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5 Ways the Church Will Change

Is the American church fading away? Will the losses in membership and attendance lead to a marginalized church presence such as that in present-day Europe? What will the American church look like in ten years?

Church leaders, denominational executives, and religion researchers gathered in Colorado recently to examine the church’s health and prognosis. The Future of the Church Summit was sponsored by Group Publishing.

After evaluating current trends, Summit members predicted a number of likely scenarios for the American church in the next ten years:

  1. Emphasis on relationships. Whereas the church and congregational worship today are largely spectator-oriented, the new coming trend will prioritize spiritual growth through personal relationships.
  2. Return to Jesus. The current church is preoccupied with the “ABCs”—attendance, buildings and cash. A Summit pastor said, “We need to deal with the idols of the church.” The coming church will highly focus its mission, goals, measurements and message on Jesus.
  3. Community focus. The church of tomorrow will be much more engaged in addressing the needs in the community. The church will be known more for its members’ relational acts of compassion outside of church walls, taking ministry out rather than waiting for outsiders to come in and sit.
  4. Conversationally oriented. The current church relies primarily on one-way messaging—from the preacher/teacher at the microphone. The new church will rely more on person-to-person conversation, sharing messages of God’s love with one another. Churches will begin to trade pews for conversation tables.
  5. Rise of the laity. Shrinking resources will trigger fewer paid ministry positions—and more reliance on unpaid ministry work. The concept of “the priesthood of all believers” will re-emerge.

Scott Thumma from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research shared data showing waning church attendance, the aging of congregational membership and the exodus of young people. The churches that are bucking the downward trends tend to be either small (fewer than 200 members), or very large (more than 2,000 members).

Thumma also cited that congregations’ financial health has declined significantly over the past decade. In 2000 31 percent of congregations exhibited excellent financial health. By 2010 only 14 percent showed excellent financial health.

Congregations with high spiritual vitality dropped from about 43 percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2010, according to Thumma.

To transition to the future, Thumma suggested congregations take a number of actions: create a listening team; get rid of the concept of church committees; learn how to be the church outside of Sunday morning.

Neil Howe, author of “Millennials Rising” and “The Fourth Turning,” told Summit attendees that aging Boomers are shaping churches in a direction that young adults in the Millennial generation reject. He said Millennials are looking for environments that emphasize a sense of authentic community, variety of experiences, doing good deeds together, and student-centered learning (not teacher-focused).

Summit participants heard author Reggie McNeal predict that no one model of ministry will characterize the church of tomorrow. Rather, several different models will emerge to connect with the diverse American culture.

And British church leader and consultant Mike Breen doubted that the American church would go the way of Europe, where the church has withered. He indicated that America’s entrepreneurial spirit will provide the drive and the flexibility for the church to survive and thrive in the future.

(Thom Schultz is the co-author of Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, and the director of the film When God Left the Building.)

21 Responses to “5 Ways the Church Will Change”

  1. I say, “Praise God!” I’m ready for the change…I’m tired of how the church as been operating. It’s time for revival!

  2. From Danny Tentseller Wong in Toronto:
    It is an observed trend in the Asian ethnic churches in Canada. The younger generation is leaving traditional church toward congregations that emphasize the five points brought up. It is the fault of the traditional church with their ABCs and playing guardian of the faith. The younger generation is without any relationship to the traditional church.

  3. Bring it, Jesus!

  4. From Scott James:
    “Respectfully disagree… My family is currently is missing the beautiful music that use to be a part of the church!… We miss the bell choir, the choir, the incidental instruments played through out the mass. I don’t necessarily need a rock and roll Jesus … Nor want one! I would prefer a more traditional service with a smattering of new stuff interjected… Instead of tradition and history being thrown out for something that is conciderd.. cool flashy, or trendy just to appeal to the youth.”

  5. I do not see anything in the five points that acknowledges God, his greatness as Creator, Sustainer, Sovereign King, Holy Lord God Almighty. Are we going to trade in God for this more relavant model of relationship, service and conversation? Or does God come along with the new package?

    • David, did you happen to notice scenario #2?

    • Yep, scenario #2 covers that. And I don’t think this list replaces God. These are merely ways people foresee the church engaging one another. Relationship, service, & conversation is nothing new. Jesus himself did ministry through relationship, service, & conversation.

      I can’t express how excited I am about this. I’m happy to to say that my youth ministry is going in this direction and I’m thankful for the support of my team and pastor.

