by Carey Nieuwhof
Every generation experiences change.
But sometimes you sense you’re in the midst of truly radical change, the kind that happens only every few centuries. Increasingly, I think we’re in such a moment now.
Those of us in in Western culture who are over age 30 were born into a culture that could conceivably still be called Christian. Now, as David Kinnaman at the Barna Group have shown, even in America people who are churchless (having no church affiliation) will soon eclipse the churched.
In addition, 48 percent of Millennials (born between 1984 and 2002) can be called post-Christian in their beliefs, thinking and worldview.
This post is Part 4 of a five-part series on why people are attending church less often. Here are the other parts of the series (including two in-depth leadership podcast interviews):
If you want to access the podcast interviews easily on your phone or other device, the best way is to subscribe to my leadership podcast for free on iTunes or Stitcher.
I think the change we’re seeing around us might one day be viewed on the same level as what happened to the church after Constantine’s conversion or after the invention of the printing press. Whatever the change looks like when it’s done, it will register as a seismic shift from what we’ve known.
So what will the future church be like? And how should you and I respond?
Predictions … Really?
OK, before we get going, a few things.
I realize making predictions can be a dangerous thing. Maybe even a bit ridiculous. But I want to offer a few thoughts because I’m passionate about the mission of the church.
So, borne out of a love for the gathered church, I offer a few thoughts. Consider it thinking in pencil, not ink.
While no one’s really sure of what’s ahead, talking about it at least allows us to position our churches for impact in a changing world.
10 Predictions About the Future Church
So what’s likely for the future church? Here are 10 things I see.
1. The potential to gain is still greater than the potential to lose.
Every time there is a change in history, there’s potential to gain and potential to lose.
I believe the potential to gain is greater than the potential to lose. Why?
As despairing or as cynical as some might be (sometimes understandably) over the church’s future, we have to remind ourselves that the church was Jesus’ idea, not ours.
It will survive our missteps and whatever cultural trends happen around us. We certainly don’t always get things right, but Christ has an incredible history of pulling together Christians in every generation to share his love for a broken world.
As a result, the reports of the church’s death are greatly exaggerated.
2. Churches that love their model more than the mission will die.
That said, many individual congregations and some entire denominations won’t make it. The difference will be between those who cling to the mission and those who cling to the model.
When the car was invented, it quick took over for the horse and buggy. Horse and buggy manufacturers were relegated to boutique status and many went under, but human transportation actually exploded. Suddenly, average people could travel at a level they never could before.
The mission is travel. The model is a buggy, or car, or motorcycle, or jet.
Look at the changes in the publishing, music and even photography industry in the last few years.
See a trend? The mission is reading. It’s music. It’s photography. The model always shifts … moving from things like 8-tracks, cassettes and CDs, to MP3s, and now streaming audio and video.
Companies that show innovation around the mission (Apple, Samsung) will always beat companies that remain devoted to the method (Kodak).
Churches need to stay focused on the mission (leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus) and be exceptionally innovative in our model.
3. The gathered church is here to stay.
Read the comments on this blog or any other church leader blog and you would think that some Christians believe the best thing to do is to give up on Christian gatherings of any kind.
This is naive.
While some will leave, it does not change the fact that the church has alwaysgathered because the church is inherently communal. Additionally, what we can do gathered together far surpasses what we can do alone. Which is why there will always be an organized church of some form.
So while our gatherings might shift and look different than they do today, Christians will always gather together to do more than we ever could on our own.
4. Consumer Christianity will die and a more selfless discipleship will emerge.
Consumer Christianity asks, What can I get from God? It asks, What’s in it for me?
That leads us to evaluate our church, our faith, our experience and each other according to our preferences and whims. In many respects, even many critics of the church who have left have done so under the pull of consumer Christianity because ‘nothing’ meets their needs.
All of this is antithetical to the Gospel, which calls us to die to ourselves—to lose ourselves for the sake of Christ.
As the church reformats and repents, a more authentic, more selfless church will emerge. Sure, we will still have to make decisions about music, gathering times and even some distinctions about what we believe, but the tone will be different. When you’re no longer focused on yourself and your viewpoint, a new tone emerges.
