11 Traits of Churches That Will Impact the Future

11 Traits of Churches that will Impact the Future

Almost every leader I talk to acknowledges that our culture is shifting.

To reach a changing culture, the church needs to change. Rapidly.

Don’t get me wrong, we don’t need to change the message. Just the method. One is sacred. The other is not.

What isn’t as clear is what the future church will look like, and what kind of characteristics will mark those churches.

However, I think a few trends are becoming clear. Not all of these might be correct, but I think the following eleven traits describe the kind of churches that will have a significant impact a decade from now.

The wise leader is taking steps today to position their church to respond to these things. I know that’s what I’m trying to do at Connexus, where I have the privilege of serving.

After reading this list, I’d love your feedback and reaction. Leave a comment outlining what you see and any other trends you’re noticing.

Here’s what I see as hallmarks of the churches that will make an impact in the next decade:

1. The ability to say no. One of the reasons churches don’t change is because leaders are unwilling to say no to current members who prefer things the way they were. When you learn to say no to the preferences of some current members, you learn to say yes to a community that is ready to be reached. (For more on learning to say no, see this post.)

2. Outsider focus. Churches that become passionate about people outside their walls will be far more effective than churches that are passionate about keeping the few people they have inside their walls. Better still, you will have a healthier church. We call individuals who are fixated on their wants and needs selfish and immature. Selfless and mature churches will have an impact because of their passion for people God cares about.

3. Quick decision making. If you have a decision making process that’s slow and complicated, you will not be able to keep up with the pace of change needed. Having multi-level approval processes and having to get congregational approval on matters will block innovation. I agree with Jeff Brodie, if you can’t make a decision within 24 hours, your process is too slow (see Jeff’s helpful post on 5 essentials for every church constitution here).

4. Flexibility. You don’t need to change your mission (for the most part), but you do need to change your methods. Flexible and adaptable churches that can innovate around strategy and different initiatives will have the freedom to make the changes they need to make an impact moving forward.

5. A willingness to embrace smaller to become bigger. Mega-churches will continue to grow, but most of us won’t lead mega-churches. When small churches stop trying to be mega-churches, good things can happen. In fact, more and more larger churches will start embracing smaller venues, locations and partnerships to keep growing. A greater number of smaller venues might be a hallmark of future churches making an impact.

6. A quicker, lighter footprint. I learned this phrase from my friend Rich Birch (you should read his blog). Churches need a quicker, lighter footprint to grow. If you’re waiting for millions to build your building, you might wait forever. Get innovative and start looking at portable and non-traditional ways of growing your ministry. Quicker, lighter footprints will be necessary (see this Leadership Network article for more on innovate, inexpensive building alternatives).

7. Valuing online relationships as real relationships. Churches that aren’t online beyond a website are going to miss the boat. Real interaction with real people online is…well…real. Sure, face to face is deeper, but people will tell you things online they can’t muster the courage to tell you face to face. Whether you get them to a ‘real’ church is increasingly debatable. I would love that. But we’ll have to see. As much as you might hate it, virtual relationships are becoming real relationships.

8. An openness to questions. Most unchurched people today come in with questions that seem weird to those of us who spent a life time in church. Don’t try to answer them right away. Churches that understand that embracing questions is as important as providing immediate answers will make an impact in the future. We’re discovering that if you embrace questions, the answers eventually find their way into people’s lives. The Holy Spirit actually does move in people’s lives.

9. A high value on experimentation. The more traditional you are, the less you will value experimentation. The more successful you are, the less you will value experimentation. If you start to raise the value of experimentation, you will accelerate change and flexibility. The churches that connect with their community will be the churches willing enough to try a variety of things, and who also have the courage to kill them as soon as they stop producing results.

10. Prioritizing a for you not from you culture. Andy Stanley often talks about what he wants for people, not just what he wants from them. Churches in decline often think in terms of what they can get from people – money, time, growth etc. Churches that will make an impact on the future will be passionate about what they want for people – financial balance, generosity, the joy of serving, better families, and of course, Christ at the center of everyone’s life.

