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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mikeheel Mike Jordan

    I agree with the points in the article. And, not to sound too much like David Platt, but the points also sound a bit like a church that is trying to do things on its own. The #1 trait should that the church is God-focused. We have a tendency to try to program our way to relevance. Those are good tools, as is everything you listed here. But we are not the reason people will change. We are the conduit. Anyway, as I said, I agree with your points. And I know we don’t have to say the answer to every question about church is “Jesus.” But when the question is about how a church can be impactful, I think we are remiss if we leave God out of the answer.

  • Ryan Clarke (@ryanclarkeREC)

    Allowing Kids to Select their Own Ministry. Instead of parents making their kids go to their age appropriate ministry at church, parents want their kids to choose whether or not to attend children’s ministry or student ministry. Instead of parents setting the course for a ministry serve, parents hope kids will be inspired at church so that parents can fan the flames of that inspiration. My role as Children’s Pastor is to inspire kids to take their next step in their journey with Jesus.

  • Daniel

    I think the one thing that I have noticed that goes along with these is a church that is has a passion and excitement evident in their leaders (volunteer or staff). I see churches that just do things w/o passion or excitement and see little fruit, while I see churches that celebrate like crazy when someone comes to Christ and see a lot of fruit. We need to be passionated and excited about the power of the gospel because our culture craves excitement and what can be more excitig than a changed life in Christ?

  • cnieuwhof

    I agree Daniel.

  • cnieuwhof

    And Mike, I get this comment from time to time and appreciate where you are coming from. Yes, Jesus is the foundation of all things, and the only reason I write this blog. I don’t state it in every post because it would become repetitive. This is a blog for people who are devoted Christians trying to find new strategies to lead better. Hope that helps. Christ is everything indeed.

  • http://www.tammyhelfrich.com/ Tammy Helfrich

    Great post! So thankful to be a part of a church community that understands all of these things listed above.

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    Great list, Carey. I think #1 is especially important because it gets at the question of identity. I think in order to survive, let alone make impact, churches must know and do the “one thing” that makes them who they are. And that means saying no to so many other things.

  • http://twitter.com/Cavvy6Pack Sarah Cavanaugh

    The church needs to nurture seedlings as well. Yes, look outside the walls but make sure you are feeding the sheep inside the fold and equipping them to work outside of the walls for you too. Exponential growth happens when the church prepares it’s people and then asks them to leave the comfort zone behind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jayarelinkous JR Linkous

    “As much as you might hate it, virtual relationships are becoming real relationships.” Truth my friend. The more churches that miss these relationships, the more we’re missing a whole generation to come.

  • Benjamin Jensen

    Love the list, Carey. Lots of wisdom.
    I would add:
    1) Gospel centrality : Not as a cool buzz word, but in actuality in every layer of our Church culture. This is the application of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to every facet of life, from blueberry pancakes to an Attorney’s excellence at work to a mother’s discipline of her child to watching the upcoming new episodes (huzzah!) of Arrested Development. We found that depth is a huge draw, not repellent, to our mostly young church.
    2) An intentional focus on and culture of Relationships of knowing, encouraging, challenging. This takes work and time and is not glamorous. But it’s good and necessary for healthy churches. Jn 13, “New command= Love one another.” Which leads into…Love the list, Carey. Lots of wisdom.
    I would add:
    1) Gospel centrality : Not as a cool buzz word, but in actuality in every layer of our Church culture. This is the application of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to every facet of life, from blueberry pancakes to an Attorney’s excellence at work to a mother’s discipline of her child to watching the upcoming new episodes (huzzah!) of Arrested Development. We found that depth is a huge draw, not repellent, to our mostly young church.
    2) An intentional focus on and culture of Relationships of knowing, encouraging, challenging. This takes work and time and is not glamorous. But it’s good and necessary for healthy churches. Jn 13, “New command= Love one another.” Which leads into…
    3) Discipleship: intentional systems and a culture of investing into 1-4 others’ lives, so they can turn and do the same. Leading into….
    4) Leadership Development: Real methods for identifying and training young leaders (most of whom will NOT go into vocational ministry) for the good of the Church and its local context, and our world at large.
    5) A Robust Theologi
    3) Discipleship: intentional systems and a culture of investing into 1-4 others’ lives, so they can turn and do the same. Leading into….
    4) Leadership Development: Real methods for identifying and training young leaders (most of whom will NOT go into vocational ministry) for the good of the Church and its local context, and our world at large.
    5) A Robust Theology of Culture: that is, freeing our people to enjoy the good and to love their neighbors and city well, all motivated and empowered by the Spirit.

