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10 Predictions About the Future Church and Shifting Attendance Patterns

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 has shown, even in America, people who are churchless (having no church affiliation) will soon eclipse the churched.

In addition, 48% of Millennials (born between 1984-2002) can be called post-Christian in their beliefs, thinking and worldview.

This post is part 4 of a 5 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):

Part 1: 10 Reasons Even Committed Church Attenders Are Attending Less Often

Part 2: CNLP Episode 23: Why People Are Attending Church Less Often—An Interview with Will Mancini.

Part 3: 5 Ways to Embrace Infrequent Church Attenders

Part 5: CNLP Episode 24: Churchless: Why and How America is Learning to Live Without The Church—An Interview with David Kinnaman

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?

Okay, 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 from 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 always gathered 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, compassion in every day 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 Christian 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 for 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 mega-church is dead, it’s not. And while others think mega-churches are awful, there’s nothing inherently bad about them. Size is somewhat irrelevant to a church’s effectiveness.

There are bad mega-churches and bad small churches. And there are wonderfully effective mega-churches 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 as millennials 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?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

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  • Lambo Al

    I am a Christian and have a daughter who is a pastor. She does not know the Lord and neither has she been called by God to become a pastor. For her, her church life is staged, plastic and devoid of the Holy Spirit. She is a modern day Pharisee … the very people Jesus despised. Their ‘church’ is merely a front for a business and the focus on money and greed is palpable. It is a veritable ‘den of thieves’. Jesus would ransack this ‘church’ at the first opportunity and cleanse His temple. That time is here right NOW. God is going to reclaim his church and make it pure once again. Too many churches are merely a front for a business with misquoted scriptures to try and get people to give and tithe to line the pockets of greedy pastors. This is why church attendances are down … it is because of dirty and unethical pastors and weak church leadership who have become a veritable ‘den of thieves’. It is not just the sick business model of the church, but the sick and evil church culture that is at the heart of the issue. A church can have a poor business model and thrive, but you can’t have a poor church culture with dubious values and survive. As the bible says “by their fruit you will know them”.

  • Heather Johnson

    Have you done any studies on alternative to church councils? Or maybe not alternative to councils but an alternative way of having council, a different structure than what the standard is. I find ours to be so business like that it’s a turn off and there are very few people that want to serve on church council. If not, are there any sites or churches that you could direct me to that I could start my own research on?

  • eric_in_ohio

    Cary — This is good stuff … but a “printer-friendly” option so that it can be reduced to hard copy for annotation and discussion would be really helpful!

    • Eric. Thanks for the feedback. Sorry its not more printer friendly. My design and theme don’t allow it. The ideas in this article are more fully developed in my new book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow. The books completely designed in that format around team discussion. You can get it on Amazon.

  • Pam

    Thank you for not bashing those of us who are dedicated Christ Followers but have unplugged from the commercial organization. I no longer use the word church to refer to the Body of Christ. I believe Jesus is separating the wheat from the chaff. The Body of Christ will indeed survive and thrive. I believe it is unlikely ‘church’ as an institution will survive. I believe we will see new wine skins constructed to hold and pour our a new manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Thank you for a well written insightful essay

  • Keith Roberts

    Thanks for the great thoughts. They’re both encouraging and disheartening, As one who ‘grew up in church’ and has now pastored churches for 40 years, I see how much change needs to happen. I do appreciate the reminder of the difference in the model and the mission. Getting churches to fall out of love with the model will be the biggest challenge, I think.

  • Kermit

    The family unit must learn to be responsible for teaching their children. This includes socializing.

  • Melinda Madison

    This has me thinking often about what that means for how we minister to kids and families in the future, not only on a weekly or bi-weekly basis on campus, but beyond the walls. With a trend of less frequent church attendance comes a concern for a potential decline in committed weekly leaders (whether that commitment is inside or outside a church building). Kids need routine and consistency, committed, relational leaders that point them to Christ, encourage their parents, listen to, love and challenge. I’m not a huge fan of teacher rotations because of this, yet we are seeking creative ways to utilize rotations along with committed weekly leaders. Who would be okay with sending their own child to school with a different classroom teacher every week? How much more important is the consistent spiritual development of a child! Our heart is to also minister to kids who have no say in attending/participating around custody issues. We aim to teach in ways that can travel with and to families. Pray for our team as we get outside the box in our thinking and planning to ensure we love kids and families like Jesus, despite attendance, and without compromising the message or mission. I might also say how thankful I am that we’re a part of the Orange philosophy and support system.

    • Prayer is something we all need. Appreciate your heart Melinda. Thank you!

  • This is great. Thanks!

  • christoph

    I pondered for a long time on #4, “a more selfless discipleship”. I believe that is the central issue for our churches. Radical, biblical discipleship must have an impact in my daily life. Jamie Snyder wrote a book, “real”. There he asks the question: What will happen to our Christian life if there is no Sunday.?” Just put that out here. I do believe too much in our churches fosters a “consumer” mentality. Carey that topic would be worth a blog by itself!

  • tekrogh

    Great post. I fully agree. I also think that sunday will have more like an open source approch. People will contribute to the message in a lot of different ways and the “preacher” “pastor” will have more the role of a catalysator than the role of the one delivers the message. This could also affect the size of the gatherings we have as a church, since interactivity maybe demands a smaller size. Whats your thought on these things Carey?

    • Some great points. I think there will be a lot of experimentation and much of what you say may happen in the margins. Whether it becomes mainstream is another question, but we have to try many things.

  • The institutional Church and the society that killed it is dead. I am alive and will continue to praise despite the means and ends mentioned in the article and its subsequent self-wrought ‘postmodern’ spiritual crises.

  • Tim R.

    I it is always good to hear (or read in this case) some encouraging words!

  • Allan Love

    Great insights here Carey … regarding no. 2 you have some good examples from the travel, music, etc. industries – do you have examples of specific, currents models in the church world that need to be shed, as well as examples of the new emerging models that are rising up with the church world? Thanks.

    • Great question. I think it’s more an attitude than a particular model. I could point to the most cutting edge and effective church today, but if they clung to their model the expense of their mission, they would be in trouble soon. So I think it’s an approach.

      • Allan Love

        Thanks Carey! I hear what you are saying in regards to “attitude” and “approach” – could you give examples of some innovative “attitudes/approaches” that are committed to, and carrying, the core mission of the church? I find a lot of church leaders using examples from the corporate world (whether it’s Kodak, IBM, Starbucks, etc.) to make their point(s), and in doing so, encourage/compel church leaders to move forward with innovative thinking and action – but rarely give concrete examples from the church world. I think having concrete examples from the church context would helpful to church leaders – I know it would be for me. Thanks again Carey!

        • I appreciate that. I could point at some, but I would rather have those conversations in private with church leaders rather than publicly say “Hey look at X church. It loves its mission more than its model and is paying a price.” I just don’t want to hold anyone up publicly in that regard.

          But I would say this, if your church or denomination is declining, there’s a very good chance there’s some model love going on.

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