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How Weekend Church Services Will Change In the Future

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.

By the way, Jon Tyson’s short summary of his methodology for sermon prep is not a bad lens through which to view the dual purpose of preaching and teaching. You can read it here.

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.

As I argued in this post, cool church is dying and something else is emerging.

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.

Want More?

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.

You can subscribe to my podcast for free here on iTunesStitcher or Tune In Radio.

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?

Did you find this post helpful?

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  • Peter Brown

    Fantastic article. Thank you for striking a healthy balance where needed and being bold in areas that required it.

  • StinaLF

    I LOVE this article! It has given me so much to think about. Thank you for including the links to other articles and podcasts as resources. And thank you for writing about the vitality of the church in such a gracious way.

  • I believe you have hit several good points, Carey. The challenge, though, isn’t to turn these predictions into reality. They are reality for many people, even the 50-somethings like me who have grown tired of the traditional stuck-in-a-social-club-rut churches as well as the heavy-loud-concert-with-screaming-speakers gatherings. I have little stomach for congregations that would rather talk about their kids (being a married childless man) or surfing or anything but how God just spoke to us.

    What is sad is that I’ve seen churches start well, but turn aside for the flash and adrenaline rush and drop the Lord. (For those who might be interested, the high decibels are indicing panic attacks in your members prone to such things. It’s not a “might” or a “could,” it’s happening, and it’s one of the things driving people out of community with you!)

    All this needs to be done with humility under the direction of the real Holy Spirit. He’s not the one that has you jumping pews or shouting vain repetitions, by the way; He never was. He’s the One Who has been calling you back to the truth. If you do not change, it’s not the Holy Spirit. You need to be prepared to throw everything you hold dear about your church out the window into the dumpster if He says so! That includes the rockstar bands, the babbling you call “tongues,” the pitiful way you mangle hymns the same way every time you mouth them, the carpet, the “altar” … EVERYTHING! No, I’m not saying to toss it, then pray, either! Be willing to do so if the Spirit of God tells you, and keep what He says keep. Then repeat that every time you come together for worship!

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  • These points are pretty much my heart. <3

  • Paul Janssen

    Yup, good thoughts — though, that “fourfold pattern of worship” is by no means strictly “Reformed.” It’s just, well, ancient. (I know the definition shows up on a reformed website, but even there it doesn’t claim to be distinctively reformed.)

  • deandeguara

    I think you are spot on! I found it interesting as I clicked on the link for the interview with Rachel Held Evans left the hip “Evangelical” movement to the more traditional Episcopal church that embraces tradition but a more liberal theology. Like you mentioned I think we can be innovative or make space for more tradition in Evangelical churches yet we cannot let go of traditional theology that has stood the test of time.

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  • Some great thoughts here Carey.

    One concept that keeps coming back to me is that churches will become more distributed in nature through the internet and that it will become normal for people to gather in ppl’s homes to engage in a service vs coming to a building.

    (It’s not an either or, but a both and)

    I also think that church attendees won’t want to be defined by geography and will feel like they are a part of a church even if they aren’t physically connected location wise.

    Having just bought into the Smart TV world I can see all kinds of possibilities and are exploring them already!

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  • Dylan Hall

    My question is about gathering and frequency.
    How often should the larger church gather ?
    Some prefer (yes there is a preference discussion) Sunday and large midweek.
    Others want 1x week with groups during the week
    “Early Church” want missional community.
    With the trend of less attendance and busier people how do we approach this?

  • Fred Lane

    About #3… I’ve ruminated on that for a long time, trying to understand what that experiential worship would be. And along the same lines as you, I have wondered about how to create a more impact-ful, real worship. My most recent idea has been that we cannot create it by somehow jacking up the service. I think it will happen when worship reflects the mission experiences of the people. A small example would be incorporating personal stories in the service – esp. stories of how that person (told by that person) served and experienced God in the rendering of service…. with recaps of special moments ministering to others, etc. The service would be the celebration of the people’s efforts in mission and ministry.

    I’ve been involved in and led services where we gave mission trip reports, and often, the spirit is almost thick enough to cut… That’s what we want to have regularly.

  • Justin Sainton

    Hi Carey,

    We don’t know each other yet, but I imagine we will get to know each other soon. We share a dear friend in Chris Lema. 😀

    My life is split between running our business (a WordPress-related business) and our church plant that we’ve started in the last year or so.

    Couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said here. I think you’ve done a brilliant job riding the tension between two extremes: First, some of us tend to end up clinging to old ways, traditions, not having an awareness of the times we’re in. On the other end, some of us tend towards the distraction of the constant new-shiny-thing in church, or the new-shiny-trend. The trend-du-jour seems to be one that loses love for the Church, in exchange for what people think of as the “Kingdom”.

    What I really appreciate here is that you’ve recognized our changing times and the need for us to actually grow into what God has always desired for us, but you communicate it in such a way the maintains a great and obvious love for the Church.

    Well done!

  • Love this article, Carey. We met at OC15 a few months ago. I was the long time reader whose never commented and you asked me to start commenting…so here is my first attempt. I have a question that I am pondering as a pastor and communicator that I was wondering if you, or any of your readers, might have insight on: How do we, as people of a spoken and written Word, declare this Word to an increasingly image driven culture? Any insights would be much appreciated.

    • Mark Mofield

      I think it is important to remember that image has long been part of our Christian witness and proclamation. Whether you are talking about the 3-leaf clover or the stained glass windows of the grand cathedrals or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Christian church has long sought to engage all the senses in the teaching and preaching of Scriptures. Perhaps this is one of those places where tradition and innovation can come together as mentioned in the article.

  • J Heath

    Thoroughly enjoy reading your articles, Carey. I get them often in my news/topic magazine and I come away thinking, “If I’m ever traveling through Canada one day I need to connect with this guy. (Ha! That’s not happening anytime soon as I’m raising a big family in Georgia.) Anyway, I couldn’t help thinking as I read this article how what you wrote isn’t any different than what the church really has been about since its beginning. (Or, has tried to be.) Your points aren’t anything new or earth shattering, which in themselves show just how resilient the church and her mission have always been. Whether the church was full of believers or the “what’s happening now” place for seekers, these things you list always have been what church really tried to focus on in one way or another. And of course, churches will focus on some of these areas more than others etc. Reading your list, which is spot on, just illustrates how the “church” and her focus/mission is a constant throughout the changing of mankind as people “change and cycle culturally”. In my experience of leading/working/visiting various churches from new plants to churches at the end of their life cycles, these traits are evident, just in different ways, (newer and older). What a comfort to know that the church’s purpose/mission is much like Scripture. Even though people change throughout time, the church really never changes and deep down, is what people need ultimately. Thanks for your insights and for taking the time to write these articles.

  • TxPastor

    On #5 I would say more than community, family – The Family of Christ. But not the dysfunctional family many have come to know, but the family as we know it should be. I say this because the way I see it a community is more a gathering of people where a true family requires a lasting relationship. After all, aren’t we brothers and sisters in Christ?

  • Dave Ralph

    Great post Carey. I have been doing a doctoral program and Leonard Sweet is our professor. He says the church that reaches millennials will have MRI as its operating system (Missional, Relational, Incarnational) and its program will have to be EPIC (experiential, participatory, image rich and communal). Lots of what he has been teaching us is contained in the post.

    • Great insight Dave. And awesome to hear from you. Thanks for sharing.

  • Joshua Kennedy

    Great post Carey! Some great points. I’ll be mulling over these for a while.