  • Benjamin

    Sorry. My above comment was messed up by the comment function.

  • Amber

    Great list.

    Comment on #2. I agree with you, except I think churches can become too focused on outsiders. This is where my church is now. We have had a huge turnover in the last 3 years and our church is primarily new people, largely new Christians. This is a wonderful thing (especially since our focus has been to reach the unchurched in our community). However, our church has become so ‘outsider focused’ that they are ignoring the “senior members” of the church. My church is so focused on reaching new people that they have completely neglected the ones who began their journeys 5, 10, 25 years ago. The church has done away with groups that were established to challenge people to go deeper, choosing instead to focus on new Christians and helping them start their journey. Our “veterans” have found new churches that will come along side them to help them continue to grow in their faith.

  • Dennis Meyette

    I’m not sure how to break the bubble here, but there is a huge bubble here. Perhaps it’s denominational in nature. Coming from a Lutheran background and over the last 10 years as a 2nd career pastor I’ve been here done that and have found little success in the things you list. While I subscribe, I’m not sure how well they work. I’ve served 3 congregations as a mission developer and in an established congregation and have been asked to leave in all three instances. Maybe in 10 years some of this will work, but in the mean time I’m wondering if yes of these is more? I mean… yes do these, but in moderation.

  • Constantine

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Carey.
    The concept suitable for churches in North America but it will be difficult for us here in South Asia.

  • KudziM

    So good. Life changing. I really like how you are not promoting that the church bends over for people but it is flexible enough and bold enough to keep the same Glorious message of Christ but stay “cool enough” and contemporary enough to be at the very heartbeat of this ever evolving culture and world we live in. Great Job buddy.

  • http://leadright.wordpress.com/ Brent Dumler

    Change IS necessary in the Church! And it’s rarely ever welcomed with open arms. Recently, however, we have implemented a new level of security for our Children’s Ministry wing. This is a pretty bold step for our church, and thankfully we’ve gained overwhelming feedback from parents. We simply needed to be willing to take the leap.

  • Carey Nieuwhof

    Appreciate the comment Constantine. I realize a lot of what I write about it culturally conditioned to those of us in the West. What makes the application point more difficult in South Asia?

  • Christine Sine

    I found your post both interesting and frustrating. Partly because I feel you do not address many of the issues that I think will shape the church in the future. Most of the younger church planters Jesus followers I work with are looking for church communities that are relevant to the lives they live outside church. They want church communites that help them make sense of the world in which they live, that engage in the local communities and raise issues about sustainability. They want spiritual practices that help them engage in their world.

    A few years ago I started asking people “What makes you feel close to God?” Few mentioned church – nature was at the top of the list, time with kids came in second. Many shared that they found church irrelevant because it did not connect them to God.

    A recent article I posted Creating Sacred Space http://godspace.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/creating-sacred-spaces-do-we-really-need-churches-2/ evoked a similar response.

    I think that the church of the future will be a place that helps followers of Jesus connect their everyday life and their faith. Maybe that is wishful thinking on my part but I am concerned about the number of people of all ages who are disconnecting from church because they find it irrelevant. Yet they have a deep craving for spirituality.

