Where will you be in 10 years? in 20 years? If you’re involved in a church, it may look quite different from what you’re accustomed to today.

The church in America is currently shuddering under unprecedented societal change. Some churches are shuttering—closing their doors, rather than adapting to the swirling changes around us. But some are breaking through and finding fresh ways to share the ageless message of Christ with a still-spiritually-open culture.

Some of the innovation we see today was actually predicted over 10 years ago. At that time a think tank of ministry leaders from across the country met to envision the future. They accurately foresaw some changes we now see emerging.

For example, whereas the modern church looks and feels much like a theatrical presentation, the think tankers saw a church that would begin to look and feel more like a neighborhood place to gather around food and drink.

That model is sprouting up in divergent locations across the country—and outside the country.

Morning Star Church in Middleville, Michigan, worships in a former auto parts store that now looks like a homey little restaurant. “We have a DNA of worshipping around tables,” says pastor Bill Wynsma. The church’s website describes the vibe: “Remember those signs in some churches that say, ‘No Food or Drink in the Sanctuary’? Well, we welcome you to enjoy coffee, tea and other morning beverages along with a selection of snacks.”

And, more than 150 churches across the country and Canada have joined the growing network of Lifetree Cafes. I’m blessed to work with this new ministry that’s designed to reach into the community with a conversation-based experience. Members of the community gather around small tables and enjoy snacks and drinks while they delve into host-led explorations of life issues—with a spiritual twist. Some Lifetree locations are inside church facilities. Others are offered in local coffee shops and community centers.

Whitsunday Baptist Church in Queensland, Australia, offers a beachfront café experience every Tuesday night. Soul Church Café provides “coffee, dessert, and a chat about some of the more important things in life.” The ministry offers “conversation, friendship, and a little bit of what you are looking for.”

In Communist China, where churches are highly restricted, Christian restaurateurs opened the Upper Room Rainbow Café in Beijing. Biblically themed décor surrounds the tables where patrons munch on cleverly named entrees. (On a recent visit, I tried the “Five Loaves and Two Fish.” Tasty!) Curious Chinese residents gather here for Bible studies, Christian music and even sermons. “We consider it a dinner show,” says the savvy owner, who stays legal and in good favor with the government.

So, why are these food-and-drink venues working? If we say faith is a relationship, it makes sense that our expressions of faith look relational. Sitting around a table, eating, and talking with friends about matters of faith is a relational model that Jesus used very fruitfully. And the conversational aspect allows people to interact with the message, something that resonates well with today’s interactive citizens.

As we watch this trend build throughout today’s church, where will it lead tomorrow? What will the church look like in 10 or 20 years? It’s an important question. The better we can anticipate the coming changes, the better prepared we’ll be to take the unchanging message to the changing world.

We’re organizing a new think tank to analyze developing trends and explore how they’ll drive change for the church in the future. This special gathering will include generations authority Neil Howe, and church researcher Scott Thumma. The Future of the Church Summit is October 22-24, 2012, in Loveland, Colorado. It’s an invitation-only event for church leaders, thinkers and influencers. If you know someone who should receive an invitation, please email me at tschultz@group.com.

It’s a healthy thing to read the signs and adjust: “You know the saying, ‘Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow;  red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.’ You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times!” –Jesus

What do you see coming?