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5 Disruptive Church Trends That Will Rule 2016

There’s little doubt culture is changing rapidly.

The question is, are you ready as a church leader?

As I shared in my new book, Lasting Impact (you can download the first chapter for free here), if the change inside the church isn’t equal to or greater than the change outside our walls, irrelevance is inevitable.

While that thought can be somewhat depressing, think of the flip side.

History belongs to the innovators. It belongs to the leaders who dared to dream, to try things no one else was trying, to experiment, to push the boundaries of what everyone else believed was possible.

As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Or as Steve Jobs put it, “A lot of the time people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

If you are prepared to tackle change with a fully engaged heart, you can help not only your church but maybe even the church better accomplish the mission before us.

So what’s changing before our eyes? I see these 5 things becoming major players as 2016 unfolds.

church trends1. Church online will become an advance, not just a supplement to or replacement for church

You can make the argument that online options that churches offer—everything from message podcasts to social media to full online streaming of Sunday services— have too often played the role of a supplement to or replacement of church for many Christians.

For a growing number of Christians, online church has become the like TV preachers were to some Christians in the 70s and 80s who decided Sunday morning viewing at home was better than participation in a local church.  Too tired or disengaged to go on Sunday? Just watch online.

Watch for church online to become far less of a supplement or replacement and far more of an advance into the lives of people who don’t attend church at all.

Churches will get innovative and more intentional about reaching out into their communities using digital options at a point of first contact with unchurched people.

Think about it: everybody who wasn’t in your church last Sunday is probably on Facebook. And everybody who wasn’t in your church last Sunday is probably online.

So go connect with them.

More than ever in 2016, online church will begin to open a door into the lives of people who will never walk through yours.

2. Preachers will preach less often

I’ve noticed that preachers are both getting better at communicating and speaking less often.

It wasn’t that long ago that some preachers were writing 100 to 150 messages a year between Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights.

Many Sunday evening and Wednesday night services have disappeared in the last decade.

But a growing number of preachers are realizing that preparing 52 excellent Sunday messages is increasingly difficult. Personally I’ve cut back from writing 70 messages a year a decade ago to about 35 a year today.

The result? I’m a much better communicator.

What’s creating all this change?

Simple. It’s the wide availability of digital options. (See point #1 above.)

A decade ago, people who attended your church only really ever listened to you. Now they can hear anyone for free.  And they do.

As a result, the local pastor is often being listened to alongside today’s best communicators, and local pastors are opting for quality over quantity.

At some point, quantity and quality compete. And in today’s digital landscape, innovative leaders are opting for quality.

By the way, if you want to sharpen your communication skills, I would encourage you to try the free 7 day trial of Preaching Rocket. (affiliate link).

I’ve learned so much personally on how to be a better communicator from Jeff Henderson, who leads Preaching Rocket, and his method for getting ahead on messages, connecting with your audience and how to create sermons that stick.

Personally, Preaching Rocket has helped me take my communication to the next level. I hope they can help you as well.

You can sign up here, for a free 7 day trial.

3. Experience will trump content

Technology has made world-class content both portable and affordable.

Anyone can listen to the best communicators and best bands in the world for free or next to free on any device they own.

And they do.

The attractional churches of the 90s and 2000s built their congregations by offering excellent preaching and amazing music.

The challenge, of course, is that technology has disrupted that model.

What used to be both exclusive and something you had to experience personally is now portable and affordable thanks to your phone.

I’ll blog on this trend again soon, but the short answer is that ultimately, experience will have to trump content.

Why? Because more people are asking this question: If I can watch and listen on my phone, why would I come? 

If you don’t have a good answer to that question as a church leader, you lose.

Churches that cultivate a great experience will win.

What makes for a great experience?

Community

Serving one another in love

A sense of mission and movement into a city or region

Amazing kids experiences

Actual caring, prayer and human interaction

Church leaders will have to sift through what can only happen in person and what can happen online.

Those who do will continue to grow. Those who don’t, won’t.

It’s not that you shouldn’t have an online presence. You should have a great one.

But you should also offer something in person you can never get online. This year, the most innovative leaders will get better at figuring out what those differences are.

4. Passion will beat polish

For many years, growing churches focused on doing church better. 

Better music, better preaching, better buildings, better design, better everything drove much of the growth of the last few decades.

But as every leader knows, eventually better gets you diminishing returns.