11. A tailored experience, not a tailored message. You don’t have to tailor the message to unchurched people (see what Andy Stanley says about that here), but churches that have an impact will tailor the experience. There were presents under my tree last Christmas. But I’m not a shopping mall fan. 90% of my gift buying happened online. The content was the same – the experience changed. Churches that decide they will hold the message sacred but tailor the experience to an ever shifting culture will be more effective (here, by the way, are 15 characteristics of today’s unchurched people).

That’s what I see. What else do you see?

I’d love to hear about what you’re noticing.

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  • Missionarymike

    Great stuff

  • Guest

    They don’t mean facebook, because they have taken their page down. So much for practicing what you preach!

  • Guest

    Interesting that someone concerned about their online presence has taken their church’s facebook page down.

  • Pam gonzales

    I think the point about being able to make a decision for change in 24 hours is our problem. It takes a year to make a decision for change in our church. The elders run the church and they are for the most part older. They seem to cater to the older members. When a suggestion is made they usually say no,”we will lose to many older members”. I believe that’s why we don’t seem to have many younger families anymore. We seem to be stuck in the mud.I hate this expression but it seems to fit us. Don’t get me wrong, I love my church and my church family, but we need to get more current. We have ideas that are not salvation issues that we need to get rid of. Tradition doesn’t get us salvation, Biblical scriptures do. We need to keep the message because that never changes, but get rid of some old traditions that no longer work!!!!

  • RDH

    what is meant beyond website? or can someone give some examples?

  • Ben

    I think the church has to be very careful with this…This is what happened in the synagogue format which led to the confusion caused by Judaizers and also post reformation Europe which led to the liberalism that wrecked Christian theology for centuries after. This is especially important to realize as one of the foundational issues missing from today’s church is an intentional process of discipleship and doctrinal understanding.

  • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

    Thanks for sharing this Andrew. I think it will take all kinds of churches to have the kind of impact we’ll need moving forward. Appreciate this.

  • PeaceBang

    Thank you, Andrew. I love this comment and find it really helpful.

  • Andrew McKerrow

    I think the traits of church in general are in the midst of huge change…what we are seeing and will keep seeing more and more is the beginning of a shift in the way that we “do church”. In particualr, a shift from pastor led church gatherings to pastor facilitated gatherings i.e. Church gatherings that are less about coming, sitting, singing, listening and leaving and more about engaging and being an active part of what’s happening. We’ve largely been living in an era where things like praying together, sharing together, getting a chance to bring what God is saying to you etc has been relegated to small group meetings. Our mentality is that you can’t get personal or all be engaged in Sunday services especially in big congregations. My gut feel and observations is that we will start seeing this changing big time. The nature of church leadership will experience a big crisis as pastors are needed to move from “leading in front of” to “leading from amongst”. Eugene Peterson puts it brilliantly (and I think prophetically) when he Paul’s words to the Corinthian church this way:
    “So here’s what I want you to do. When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight. If prayers are offered in tongues, two or three’s the limit, and then only if someone is present who can interpret what you’re saying. Otherwise, keep it between God and yourself. And no more than two or three speakers at a meeting, with the rest of you listening and taking it to heart. Take your turn, no one person taking over. Then each speaker gets a chance to say something special from God, and you all learn from each other. If you choose to speak, you’re also responsible for how and when you speak. When we worship the right way, God doesn’t stir us up into confusion; he brings us into harmony. This goes for all the churches—no exceptions” 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 The Message

  • Ann San Pedro

    Great post :) Our church should always be on mission mode, not maintenance mode.

