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Megachurches, Private Worship Will Grow

For my last column of 1996, I thought it would be appropriate to tell you what’s ahead in the world of religion next year.

There will be plenty of changes, of course, but they should be relatively gradual.

I can predict with confidence that religious faith will continue to become a more private matter. Instead of joining that little neighborhood church for public worship, many people will continue to read their Bibles in the quiet of their homes, praying for world peace and their own well-being.

More people, too, will be reading tarot cards, rubbing crystals and meditating in the manner of the ancient masters. At the same time, megachurches will continue to grow and build larger worship spaces. This may appear to be a contradiction of major dimensions: big churches continuing to grow even as more people practice their religion in private.

But this isn’t the contradiction it seems, because in many large churches, the worship experience is really quite private. You can walk into those huge churches, sit down in a pew, worship and walk out the front door again without ever talking to another person.

It’s the very small churches, with 75 to 150 members - where people jump you the moment you walk in the door because they need new members so desperately - that will continue to decline.

Also, Islam will continue to grow in the United States, especially in the African-American community.

Buddhism will become even more Americanized as young American-born priests organize their own temples and meditative rituals.

In 1997, many of the new religions in the land - Scientology, the Moonies, the Church Universal and Triumphant and similar groups - will take another step toward becoming respectable.

The Catholic Church’s internal challenges will grow more strident in 1997 as dissident groups such as We Are Church and the Common Ground project of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin grow stronger.

And they will win some concessions even if they are only dialogues with top church officials.

In this day, the world of religion changes slowly. But we are amid a revolution that someday will be seen as the greatest climate for transformation since the Reformation.

While that era happened swiftly, this time of change will move slowly.

But today we are participating in one of the greatest power shifts in the history of religion.

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