If you’re breathing, you know our culture is changing and that the church is undergoing a massive transition.
The question is, what do you do about that?
How do you lead in the midst of it?
And if you’re leading a church, how do you respond?
Questions like that have a lot of church leaders soul searching these days, including me. That can only be good for the mission of the church and for the future.
I frequently write about the subject of the current and future church on this blog because I care about the church deeply. Several months ago I wrote a 5 part series on why people attend church less often and how the church can respond. You can access that series here.
This is a follow up to that series.
While the way forward is not clear and will change, I offer these 5 guidelines on how our weekend church services will change in addition to the 10 predictions I made about future church attendance patterns here.
Naturally, not all might be accurate. But I hope they help further the dialogue in your mind and in your church.
1. Preaching And Teaching Will Go Hand In Hand
Most pastors lean toward preaching or teaching. Few do both regularly or well.
What’s the difference between preaching and teaching?
Without going all seminary for a moment, a broad distinction would be that preaching is announcing the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, and teaching is the instruction and building up of people who have become Christians.
For sure, it’s more nuanced than that. But the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
Sometimes even in the early church the terms were used interchangeably, but the main distinction is between proclaiming the Gospel and instructing Christians.
There’s no doubt there’s a resurgence in teaching ministry. Many of the churches that are reaching people under 30 are doing it with strong teaching ministries. John Piper has a lot of Millennials listening. So do Louis Giglio and Jon Tyson.
This shouldn’t be surprising.
Churches that are reaching people with no church background have a developing issue. At Connexus Church, where I serve, over 50% of our growth is directly from people with no church background or attendance.
That’s amazing, but the question is how do you give people background to the faith they’re adopting while continuing to communicate in a way that expands the mission?
For sure, you can move off Sunday with teaching into small groups and other venues (and the internet gives us options for content creation that didn’t exist 15 years ago). But the fact remains that the Sunday morning message is when you simply have most people’s attention.
The challenge, of course, with having a predominantly teaching ministry, is that the church becomes about insiders and you miss reaching outsiders.
The challenge with having a predominantly preaching ministry is that the church can become all about outsiders and you miss teaching insiders.
The future church will have to have a both/and approach.
The communication skill set that will be most highly effective will be a preacher who can both preach in a way that motivates insiders and teach in a way that is accessible to outsiders.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach and preach moving forward. I think every preacher has to, regardless of your leaning.
2. The Gathering Will Become the Sending
For the many churches that have adopted an attractional model, the unspoken expectation is that people gather predominantly to come and see.
Combine that with a highly individualist consumer culture, and that’s how most people will view church: a place to gather, consume and leave.
Naturally, that’s a huge mistake, but it reflects the era we live in.
How do you combat that?
Instead of seeing Sunday only as a gathering, wise leaders will also see it as a sending. Tiffany DeLuccia had some great thoughts on this over at Tony Morgan’s blog recently.
The gatherings of the early church were not just a place to worship, learn and encourage, they involved a sending out into the world to change the world.
The Reformed four-fold pattern of worship embodies this so well. While the church gathers, it also sends.
The goal of a service is not to applaud the message or talk about how amazing the music was. The goal is to go back out into the world for which Christ died better equipped to live out and share our faith.
Figuring out how not just to dismiss people when the service is over but to send people out in the world equipped to live and lead differently is critical.
Church is not a spectator sport. It’s a place of transformation.
Future churches will embrace that.
3. The Gathering Will Be More Of An Experience….Less of a Show
As people have more and more options and freedom with their time, and as guilt dissipates, people are trading in Sundays for what they think are better options.
Many churches have responded in the last decade by adding more lights, better sound, better video and fun moments in their services. I get that, and it’s not as inherently bad as some critics would say it is. The majority of churches who are doing this are reaching more people and seeing more people come to Christ than churches that don’t.
And yet when you live in an age when you can listen to any message on your phone when you run and stream your 3 favourite worship songs any time any where, the urge to gather seems less appealing to a growing number of people.
What’s emerging, I think, is a more authentic church. And what’s emerging is more of an experience than a show.
When people show up at a church these days, they want to experience God, not just sing a few songs and hear a helpful message. They want God more than they even want advice.