One more moving light is probably not going to bring another 1000 people to Jesus in the same way the first moving light did. (Okay, moving lights never brought people to Jesus. But church was often so stale and bad in the 80s and 90s that moving lights were a hallmark of churches that innovated and as a result collectively baptized millions.)

The effective churches I’ve visited and seen recently by no means had the best lights, stage or production. Some had almost no stage and no lights, while others had a pretty decent package, but not nearly the level you see at some churches.

What did they all have in common? Passion.

When it comes to reaching the next generation, passion beats polish.

It’s not that polish is bad, but I think it’s increasingly trumped by a raw authenticity that exudes from leaders who will do whatever it takes to reach people with the Gospel.

In the churches I’ve seen doing a superb job with young adults, smaller facilities and stage sets were more than compensated for by preachers, worship leaders and team members who exuded passion for the mission.

Passion beats polish.

If you want to read about the other four characteristics I see in churches doing a great job reaching 18-35 year olds, you can read that here.

5. Only the most engaged and the curious will attend

There is a shifting attendance pattern happening in every church, including growing churches and mega-churches: even people who attend church are attending less often.

I outlined 10 reasons why that’s happening here, but I want to drill down on one in particular that I believe we’ll see more of in 2016 than ever before.

In the past, if you were Christian, you went to church on a Sunday. It was almost automatic.

But it led to many disengaged Christians filling up seats on Sundays. They attended, but they didn’t serve, didn’t give and didn’t invite anyone to come with them. They simply attended.

That group is increasingly disappearing, opting for online options (see point 1 above) or has dropped out all together as our culture becomes more and more post-Christian. This trend will only accelerate in 2016.

As a result, your weekend gatherings will increasingly be attended primarily by two groups: the engaged and the curious.

The engaged are people who are on mission with you. They give. They serve. They actually have unchurched friends they’re bringing to church. They live out their faith far more than they sit in a back row and ‘absorb’.

They’ll be joined on the weekends by the curious. The curious are people who haven’t made a decision to follow Jesus but they’re open. They’re exploring. They’re asking questions. They’re probably there because a friend invited them or because they found you online and wanted more.

When I look to the future, I see those two groups forming the core of the people who will continue to fuel attendance at your weekly gatherings.

So what does this mean for church leaders?

It means you need to stop valuing attendance more than you value engagement.

Ironically, if you value attendance over engagement, you will see declining attendance.

And if you want to raise attendance, raise engagement.

What Do You See?

Those are 5 big trends I see emerging in 2016.

I call them disruptive because they will ensure that things never stay the same. And for leaders, that should be exciting. It gives us the chance to innovate and actually advance our mission.

By seeing the trends clearly, you can respond to them.

After all, leaders who see the future can seize the future.

What disruptive trends do you see emerging in 2016?

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  • Thanks for the article. I don’t attend church and never plan to go. I’m an atheist and I’m merely commenting as I really enjoy the way you write. I appreciate that you didn’t push a fear-based agenda.

    Be well

    • Thank you Todd. Appreciate you being part of the conversation. I’ve always seen fear as a poor motivator, and love as the highest motivator. God, according to the Scriptures as I read them, is love. Bless you Todd.

  • blakeNaustin

    The entertainment oriented values and social media based relationships expressed in this article is sadly representative of many millennials. But it does not align with Scripture, something that is woefully lacking in any of the points this writer makes. Sensitive to culture is important, but it is not everything. There are timeless absolutes that should be guiding MOST of what the church is and does.

  • So, Re: NO. 2 Trend: What are you suggesting for the other 17 Sundays in a year where you’re not preaching? And what’s the suggestion for the church where the pastor is the only staff person?

    • Great questions. Guest preachers. Lay preachers. Video teaching (Life.church offers its messages free). Lots of options. Bottom line: try to create 52 Sundays of great content.

  • A Amos Love

    Would a *disruptive trend* for the…
    501 (c) 3, Non-Profit, Tax Deductible, Religious Corporations…
    That the IRS calls church…

    Be…
    More and more pastor/leaders, in 2016…
    Will recognize, and admit, that the “Title/Postion,” pastor/leader/reverend…
    Does NOT exist in the Bible for one of His Disciples?

    And these pastor/leader/reverends, will walk away from…
    The Power, Profit, Prestige, Honor, Glory, Celebrity, Recognition, Reputation…
    That come with today’s “Title and Position,” of – pastor/leader/reverend?