  • John Waldo

    Another obstacle I sometimes see, perhaps related to #1, is an unwillingness (fear?) to make a decision about a staff person (or key volunteer) who isn’t fully on board with the mission / vision / strategies. We hold up the “many” because of the “needs” of the one. I’m all for treating people with dignity, but sometimes we need to exit someone (gracefully and with dignity… and perhaps severance) in order for ministry to multiply.

  • John Waldo

    Or… instead of dealing with the individual with grace, we “create a policy” to eliminate their behavior (or them), and which makes us less flexible for the future.

  • cnieuwhof

    John it’s such a great point. Going to blog about creating a healthy church culture tomorrow, and sacrificing one for the sake of many is actually a sign of health (at least in my view).

  • Stephen Alyea

    Ryan Clarke has a great point. As he does with youth, we will do with everyone in the congregation. I started fellowships in 4 areas over the last 6 years. Half of the attendance will be 14 to 25 years old. The technosocial communication system is simply the main way to reach these young people. They are using smart phones during church, posting feeds about the message and questions about what was said to friends during the service. These friends are in the same service or maybe friends they are trying to reach who will not attend. We expect and tell everyone to leave our church to start their own ministry. We remind people to leave with love and prayer support from the fellowship, verses the natural instinct that a relationship ends in conflict. We have found with the instant messaging, FB and blogging, the ministries grow and stay together in the family of the fellowship. The amazing part is only a few ministries have had to build or purchase a building, most are mission field paths and the reach is extensive. I thought we would eventually fade away due to everyone launching their own ministry, but hey come back and bring more people. The numbers grow in the one of the four fellowships and also grows in the branches of the personal callings. I believe we need to communicate the way the 14-25 generation communicates. They will be tomorrows apostles and we must hand the Gospel off to them, as our church fathers handed us the printed bible. We must give them the tools they need for their generation, which is constant technosocial communication. Home-small group churches make it personal and the network of the fellowship shows growth. The hardest part is to let the young be young and trust in what you taught them.

  • cnieuwhof

    Stephen this is intriguing. Do you have a link to your work/ministry?

  • Logic

    The problem is, people are getting smarter. Young kids, teenagers, and college kids these days are actually realizing that the bible, torah, what have you, are just a bunch of stories made up by men from the past. Teaches great morals! But, to try to make them believe that there is actually a being in the sky, watching everyone and intervening in our lives, honestly makes many of them laugh in my face. Its quite frustrating.

    They ask how can you possibly still be following laws from something written back then, when cultures, people, lifestyle, ways of thought are changing so rapidly today? They tell me that religion is for the weak, that need to cling to a false hope, praying to it, idolizing it, wearing it on your neck, instead of going out and actually doing what you’ve always dreamed to do.

  • Dave Patchin

    Moderation on ability to change (adaptability) means slower death. If a church stops being adaptable on methodology they start being insular, inward, and dying. While painful, being asked to leave when you prepare a congregation to reach people is a good thing. You learned they value custom & comfort over great commission and they learned that saying they want to “grow” is very different than actually growing. All of that is assuming you did all that is necessary to help the church embrace change. :)

  • Judy H

    Another change which would need to take place is that the pastor would need to be willing to work with minimal pay. People outside the church, whether in the community or online do not pay pledges, certainly do not tithe. The older long time members you are pushing to the side, who have faithfully served both Jesus and the church for so long, are the ones who give. There is a need for change as the culture changes – but the pastors need to change too – become tent-makers again.

  • Ryan

    Sometimes all you need to go ‘deeper’ is to start over and act like you’re a new Christian again. Re-learn the things you may have forgotten and remind yourself why you decided on this in the first place. Not to mention, what you have just described is a GREAT mentoring opportunity. Stand in the wall and be a part of a support group that these new Christians are going to need in order to stay strong in their faith. I personally don’t want to be a part of a Church that is focused on itself, the Church should be the arms and the feet by being active and not resting on what it already has.

