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.)