Preparation Can Save Your Church | By Carey Nieuwhof
Although the future is unpredictable, pastors and ministry leaders can prepare for significant cultural and technological changes. By understanding the trends, they can maintain and grow their churches.
Having been through two excruciating years as a church leader, what can you expect in the post-pandemic world?
As you can see by the sheer number of trends (the most I’ve ever covered in my annual trends series), 2022 is shaping up to be a pivotal year.
A new reality will emerge, and it will be different than we think.
The last few years have been (necessarily) characterized by a very narrow focus. The questions church members and leaders have been preoccupied with the past couple of years include:
- Can we reopen, and if so, how?
- Who’s coming and who’s not coming?
- Online or digital?
- Is hybrid the future?
- Masks or no masks?
- Vaccines or no vaccines?
- Democrat or Republican?
There will undoubtedly be some urgent issues that are impossible to predict, but two more significant shifts are happening.
First, some of the pressing matters that have characterized the last two years are now morphing into the culture as a whole. The hybrid-church model is emerging as a norm, as is leading in a polarized culture, and some of the battle lines drawn are emerging as semi-permanent cultural fixtures.
2022 will likely give us a chance to see where the dust is settling and to move on.
For the most part, many previous trends are still relevant. Some accelerated dramatically.
While no one can say exactly what the future holds, here are 12 trends I’m watching and would encourage you and your team to consider and process as well.
1. The Demise of the Old Model of Church
Every church and every leader have a model of Church. Even those who claim they don’t have a model, have a model (their anti-model is the model).
A model is simply an approach — a strategy, a way of doing things.
The old model of Church has been proving less effective year by year for decades across almost all denominations and traditions.
In 2021, Gallup shared that for the first time ever
, church membership dropped below 50% nationally. Among Millennials, only 36% identify with a church.
Similarly, a decade ago only 22% of Millennials said they have no religious affiliation. Today that number is 31%. For Gen Z, 33% now say they have no religious affiliation.
At the same time, attendance keeps dropping across the board.
A survey by FACT
of over 15,000 churches conducted just before COVID hit shows that between 2000 and 2020, median church service attendance dropped from 137 people to 65.
2022 should start to yield data on where things stand now, and as you already suspect, the new data is highly likely to show further decline. In other words, even if your church returns to 2019 attendance levels or exceeds them, the overall decline in church attendance will continue unabated.
So, what does this mean?
The current approach to church not only isn’t effective; it also hasn’t been effective for decades. Yet leaders keep moving forward as though somehow things are going to turn around.
Optimism is one thing. Delusion is another.
Please hear what I’m saying: The death of an approach to church doesn’t equal the death of the Church. Changing the approach is the best way to begin to see new growth.
Wise leaders will become students of what’s happening and seek to find a new approach that’s biblically faithful and culturally effective.
As Mark Sayers pointed out in his Rebuilders Podcast, the model of church is actually being rebuilt right now…as we speak. Maybe leaders aren’t doing it (see the chart above), but people are doing it.
Rightly or wrongly, they’re deciding how and when to engage with church, and they’re voting with their feet and wallets. Adept leaders will figure out where culture is going, figure out how to meet people where they’re at, and then lead them to where they need to be.
What was is gone. What will be hasn’t yet emerged.
The key is to experiment.
- Stay faithful to Biblical principles.
- Experiment with the practice.
- Study your people.
- Study the culture.
- Lead people where they need to go.
The task, in other words, is to devise a faithful approach to Church that will reach and disciple the next generation.
In the future Church, leaders who are willing to change their methods will amplify their mission. Leaders who don’t, won’t.
2. Growing Churches Will Innovate Beyond Weekend Services
As leaders rethink the model of Church, more church leaders will start rethinking the role of weekend services.
Don’t get me wrong. Weekend services are extremely important for a host of theological reasons (and a few practical ones, as well).
But for many churches, the weekend service has become either all the church does or the main focal point by which everything else revolves.
Focusing all your efforts on one hour on Sunday ignores the other 167 hours in a week.
Many churches function like restaurants that decide that if you want to eat, it can only happen in a one-hour window and only in this particular building, and if you miss it, you miss it.
Think about it. What future would there be for a restaurant whose mantra is:
- You can only eat food in our building.
- We’re only open one hour a week.
- We don’t do much in between.
Naturally, Church is a lot more than one hour of performance or participation on Sunday morning (a little harsh, but that’s what it’s become in some cases).
A lot of the innovation that has to happen in the Church needs to take place outside of Sunday and outside the building.
People don’t live in your church building. They live in the community, where they interact with non-Christians all day long, every day.
Churches that equip people where they live and work will start to grow. And yes, that requires innovation.