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  • Ben Fowler

    As a Unitarian Universalist, I do not directly follow Christ, as the Interfaith Ordained minister of a small UU congregation for the last 7 years, I find your ideas compelling and useful. When I I was called to serve my church, there were 8 members and 7 were on my board. We quickly changed the by-laws, reduced the size of the board, made some shifts in the presentation of the service, invited more participation by everyone in the service and in outreach to the non-participating community. Soon, our attendance averaged 15. Two years ago we started a twice-monthly Sunday School, and now our attendance is a steady 15, with often higher numbers. And now the kids outnumber the adults sometimes.

    Change in a church is slow. People who are in the old guard like things to stay the same, newer members don’t really know what to expect in terms of change. But all together it is the patience of everyone that is important. Growth will happen because we create a place of safety and support for the membership, who will pass that message along if so invited. It is also my experience that change often happens, as you point out, in a counter-intuitive way–For my first 4-5 years I tried hard to create a framework for change, but it wasn’t until I got a bit discouraged and backed off a bit, that others took up the mantle of change and things began to happen.

    It is important to remember that church is merely the place that we get reminded of the way we should act in our daily lives. Regardless of denomination, helping the congregation to understand that the best marketing they can do is to live their spiritual practice with compassion, forgiveness, and humility in their everyday life and inviting non-churched people to do the same (whether through the internet or in person).

    Thanks for your posts.

  • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

    Yes. You’re not alone in adding that to the list. What’s amazing Derwin is that you’ve got one. Wonderful!

  • Derwin L. Gray

    How about planting, or becoming multi-ethnic local churches to reflect the model set for us by the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 2:14-16) and the multi-ethnic nature of the US and some Canadian urban centers?

    A homogeneous local church is going to be really ineffective in the future.

  • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

    I do too. The part that resonated most is the chronic underfunding of charities and not for profits. I heard an add on the radio today that promised that “100%” of your donation goes to the charity in question and zero to overhead. Well, who paid for that ad? Really? I agree that Dan makes a ton of good points that churches and charities need to wrestle down. So, for that matter, do donors.

  • ruis2002

    I disagree about tithing. Truly spiritual people want to tithe. I tithe to a local Baptist church, and I’m not even a member of that church!! I don’t even agree with their stance on not ordaining women, or baptism by immersion-only. *Technically* I’m “unchurched”. I guess I fell away (although it felt more like being abandoned) from the church I grew up in around the time I graduated from college. The Sunday School class I attended in high school was very large and active. However, everyone I knew went away to college, and I did too. I occasionally attended the church that was on campus where I went to school, although not being a Presbyterian myself (I’m Methodist), I never became a member of that church. When I came back to my hometown (and most Gen X-ers didn’t – they moved to where the jobs were!), I found that the only Sunday School classes available to me after college were the singles group or the young married couples group. I wasn’t married, so the singles group was it. The singles group experience was pretty uncomfortable. No matter how you plan it, once you label a class a “the singles group”, it basically becomes a meat market, and stops being a safe place to share and find friendship. I was unhappy, so I stopped going to Sunday school. I still attended Sunday morning church services for a long time, and I signed up for a more intensive, Wednesday night bible study to try to replace Sunday school. It worked for a while, but the study was one of those 8-month-or-so intensives, that don’t last forever. Not having a good Sunday school class to belong to really meant the difference (for me) between being churched and unchurched – for the last 20 years of my life. I think churches should focus on psychographics, after the high school age level, instead of trying to divide their adults by age and marital status. Many of my single friends are 10 years older than I am (I’m 44) and they have the same complaint about church singles groups. It’s uncomfortable, and most guys who attend those groups are sort of dorky. The women I know are in their 50s, but they are NOT your grandmother’s little old ladies. Most are professional women, with jobs and homes of their own. Many are veterans, who have several tours of Iraq and Afghanistan under their belts. They are pretty independent, and wouldn’t darken the door of a quilters’ circle to save their lives. They are also the generation which expects to inherit a lot of wealth from their parents and (older) husbands. It would behoove most churches to reach this group, but instead I see many churches focus almost exclusively on trying to reach impoverished, 20-something men, who are underemployed and buried in student loans. Sad.