  • anonymouse

    if religion in general is to survive as anything other than an artifact of the fringe (which is it rapidly approaching…) it needs to think on this (from Stephen Batchelor: ) What happened, you see, was that the original Jesus taught what I usually call kingdom religion or solar living. It is a secular religion of active self-outing. A human being is not an immortal soul but only a one-way process. I am my own life. I am burning, and burned out with love for life and for the fellow human. Living all-out, extroverted solar living is what some New Testament writers think of as eternal life, now and in the present moment. When you live like that you’re not on the way to any other world, you’re already in the last world, and you have left mediated religion behind. You don’t now know of any objective order or any separate, objective God, nor any separate supernatural order. You have reached the realm where the secular/sacred distinction is no longer required, and it disappears. Which is why, of course, Jesus criticises the secular/sacred distinction so sharply. He fiercely attacks tradition, he fiercely attacks ordinary human ideas of justice as based on envy or dissatisfaction, and he fiercely attacks religious professionals and institutions.

  • citizen477

    What’s interesting about this article is that it could apply to almost any organization with a mission to assist the public. Thanks for this; very useful.

  • cnieuwhof

    Thanks. I think truth is truth, and when we align ourselves with it, life goes better. God works that way and so does His truth.

  • David@Montreal

    Carey: might I suggest that prior to all of the valid, transformative points you’ve made, it is my sense that most Churches need a critical re-think of ‘leadership.’ unless this happens, I sense, a lot of the unconscious baggage of the historical realities absorbed into Church culture (hierarchy, patriarchy, objectification of both ‘other’ and creation) will be perpetuated to every-increasing dissonance. my sense is that the Church we are growing to will have facilitators, counsellors and teachers rather than a lone authority figure, and that’s when things could get really interesting. seeped in the Anglican tradition, but now expressing as a post-Anglican-anglican; coming out during the darkest days of AIDS, my experience was that the ministers and priests were too busy ‘telling the faithful’ or ‘perpetuating the institution’ to turn up, so the Holy Spirit did on by Herself for our clients dark nights.

  • Alison

    In the North East of Newcastle there is a group called Speakers of Life (They have a FB page) which has grown out of Churches Together. The aim is to hone people’s prophetic skills and this group is making a massive impact. Firstly it is interchurch (denominations can be a barrier) secondly it is Holy Spirit led but scripurally based. More and more people are attending and many of those are going out on Saturdays into the city centre and praying for people for healing. They have also gone to psychic fairs and set up Christian stalls, many people gave their lives to Jesus (people are searching but they do not know it is for Jesus) . Many churches, even charismatic ones, are confining and limiting the Holy Spirit but in order to meet people “out there” we need to go “out there”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pamela.manners.16 Pamela Manners

    Gee Amber…sounds like we attend the same church!

  • Chappie

    #1 change needed is to return to the placement into the pulpits of born again believers in Jesus Christ as their Savior. #2 is the pure application and reliance on the authority of Scriptures. Start with the basics and watch God work miracles!

  • Anna E

    While I agree that pastors do not need to make tons of money, I also think pastors’ salaries need to be fair, comparable to others’ salaries in the social work field, etc. As a young adult about to enter seminary who has experienced some struggles trying to work in the non-profit and social services sector in the last two years, I absolutely realize that there’s not as much money as there used to be, and I’m prepared and would actually probably prefer not to get as rich as, say, the CEO of a large corporation. (I’m fine with my Toyota Matrix and buying a fair amount of my clothing and belongings at thrift stores and yard sales.)

    But pastors work a lot and interact with many people to keep church doors open and effect positive views of the church in their surrounding communities, and can sometimes all in the same day be custodians, teachers, worship leaders, counselors, and business managers. They must be compensated fairly for their time, energies, and efforts.