  6. Priesthood of the Believers……long overdue

  7. Thumma suggested congregations take a number of actions: … get rid of the concept of church committees” … oh, boy, what would Methodists do without committees? ;-)

  8. Methodists are wrestling with these impending changes. Check out Rendle’s “Back to Zero” and Weems’ “Focus.” Another insightful read is “The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement.”

  9. From Rick Chromey:

    The key transition for all institutions, not just the church, in the past 25 years has been from a CLUB to COMMUNITY context. Organizations that “club” are dying.

    Clubs are passive, lecture-driven, centralized and rule-based. Communities are experiential, conversation-driven, de-centralized and relationship-based.

  10. I am director for a Community Ministries located in the heart of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Your five points are dead on.

  11. Kitty Hahn-Campanella Reply November 15, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Great article, Thom. I see that you continue to branch out with your ministry. I can not thank you and Joannie enough for all the ideas and teaching you gave me for youth ministry after I discovered you and Group (about 25 years ago). Lifetree Cafe is awesome too. Keep on keeping on, my friend. I have the utmost respect for your work and great insight!

  12. It would be great if those changes happened. However, the church has always been called to look like this; we have always known this is what we should be (focused on Jesus, relationships, etc.); and we have tried to make this happen in a variety of ways that haven’t been successful on a large scale.

    I venture a guess that the only thing we need to focus on is Christ. Let’s worship him on Sunday instead of appealing to demographics. Let’s know his Word, so that we can share it in and out of season. Let’s offer the Living Water to people who are thirsty.

  13. There are so many things in this article that seem relevant to KOH2RVA–our year-long, every-member mission trip. The emphasis on relationships, the return to Jesus, the community focus, the conversational orientation, the rise of the laity…all of these could describe what happens when a church decides to get up off the pews and bring heaven to earth. Thanks to all of you who have joined us on this mission trip. May God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven!

  14. Paul and Freia Smith Reply November 22, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Great ideas which clearly indicate where the Church must go [with God’s help and guidance!].
    Much change and faith is required for any group – especially a long standing Religeous to begin to make the progresion to “every believer is one who shares the Gospel message with friends and neighbors.” It’s hard for old folks to change – to have faith that God can and will take charge and the growth of the Gospel Message is and will be Jesus’ wonderful work! And there will be “One Shepherd and One Flock” just as he has prophesied!

  15. Perhaps we need to realise that Jesus said he would build HIS church. Not OUR church or THE church. Until any church becomes HIS church, it will be the same old…..

  16. Our youth recently led worship. They were asked to talk about what they were passionate about. Their love for The Lord was central, but they also informed us about causes they were passionate about from things like animal rescue to the red thread movement (stoping human trafficking) . I was so impressed and encouraged about the future of the church.

  17. The current church is preoccupied with the “ABCs”—attendance,buildings and cash. A Summit pastor said, “We need to deal with the idols of the church.” The coming church will highly focus its mission, goals, measurements and message on Jesus.

    Shrinking resources will trigger fewer paid ministry positions—and more reliance on unpaid ministry work.

    The current church is “preoccupied” with buildings and cash because nearly all churches are struggling with their bills. This struggle, mentioned in “shrinking resources,” is real. The suggested solution is a variation on blaming the poor for being poor. Churches are strapped for cash because the cost of utilities and maintenance has drastically increased, while the real income of most parishioners has remained stagnant or has decreased.

    And at the same time, the powers controlling the economic and social system in this country are pushing the needs of more and more citizens onto the backs of non-governmental agencies, instead of paying attention to income inequality and exploitation by the ultra wealthy.

    This train of thought that congregations are too focused on their bulidings and cash can be seen as the economic powers arguing that church members do not have a right to own property, that church buildings are for the rich. Same with the suggestion that churches rely more on unpaid ministry work. It puts economic pressure on clergy and would-be clergy to work for free. That is, it puts pressure on congregations to join in society’s exploitation of workers. The priesthood of all believers does not mean that you don’t pay a livable salary to people who devote their lives to service of the church.

    When congregations focus on “attendance” because they need members to pay the bills, that is, indeed, a problem of priorities. But the focus on cash and building are a result of warped priorities in our economic system and should not be blamed on churches.

    Lets fix the system. We could do that by a focus on Jesus, because our Lord was pretty clear about God’s preference for the poor.

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