5 Forces That Will Reform the Church

The American church is entering a time of unprecedented upheaval. In 20 years, what we call the church will look very different from today.

Thinkers at this year’s national Future of the Church summit, sponsored by Group Publishing, envisioned a new–and quite hopeful–picture for the church of tomorrow. This group of church leaders, authors, media writers, academics and students grappled with a flurry of present trends to frame their futuristic perspectives.

They reviewed the American population’s declining participation in church activities. Less than 20 percent of the population attends a church service in a typical week. Four out of five churches say they’re stuck or in decline. Practically every American denomination is losing members year after year. Younger generations are fleeing the church in record numbers.

After hearing from experts, practitioners, the churched and the unchurched, the old and the young, the summit participants were asked to choose likely scenarios for several church crossroads directions. Here’s where they landed.


An upward trend. Though things are likely to get worse before they get better, the church will grow again in America. It’s not likely to mimic the spiritual evaporation that Europe has seen. Rather, the trends may begin to look more like those found in China, where the church is flourishing organically despite the lack of a faith-friendly government.

Denominational dissipation. As the culture’s suspicion of institutions deepens, the cachet of a congregation’s affiliation to a denomination will continue to fade. The value–and cost–may become very difficult to justify. Denominations may be overshadowed by networks of like-minded congregations–not based on rules but on shared resources.

Values over personalities. Summit participants acknowledged that celebrity pastors–national and local–will continue to draw crowds on the strength of their personalities. But ultimately the churches of the future will be known more for their values than their human purveyors.

Outward focus. The majority of today’s churches direct almost all their attention, programs, personnel, facilities and budget toward the insiders, the members. But the thriving churches of tomorrow will balance their ministry with a deliberate focus toward those on the outside, many of whom will never become Sunday pew sitters.

Millennial reshape. After hearing data and personal accounts about the unique traits of the Millennial generation, summit participants concluded these young people (ages 18-29) are game-changers for the church. Unlike previous generations, Millennials will not succumb to the church’s longstanding traditions and ways of defining and doing church. They will not merely return to church-as-we-know-it once they start having children, as other generations have done. They will significantly reshape the church’s practices and attitudes according to their values.

What are some of these values? Gordon College president Michael Lindsay told participants that Millennials are uniquely driven to start new things. They’re drawn to authenticity, and they’re repulsed by anything that seems slick. “It’s about being vulnerable,” he said.

Gordon College student David Hicks said, “We don’t want adults who are trying to be edgy.” He told how he was turned off when his former church’s praise band used musical tactics to manipulate people into a false crescendo of worship. “I became cynical.” After leaving the church entirely, he now attends a more traditional church. “There are no ‘cool’ churches. I’m hungry for transcendence,” he said.

Barna Group vice president Roxy Wieman, herself a Millennial, also spoke about the hunger for transcendence–and community. But current church communities seem inauthentic, in part because Millennials have not had a hand in developing them.

Several speakers mentioned the Millennials’ innate desire to be involved, to participate. They’re not interested in being passive consumers or spectators at church. Leadership Journal managing editor Drew Dyck said Millennials “want to be heard from day one.”

Social entrepreneur Justin Mayo said Millennials want to reach out to and accept those the church often rejects. “You’re never going to reach someone you choose to isolate,” he said. “How do we create dialogue? Not by criticizing them at the front door. Do we even have the kind of relationship that allows us to say a hard thing to someone?”

David Hicks said, “We’re willing to go where they (people outside the church) are. We’re not asking them to come to our thing and clean themselves up first. We’re willing to enter their world and be ourselves.”

A glimpse into the future of the church.

11 Responses to “5 Forces That Will Reform the Church”

  1. On Facebook, Pam wrote: “If church can eventually address these 5 forces, I may be out of a job as a psychotherapist! Honestly, I often think there is a positive correlation between the failure of the church and the rise in popularity of psychotherapy. The human spirit needs what it needs and the hope of connection (fellowship) and transcendence are at the core.”

  2. On Facebook, Michael wrote: “Starts here! Exodus 20 ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’”

  3. I attended the Summit and it was great! While the future of the Church can seem like a discouraging topic, I came away from the Summit energized and hopeful.

  4. Thanks Thom – I facilitate a “What’s Trending” for Chicagoland leaders in a couple of weeks and this will help establish the context.

  5. I’m 29 – woohoo! Just made the millenial cut-off. I’m going to change the church! :)

  6. Wow! I hate that I missed this summit. The conclusions you listed (values, being more organic, etc.) have been in my spirit for the last several years. I believe we are seeing the beginning of a major shift in ‘church’ as we know it. I question the 20 year time table. I believe it will come sooner. The denominational dissipation is already beginning as such groups are finding it harder and harder to justify their doctrinal distinctions. The good news is that Jesus is still building His Church – His way in the 21st Century.

  7. Thom, This is so timely, as our congregation is in a visioning process – that is much needed! As a boomer who has been accused of being a millenial, I can’t wait till the church looks more like this. While we need to honor those who came before, we also need to be more like Jesus and call the traps and bondage of the organized church what it is.

    Be more like Jesus, what a radical thought! :)

  8. This is right on according to my limited experience as a pastor in a couple of small rural congregations!! I am so excited that we have 4 families who will be joining our congregation and they look NOTHING like the people who are there for the most part. Not in economic independence, not in age, not in family structure; but they are well versed in the Bible, in life and strong in faith. It is such a privilege to be a pastor at this time when the challenges are so great and the transitions so awesome. God who has always surprised God’s people has “knocked our socks off” again.

    It has been more than 6 years ago that I attended a couple of your excellent workshops at Group. Thanks for your ministry!! Glatha Rathjen

  9. Keep it up, Thom!

    I took a sabbatical for the last 18 months, and only now am ready to consider a return to the United Methodist Church. I wont go back to business as was, or, as usual. I’m different. A new what of being church has Emerged in me and I think that is a great way forward for me as a Christian who happens to be called to lead as a pastor in and around the church.

    Thanks for what you do, you are not alone in your thinking.

    Jeff Hassel Matagalpa, Nicaragua


  10. Thanks for sharing these 5 thoughts about the church in 20 years. I’d be curious to hear if the speakers also addressed the dramatically changing demographics in America where there will be no majority racial group before 2050 and how that impacts the church.

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