This hunger is a good hunger. It will get us thinking about how to facilitate an experience of God for hundreds or even thousands of people.
I’m not talking about manufacturing something that isn’t there, but somehow facilitate that magnificent, imminent and transcendent experience between God and his people that the church has facilitated for millennia…and to do it in a way that connects with this generation.
That is not going to be found in a formula, but rather will be found on our knees, open and hoping to experience God ourselves in a way that radiates out as we minister to others.
You can’t podcast an experience…not fully.
When God is present, there is something about being in the room together with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of believers and unbelievers that is unique.
We have to recapture that kind of experience using the best of the past and the best of present.
4. Tradition and Innovation Will Become Companions
There has been a battle in much of church culture between tradition and innovation.
The traditionalists don’t want to innovate.
The innovators want little to do with tradition.
This trend has fresh wrinkles as it’s clear that some younger Christians, as has been prominently articulated by Millennials like Rachel Held Evans, are leaving evangelicalism and returning to tradition.
What many church leaders are realizing is that both tradition and innovation can be stale and dead.
Neither has to be.
Tradition needs innovation and innovation needs tradition.
In the future, tradition and innovation will become companions.
Innovative churches will recapture some of the best of tradition that has been lost, and traditional churches will blow off the dust and innovate, keeping the best of what they have and changing everything else.
Tradition and innovation have been somewhat mutually exclusive conversations and communities in the last few decades. Fusing the two could perhaps produce some incredibly healthy dialogue moving forward.
5. Community Will Matter, Greatly
The more connected our culture becomes, the more disconnected we feel.
In the future, the church will function more like a community.
Not just random individuals who gather in common space for an hour (the worst caricature of megachurch).
And not a community of insiders indifferent to the world (the worst caricature of insider church).
Instead, the future church will be a community of people who serve together, give together, invite friends together and do community beyond Sunday as well as on Sunday. And above all, it will be a community that is continually welcoming new friends and new family.
Among practically every person under 30 I talk to or listen to, there’s a palpable longing for authentic community—a desire to connect in person, for real, in depth.
Jefferson Bethke articulates the longing of many his generation so well in this Church Leader’s podcast episode (it’s so worth the listen).
The church that figures out how to bring old and young together at the table, Christian and non-Christian together in backyards, and the mature and the just-starting-out together in friendship will become a light to many in their community.
Naturally, the churches or groups of churches that figure out how to do this well for hundreds, and even for thousands or tens of thousands, will be able to see communities and regions transformed.
Community has been the hallmark of the church at its best for years. It will continue to be the hallmark of the church for the future.
This is a huge topic very much in transition as we speak.
For those of you who want to dig deeper, in addition to the original blog and podcast series, here are some interviews from my Leadership Podcast I’ve done with church leaders on the changing nature of church.
Rich Birch on Whether Contemporary Churches Are Losing Their Edge
In Episode 8 of my podcast, Rich Birch and I talk about whether contemporary churches are losing their edge.
Geoff Surratt on Churches That Are Reaching Millennials
In Episode 40, Geoff Surratt and I talk about reaching millennials and look at specific churches that are doing a great job.
John Stickl on Leading a Church As a Millennial Leader
John Stickl took over a mega-church at age 29, and a few years later is reaching thousands more, many of whom are millennials. In this interview, he shares their vision and strategy.
Josh Gagnon on Adapting Church To Culture in New England
Josh Gagnon is another Millennial mega-church leader who talks about how to make church work in New England and on using tradition and reach unchurched people.
To access these interview for free on your phone or other devise, just subscribe.
What Do You Think?
I think healthy dialogue always makes the conversation and the future better. I’d love to know what you think will characterize the future church.
Please know I also write this post as one committed to the future of the local, organized church. I realize there are many who are ‘done’ with church (I wrote a response to people who are done with church here).
I’m not sure how helpful it would be to use the comments to list how awful the church you used to go to is. So please don’t rail against the church leaders who are doing their best to lead a local church or even the people you know who aren’t doing their best or are poor leaders. We have enough of that online as it is.
But for those who want to make the local church better, or want to imagine a church they and their friends would attend, what would you add to this post?