3. The Vision for the Future Will Become Clearer
Not all churches will find a new vision, but those who do will have a brighter future.
Ironically, as you know, the vision for the future has been there all along because the vision of the Church doesn’t change that much. The core of the Church’s vision is always evangelism and discipleship.
It’s just that with all the noise, panic, confusion, and hardship of the past two years, it’s been exceedingly hard to focus on anything else.
In 2022, at least among a small group of church leaders, the vision for the future Church will become louder than the lethargy of the present or the anger of the dissenters. And they’ll start growing. They will experiment.
Find a new approach that’s resonating, and begin to reach new people.
Some of them will be bold experimenters. And they’ll receive a lot of criticism for their experimentation as they create a new approach — a new model for church.
Many of the ideas you’ll see in the Church in 2022 will be criticized and dismissed — until they’re not.
But that’s how innovation works. The leaders we criticize today will be the leaders who coach us tomorrow.
4. Attendance Will Normalize (And You’ll Have a New Church)
2021 had many leaders clinging to the idea that the next season — Easter, the new school year, Christmas, etc. — would bring attendance back to 2019 levels.
For most churches, that “magic season” never materialized.
In 2022, the constant cycle of hope and disappointment is giving way to the new reality that this is your church.
It will become evident that some of the people who said they’re coming back later clearly aren’t coming back — ever.
But it’s not all bad news.
When you look around, a lot of new people have joined you because they found you online or a friend brought them.
You’ll get to know your online audience like they’re real people (because they are).
And potentially, you’ll start to notice small pockets of momentum and hope. Build on those.
Regardless, you’ll settle into the reality that, for better or worse, this is your church. These are the people you will build the future alongside.
Which is just in time. You can’t build the future of your church when you’re living in the past.
5. Hybrid Church Will Simply Become Church
The debate between in-person church versus online church has always been somewhat of a false one.
But 2022 is the year where the hybrid-church model will simply become church. In other words, hosting church online and in-person is just how you do church to reach the next generation.
People have lived in the slipstream of digital and in-real-life for well over a decade now, and church leaders will realize that church online is both a necessity and an opportunity.
It’s good that the debate over online church will fade into the background because then leaders can get on with the key task: Reaching people however they come to you — in person or online.
6. In-Person Will Become More Personal
The future is both deeply digital and deeply personal.
Increasingly though, as people show up for in-person events, they’re expecting more personal experiences.
Before the pandemic, a look at culture shows a rise in bespoke, custom, private, and VIP services at everything from concerts to clothing stores to vacations. That will accelerate in the post-pandemic world.
It is vital to figure out how to care for people personally — to know their names, to care about them as people. And for ministry, that’s always been important.
But for larger churches, in particular, dehumanizing systems that make people feel unnoticed will be tolerated less and less. No one wants to be a number. In the future, treating people like numbers will get you declining numbers and not much more.
Even in small churches, it’s easy to ignore the people, thinking that your church is friendly simply because you know six people (but don’t even know the names of the other 40 people who worship with you).
The goal is not to have a church where everyone knows everybody (that doesn’t scale). The point is to have a church where everyone is known.
7. Information Will Move Online and Transformation Will Move to In-Person
In 2022, many church leaders will likely realize that the best lane for information is online, while more transformational, transcendent experiences are more likely to happen in-person. They’ll design their online ministry and in-person experiences accordingly.
It’s not that people can’t come to faith online (they can and do); it’s just that there’s a difference between the kind of experience you can have on a device versus what you can experience in the room.
It’s like the difference between listening to an album on Spotify and seeing it perform live at a concert. The in-person experience leans more toward that transcendent moment than simply listening to a studio recording alone in your car.
Online might become more transcendent as virtual reality becomes more widespread, but we’re a few years and tech iterations away from that.
8. Location-Independent Church Members Will Increase
The last few years have seen a mass migration of people out of cities, out of jobs they once held, and into new frontiers.
With that, those who remain in church have discovered church online.
Physical relocations combined with the growth of digital church will find many people identifying with a church that has no physical location in their area.
This will lead to micro — think home-based — gatherings and the need for church leaders to focus on connecting people, not just erecting buildings to put them in.
Location independence is part of the fluid world we now live in. Leaders who adapt quickly will reach more people.
9. Pastors Will Sense a Diminished Authority
We’ve seen significant shifts in authority over the years.
As the world has become more connected, power has shifted from institutions to networks. Denominations and seminaries have lost much of the clout they used to have, and grassroots networks have sprung up in their place, some of which have come and gone already while new ones spring up.
In the same way, it’s no longer just denominations and seminaries that have lost authority, so have pastors. As any church leader knows, any illusion of control that remained seems to have vanished during the pandemic. You can’t control people.