    To become…
    More and more like one of His Disciples in the Bible, where…
    NOT one of His Disciples had the “Title” – pastor/leader/reverend?
    NOT one of His Disciples called them self – pastor/leader/reverend?
    NOT one of His Disciples called another Disciple – pastor/leader/reverend?
    NOT one of His Disciples was “Hired or fired,” as a – pastor/leader/reverend?

    And, eventually follow the example of Jesus, in the Bible, who…
    Humbled Himself? Made Himself of NO Reputation?
    And took on the form of a Servant? Phil 2:7-8.

    Humble – to have a modest or low opinion of ones own importance.

    What is popular is NOT always “Truth.”
    What is “Truth” is NOT always popular.

  • A Amos Love

    Hmmm?

    “What *disruptive trends* do you see emerging in 2016?”

    Would a *disruptive trend* for the…
    501 (c) 3, Non-Profit, Tax Deductible, Religious Corporations…
    That the IRS calls church…

    Be…
    More and more pastor/leaders, in 2016…
    Will recognize, and admit, they do NOT meet…
    The Qualifications for elder/overseer, in 1 Tim 3:1-7, and Titus 1:5-9?
    1 – A bishop “must be” *blameless.*? 2 – Just? 3 – Holy?
    4 – Manage his own household well? 5 – Having faithful children?

    And these pastor/leader/reverends, who do NOT Qualify…
    Will remove themselves? Becoming a good example to the flock?

    And, will desire to be more and more like…
    One of His Disciples? In the Bible?
    Denying self? Forsaking all?
    Being a Servant?

    When you believe the lie you start to die…

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  • LCochran

    Carey, I can agree with your 5 “findings” – They institution of the church has failed to stay relevant. Excuse my rant, but if you’ll allow me to chime in on why I think your findings are true.

    1) online – it’s just a tool, but as we become more adapt to using it, it becomes the norm. Multi-site churches use video, so why not “attend” a podcast or a streaming and/or recorded message?

    2) preach less – small groups killed Sunday nights and Wednesday night years ago. The backlash will come when people begin to wonder why many ministers are being paid a full paycheck when they are not as visible as they once where. – People want to know more than ever where their money is being spent, and how it’s being used.

    3) experience – welcome to the age of pleasure. Content is king, but it has to be presented in an engaging and interesting way. Churches have long left the sloppy 1970’s as they began to strive for excellence; in doing so, they have begun to use entertainment methods to improve the user experience. (Think lights, video etc.) Many people are spiritually hungry, and don’t want entertainment, yet they don’t want the content delivered in such a way that it’s not relevant. (Truth is, we need the power of God back – that’s an experience that will change lives forever.)

    4) passion – Yes, passion is key. How can we serve the God of the universe and not be excited? People want authenticity. Practical, down to earth, reality. John 3:16 – God sent is son. Jesus was passionate, not to mention practical, down to earth, authentic, etc.

    5) engagement – Beyond attending a movie, when do people come and set for a lecture without getting to interact and/or provide any feedback? With the growth of the information age and all the tools that come with it, people are no longer willing to set back and listen to one person. Everyone wants to have a chance to add to the conversation and be heard. Everyone want to participate, but somehow over the years it’s been implied that only the elect can be minsters rather than championing the fact that EVERY believer is a minister of reconciliation. We should all be in the game and not on the sidelines (or watching from the pew as it may be).

    We (the church) act shocked that people are leaving out our doors and not returning. We tend to forget that the church Christ came to establish was not a building, but it’s our hearts. If we keep in the center, all the other details will work themselves out as we listen to His voice and obey.

    I pray for the day that the institution awakens and begins to live up to it’s potential. Until then, I pray that believers will boldly walk in what the Church was called to be making disciples and reaching the lost.

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  • Neal Smith

    Churches have left the task at which they are God appointed to do….Spread His word. Modern “doctrine” leaves out sin, the penalty for it (hell) satan’s distruptions of a persons coming to Christ & the fact that He, & He alone is the only way to eternal life in the kingdom He taught. In Paul’s letter to the Galatian church..chapter one, He gave strong warning about false teaching, doctrine contrary to scripture & following those who preach it.