  • Greg Smith

    Great list! I am on board – seems our lists overlap a great deal: http://sowhatfaith.com/2012/04/23/the-future-church-v-2020-10-shifts/

  • cnieuwhof

    A very different and, I think, compelling view on compensation in the charity sector is in this TED talk by Dan Palotta: http://youtu.be/bfAzi6D5FpM

  • tuansam@gmail.com

    I would rethink your first point. I believe the desire to adapt to a whole new “culture” is the reason most people have left the Episcopal Church. The leader does not need to say “no” to those who have migrated to an organization because they like its values, mission, and culture. Those who want to make changes should consider joining a church with values and a culture closer to their personal likings — they should not try to change the culture of an existing organization. I studied organizational behavior in college and one of the tenets we learned was that people join and support an organization because of a perceived ownership of its values and culture.

  • cnieuwhof

    I appreciate your point and experience, but what I fail to understand is how a declining church or organization can be effective again if it doesn’t change.

  • Ronnie

    Dear Bro. Carey Nieuwhof – I am a pastor from Malaysia. I like the article above and would like to ask permission to put it in our quarterly magazine for a small 200 member church. It would be an internal-circulation thingy and would give your name and blog so that members could read it also for themselves here.

    Waiting for your positive response – God bless

    Ronnie Ding

  • cnieuwhof

    Hi Ronnie. I would be happy to have you share the article. Thank you for asking. Hope you have a wonderful weekend. :)

  • Ronnie

    Many thanks!

  • Melissa

    Any pastor that would do his job for free, should be paid more than any other person on this planet. Because I am a pastor’s kid, I realize that my dad’s job is 24/7. While some people get weekends off, he doesn’t. Some people can stop thinking about work when they go home, he can’t. His mind is 24/7 ministry and carrying the burdens of his people. Yes, he is willing to do his job for a smaller pay because it’s what God called him to do, but I hope our churches become MORE generous with their giving. I am a 23 year old who has made a commitment to God that my largest check will be made out to the church each month. I hope other people my age will do the same.

  • Dave F.

    By all means we pray that the message is practical. If we are open to seeing ourselves in the lives of people in the Bible and how God/Christ came to them, it is very practical. The flipside is individualism with people worshipping in nature and not in community. The Acts church met together – learned from Christ (through the Apostles), prayed together, grew together, and supported each other. Worship is for community, not individuals. The downside of “church” is the building and competition over who has the best new gadgets and how nice it looks. Maybe the church of the future is the small group model.

  • Dave F.

    There is balance in everything. The goal is not to shove our faithful members to the side. The prayer is that we are all willing to learn and grow from each other. Growing churches also have great intergenerational ministries. The problem with some established churches is that they have become country clubs that only take care of each other. Pastor needs to visit both member and visitor. Pastors that don’t visit nurshing homes or hospitals are not being faithful to the flock. The prayer is that we all learn to get along in the sandbox. This can’t be an us/them discussion but one that is focused on growing in Christ and reaching the lost (Matt 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8). We as the church need to remember that it is Christ’s church and not ours. We are called to go out. The minute we start seeing people as wallets, we have turned our hearts to satan.

  • Dave F.

    “Power Surge” gave us the idea to have different types of studies from the 101 type to the deeper 404 study. This helps care for everyone in the flock and is appreciated at each level. People are hungry for the Word and we thank the Spirit for that.

  • Allen

    The best way to grow in the faith is to become missional! Sounds like your attending a church Jesus would go to.

  • Matt

    How about they just listen to The Lord?

  • k england

    Carey: very informative, instructive and a contribution for all leaders and staff.
    Another source, though dated is the booklet, “The Life Cycle of a Congregation,” by Martin E. Saarinen and published by the Alban Institute.
    Change is clearly most difficult for the older generations, however, without change, the mail line church will atrophy. It isn’t the message, it’s the form of the message, and we don’t call it the digital age for no reason. Keep up the good work. K

  • http://about.me/revchadbrooks chadbrooks

    I watched that talk around a month ago. I would love to hear your take on it from the perspective of Church fundraising. I thought he made TONS of really good points.