no real systems—level organizational change. More subtle is the tendency of individuals–including those who are members of minority groups—to seek privilege within hierarchies of power, a phenomenon that continues to play out in the Los Angeles City Council.

Meanwhile, the protests of 2020 also sparked a backlash against movements for racial justice in the form of “anti-woke” legislation at the state level. Conservatives have effectively worked to undermine Black Lives Matter organizations, including among previous supporters and allies. White resistance to calls for equity and accountability will likely get a boost this summer, when the conservative majority on the Supreme Court rules on the fate of affirmative action initiatives.

Without the radical reimagining of some white-dominated organizations and institutions—or their abandonment by non-white members—the problem of privilege will continuously spring up in all types of institutions, including well meaning faith groups. 

Los Angeles seeks to deliver on a progressive mandate in a right-leaning country.

After the corruption charges, blatant racism and lack of progress on critical issues coming from Los Angeles’ City Hall in recent years, a new set of city leaders are providing a reset for city politics. As the L.A. Times opined after the 2022 election, “L.A.’s new leaders and the incumbents have a mandate for change, and we’re hopeful they can deliver.”

Mayor Karen Bass and a number of the new city council members and other officials bring in a more progressive perspective to running Los Angeles. Grassroots organizers, including with faith communities, will have increased access and influence—and will need to take advantage of this opportunity. Now is the time to push for Eid, the Jewish High Holidays and the Lunar New Year to become city holidays (the Lunar New Year became a state holiday in California this year).

With a mandate from local voters and the rest of the country watching, these progressive politicians are under pressure to make a real dent in social issues plaguing the city, particularly homelessness and affordable housing. Of course these long-term issues were not created overnight and cannot be quickly undone. Nonetheless, Republicans already point to California and cities like Los Angeles as epitomizing all that is wrong with progressive policies. 

Meanwhile, moderates applaud Republican politicians simply for disavowing white supremacy and not supporting insurrection, a low bar. What now appears to be reasonable is still deeply conservative, and not in alignment with voter’s stance on issues from abortion to poverty reduction. As our political parties shift, we will be watching how Los Angeles’ progressive efforts are received both locally and nationally. 

Let the prophecies…wait.

The first candidate entered the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nominee months ago, and he is already getting restive. Why? God has yet to tell His people that this candidate will win the nomination (and yes, God is a He—definitely not a they/them).

Our prophecy? 

God will reveal this highly sensitive information to His prophets on March 5, 2024, which just happens to be Super Tuesday. Once it is clear who His people want to be president, God and His appointed prophets will throw all their predictive power behind the Republican nominee, no matter who it is, and their followers will vote accordingly. 

Here at CRCC, we do have some inside intel from the Big Guy, though: God can really see Himself getting behind Sarah Huckabee Sanders in 2028, if she keeps on doing His work, like banning Critical Race Theory in schools in Arkansas (see above).

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