By 2026, it’s pretty clear that Chico won’t be “chico” anymore. By this, I mean it won’t be small. It won’t be a quaint university town. Instead it’ll be an urban center in the midst of a swelling Butte County, full of problems and possibilities. My job here is to offer some reflections on what that growth in the next 20 years will mean for religious life. People of faith, when they imagine the population of Butte County increasing by the size of Chico, will probably range in responses from cold sweat to shouts of Hallelujah. I’m more in the second camp, but since Presbyterians aren’t generally given to religious enthusiasm, my mode instead will be to prepare for what’s to come. So I offer just four observations—and not necessarily my preferences—for the next two decades in this great county.
First of all, Butte County will see a greater religious diversity through the growth of Judaism, Islam, and new religious movements, as well as within the Christian church. In a world that’s violently divided along religious lines, this trend speaks for itself. Twenty years will also bring an increase in those not affiliated with any religious community. According to a telephone survey conducted by Bidwell Presbyterian Church (where I’m a pastor), we estimate that only around 5% of Chicoans between 15 and 25 call ours, or any, church their home. From a marketing perspective, that lack of “reach” is either cause for discouragement or excitement.
I’m convinced that technology, already a key player in my life as a pastor, will continue to play a great role in houses of faith. The worship trend in the past 20 years has been toward more electronic instrumentation, projected lyrics, and sophisticated audio and lighting systems. With the level of production Americans see on TV, it’s impossible for me to imagine ever going back. In addition, we’ll see greater use of the web, including blogging and podcasting (and, by 2026, their successors). A 2004 Pew survey found that 64% of internet users in this country, or 84 million Americans, use the web for religious purposes. I’ll let the Enterprise Record decide on the future of print media; nonetheless I’m certain that speaking one’s message in a house of worship won’t be the only way “to preach the Gospel.”
Less certain—but certainly intriguing—is the return to a parish model for houses of faith. By this, I mean that people will attend the house of worship in their neighborhood and conversely, the religious community will care for its locality’s concrete needs. (Full disclosure: Bidwell Presbyterian is currently in consultation with New Urban Builders to create a “satellite” church within the upcoming Meriam Park development.) I believe a faith community’s central mission is to those outside its walls and therefore see this as a boon. In other words, the day of the commuter church, sprouted in a suburb in which few of its members live, may be ending and with it the common religious detachment from concrete social concerns. Here I think the traditional African-American church provides a model: where the church offers daytime tutoring programs and revival preaching in the evening. (On a related note—and in tension with trend—is the increase in Chico real estate, which could bring economic stratification in Butte County. In response, worshipping communities in Chico will have to work harder to create economic and racial-ethnic diversity.)
One final observation comes from my years as a pastor in New York City: as Chico grows in complexity and sophistication, the great enemy of spiritual growth and participation in a faith community will be lack of time. Currently, it’s Chico’s love of the party—of drinking beer as we float in the pool, that kind of thing—which prevents people from committing to a life of faith. In 2026, it’ll probably also be that we’re stuck in traffic, making sure we take care of all our timesaving devices, and attending to the demands of a packed weekly schedule. This means that we’ll have to learn some Nos in order to say Yes to spiritual life.