5. Sundays will become more about what we give than what we get.
The death of consumer Christianity will change our gatherings.
Our gatherings will become less about us and more about Jesus and the world he loves. Rather than a gathering of the already-convinced, the churches that remain will be decidedly outsider-focused. And word will be supplemented with deeds.
In the future church, being right will be less important than doing right. Sure, that involves social justice and meeting physical needs, but it also involves treating people with kindness and compassion in everyday life and attending to their spiritual well-being.
This is the kind of outward focus that drove the rapid expansion of the first-century church.
That’s why I’m very excited to be part of a group of churches that has, at its heart, the desire to create churches unchurched people love to attend. While the expression of what that looks like may change, the intent will not.
6. Attendance will no longer drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance.
Currently, many churches try to get people to attend, hoping it drives engagement.
In the future, that will flip. The engaged will attend, in large measure because only the engaged will remain.
If you really think about this … engagement driving attendance is exactly what has fuelled the church at its best moments throughout history. It’s an exciting shift.
7. Simplified ministries will complement people’s lives, not compete with people’s lives.
For years, the assumption has been that the more a church grew, the more activity it would offer.
The challenge, of course, is that church can easily end up burning people out. In some cases, people end up with no life except church life. Some churches offer so many programs for families that families don’t even have a chance to be families.
The church at its best has always equipped people to live out their faith in the world. But you have to be in the world to influence the world.
Churches that focus their energies on the few things the church can uniquely do best will emerge as the most effective churches moving forward. Simplified churches will complement people’s witness, not compete with people’s witness.
8. Online church will supplement the journey but not become the journey.
There’s a big discussion right now around online church. I think in certain niches, online church might become the church for some who simply have no other access to church.
But there is something about human relationship that requires presence. Because the church at its fullest will always gather, online church will supplement the journey. I believe that online relationships are real relationships, but they are not the greatest relationships people can have.
Think of it like meeting someone online. You can have a fantastic relationship. But if you fall in love, you ultimately want to meet and spend your life together.
So it is with Jesus, people and the church.
9. Online church will become more of a front door than a back door.
There’s no question that today online church has become a back door for Christians who are done with attending church.
While online church is an amazing supplement for people who can’t get to a service, it’s still an off ramp for Christians whose commitment to faith is perhaps less than it might have been at an earlier point.
Within a few years, the dust will settle and a new role for online church and online ministry will emerge. Online church has the potential to become a massive front door for the curious, the unconvinced and those who want to know what Christianity is all about.
In the same way you purchase almost nothing without reading online reviews, or rarely visit a restaurant without checking it out online first, a church’s online presence will be a first home for people, which for many will lead to a personal connection with Christ and ultimately the gathered church.
10. Gatherings will be smaller and larger at the same time.
While many might think the megachurch is dead, it’s not. And while others think megachurches are awful, there’s nothing inherently bad about them. Size is somewhat irrelevant to a church’s effectiveness.
There are bad megachurches and bad small churches. And there are wonderfully effective megachurches and wonderfully effective small churches.
We will likely see large churches get larger. Multisite will continue to explode, as churches that are effective expand their mission.
At the same time, churches will also establish smaller, more intimate gatherings asMillennials and others seek tighter connections and groups. Paradoxically, future large churches will likely become large not because they necessarily gather thousands in one space, but because they gather thousands through dozens of smaller gatherings under some form of shared leadership. Some of those gatherings might be as simple as coffee shop and even home venues under a simple structure.
We will see the emergence of bigger churches and smaller churches at the same time as the gathered church continues to change.
What Do You See?
Ultimately, I have a lot of hope for the future church. I hope you do too. The mission is too important to feel otherwise.
If you want some even more specific changes I think will characterize the future church (including a few not covered here), check out this post.
In the meantime, what do you see?
Carey Nieuwhof is Lead Pastor of Connexus Church north of Toronto, Canada, blogs at http://www.careynieuwhof.com and is host of The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast available for free on iTunes.
Visit Carey at http://careynieuwhof.com