No matter how loudly or softly you speak, people won’t listen because of the position, title, or office you hold.
The good news is that this is never where real authority resided anyway.
One of the things that defined Jesus’ ministry was that his authority never sprung from an (earthly) title he held, nor did he cling to power. In fact, he gave it up at the cost of his life, which of course, changed everything.
Real authority doesn’t spring from an office, a title, or power.
It springs from humility, love, and a clear sense of how the Kingdom of God is advancing in the world.
Leaders who show those kinds of characteristics will have a bright future.
10. The Brain Drain Will Become Acute
The last few years have seen many pastors step back, not just from their current church but also from vocational ministry.
Whether the Great Resignation has more legs or not in the wider culture, the Church has struggled through a more chronic gifting shortage for years now. The pandemic only intensified that.
Not only is this creating a staffing shortage (more churches vying for fewer leaders), but the quality of candidates is also proving a bit of a challenge.
Perhaps renewal and revival will increase intensity in the sense of calling the next generation has, but we’re not seeing the fruits of that labor yet.
The future Church will require leaders with great hearts and leaders with great minds.
The challenges ahead in a fractured world facing numerous existential threats (not to mention the philosophical and theological questions artificial intelligence raises) will require some very sharp minds.
11. The Exit of Uninvested Investors (A Recalibration in Giving)
One of the strange phenomena that happened in many churches in 2020-2021 is that attendance declined while giving remained steady or grew.
Historically, declining churches tend to have a lot of money (think endowments) but few people, while growing churches tend to have a lot of people but are tight on money. Their numerical growth has outpaced their stewardship growth.
Some of that recent change in that historical pattern can be explained by donors who did financially well in the pandemic contributing extra and people who are still committed financially but hesitant to attend in person still giving.
But, ultimately, it’s rare to have uninvested investors. If someone stops attending, stops serving, and cuts off connection with a church, will their giving continue? Rarely. And how is that an actual model for discipleship moving forward?
What you might see this year is a ramping up of new people who start to give while uninvested investors disappear entirely.
Second, church leaders will have to find something to do with their accumulated surplus to further the mission. Otherwise, why would people keep giving?
Money with no purpose is a sign of decline.
Regardless, it’s unlikely the current pattern will hold.
12. Less Predictability
Finally, as much as we all long for a return to a more stable, predictable future, that’s likely not happening. As much as we can plot out a few likely trends, it’s still uncertain what’s ahead.
As COVID-19 fades, we enter into a new era of instability and unpredictability, which most of us have never known in our lifetime.
The global supply chain issues, the surge in the gig economy, shortage in blue-collar and service sector workforce, surging stocks, the rise of cryptocurrencies, the exit and entry of people in and out of church in rapid numbers, growing inflation, and the widespread drop in confidence in institutional authority make it exceedingly difficult to trace out a predictable path into the future.
Once again, the approach that got many leaders through the pandemic (flexibility and agility) will be required for years to come. The “set it and forget it” approach to leadership that worked in stable areas won’t work anymore.
However, agile leaders and organizations that love to experiment and innovate can thrive in an unstable world.
Bonus Trend: Innovators Will Starting Populating Web3
You’ve read to the end; therefore, you’re obviously motivated enough leader, so I’ll give you a bonus trend.
This trend will be too early for many leaders, but 2022 will be the year innovators start exploring Web3.
Web3 has been in development for a while now, and next year will see the migration of many leaders to Web3.
You might be asking, “What is Web3?” Great question. I’ve spent some meaningful time exploring that question, and, I must admit, it’s hard to explain.
But let’s start by backing up by revisiting Web1.
Web1 was the Internet as we knew it in the 90s and early 2000s —essentially a non-interactive, brochure-like existence for most companies and organizations in which they posted static information or content.
Web 2.0 is the Internet as you know it today, characterized by user-generated content, interactive sites, and the dominance of organizations like Facebook, Google, Apple, Netflix, and social media outlets like TikTok and Twitter.
Web3 is entirely different. While Web 2.0 has been characterized by centralization (think Facebook), Web3 will be decentralized.
The venture capital firm of Andreessen Horowitz has a helpful primer on Web3, and Episode 542 of the Tim Ferriss show will take you on a multi-hour exploration.
The most popular elements of Web3 that have made it to mainstream awareness are cryptocurrency (BTC or ETH, for example), NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), Substack (for writers), and technology that undersides all of it: The Blockchain.
While Web3 is literally being built as you read this, leaders can no longer ignore it, and we’ll do our best to help you navigate it.
In the meantime, embrace change and learn to adapt. Innovate and invest in the next generation.
By understanding the present, you can prepare for the future, growing your faith and your church.
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