What does the future hold for the church in North America? What are the church’s major weaknesses and threats going forward?

Last week church leaders, reporters and analysts gathered to discuss the church’s prospects at Group’s annual Future of the Church summit. Participants grappled with a wide variety of factors affecting the health of the church. These included changing attendance patterns, the growing population of de-churched Christians, cultural shifts, other religions, morphing congregational models, and generational transitions.

At the end of the summit, after hours of conversation and scrutiny, the group identified two major threats looming before the church. They are:

  1. Fear of change
  2. Same-sex debate

These two things, more than many other factors, are predicted to inhibit the church’s progress. The first one, fear of change, is certainly nothing new. But the rate of change in the culture around us is contributing to heightened angst among church leaders. Faced with threatening trends, imperfect options, and fears of members’ discomfort, leaders increasingly are choosing to refrain from making any meaningful and necessary changes.

A summit participant said, “A lot of churches are willing to die comfortably, rather than live dangerously.” Another said, “We’re all too afraid.” For many, they’re praying they can weather the declining status quo until they retire. Then what’s left of the church will be someone else’s problem.

Fear also fuels the other big threat–the same-sex debate. What position should a congregation or denomination take on inclusion or membership for gays and lesbians? Who may serve in leadership positions? How will requests be handled for same-sex marriages? After frank and wide-ranging conversations on these issues, I asked the participants if they’re having these discussions in their congregations. Only a few indicated they’d ventured into this topic with their people.

“We hate squabbles,” one said. Most recognize the risk involved with entering the fray. Some churches and other Christian organizations have experienced upheaval and losses after taking stands on same-sex issues. But the controversies are not going away. One participant said, “The conversation is being had without us.” But not for long.

Hiding from the same-sex conversation does not protect the church from the threat of discord. Author Leonard Sweet told the summit participants that the root meaning of truth is “to come out of hiding.” This conversation poses a threat. How a congregation handles this challenge may well shape its future–for better or worse.

Summit participants framed these issues as part of a SWOT analysis for the church. The SWOT acronym, familiar in organizational strategic planning, stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Fear of change was chosen as the leading threat–as well as the leading weakness for the church.

In coming articles, I’ll share other findings from the Future of the Church summit, including participants’ choices for the most promising church strengths and opportunities.

What’s your SWOT analysis for the church?