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  • christopher.miles

    Unfortunately, a disruptive trend I see for 2016 is that many Christians will forget that the separation of Church and State is meant to protect the Church. Too many Christians will be sucked in as pawns of the election year, and hostility between Christians will be raised to a whole new level by those that seek political gain. Loving church leaders will need to work extra hard to protect the flock from the wolves that would suggest that anyone who disagrees with them can’t be a Christian. Christian brothers and sisters will need to be reminded that the health of Christ’s church (His body) is much more important than individual political positions.

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  • Janne

    I attend some churches and what draws me to a christian fellowship, is The Gospel. I am a lot more interested in pastor who knows the Lord intimately teaching me about Jesus and what He did for me and how He is the answer to every single question of life, than listening to a sermin about applying some principles on how I can get a better quality of life etc…

    I don’t move easily if someone tries to engage me, because I see that as a form of control. But we have Freedom in Christ and we should encourage that Freedom on anybody by preaching the Truth. Only one who can engage me, is Jesus. Of course it would be good if a pastor would take personal interest in me, in the only thing that matters, so that I would know Christ more, like he should know Him more than me. If he doesn’t, it’s humbling himself time bigtime. If he sees me as a number or he thinks he must somehow plan a strategy to engage me, that would most likely make me concerned that is that pastor actually following Jesus Christ, or his own desire to have a lot of attendees, or influence, or recognition from other leaders.

    I think Holy Spirit is knocking on every churches door on 2016. He would like to lead, but He won’t force anyone to listen to Him, not even a pastor. It’s either accepting Him in the church, or just trying to develop or plan new ways to get people to come to church. Which they won’t. Because they want Jesus, who is Alive!

    If we follow Jesus, people who are meant to be, will be drawn to the Truth of Gospel and it doesn’t matter what church they attend, as long as it preaches the Gospel. If that even bothers us, our heart is not for God. If we follow Jesus, we don’t care one bit about how many people attend our church, because we are not defined by numbers, we are defined by the Love of God and the ultimate sacrifice of Lord Jesus Christ. It’s all about Him, He will get the numbers. Our job is to love God and one another.

    Have a blessed and Spirit filled year 2016

    • JBMoorpark

      “Preach Jesus” seems like a stock answer to me. As someone who no longer attends church, I’d rather see church people being little Christs (the original meaning of Christian) in the world than preaching Jesus.

      Actions speak much, much louder than words. People sitting in a room somewhere on Sunday doesn’t bring Jesus to anyone but the people in that room (and sometimes not even to them). How about on-the-ground concrete actions of love and help for the larger community? If people saw love in action more often they’d be more interested in what is motivating these people to show such love.

      When people start saying “I’m not a Christian but I have to say our town is a much better place because of what the church people do here”, then you’ve really impacted the community.

      • Janne

        Yep. A big part of what I meant about personally encouraging people was encouraging them to do what a christian does. And doing it ourselves first of course. And if we tell people who they are in Christ, the result is we and them become like our Lord. Also in actions.

        Actions speak, and faith comes from the preaching of the Word. Actions without faith are…? 🙂

        Making disciples was basically what I meant. That is what our Lord told all christians to do. Disciples who keep everything He told us to keep.

        My motive was to steer the focus on Jesus, because He is The Way, The Truth and The Life. Whenever we start thinking too much about numbers, new ways to plant churches, doctrines, strategies, leaderships, whatnot, we are off The Way very quickly building our own kingdoms instead of serving His Kingdom. Might not be the case here, but it might lead to that.

        Either we follow our own desires to “be somebodies” or we deny ourselves including any right to be anybodies and follow Him. Even our desire to be significant fellowship builders can be a detriment to our growth and one of those works that burns down in the end.

        It’s ALL about Jesus. Do we know Him personally? Have we given EVERYthing to Him? Including our plans to grow fellowships. Blessings!

  • Great post Carey, Totally agree about church online. I started our online campus last August.

    I think it is well on the way to becoming our largest ‘location’. The Christmas Eve/Day attendance online outdid our by 5 to 1. (Go God!)

    We are using a digital strategy I developed to reach out to our local and international community.

    For any naysayers who think it isn’t ‘the right way’ I’d just say, think about every housebound person who is thinking about attending a church.

    I had a call from an older man when we started who suffered from severe arthritis and he told me that our online campus was now going to be his church, which he hadn’t been able to attend for many years.

    I have so many other stories from different groups of people already that I can share that just shout that is a good tool to provide real option for so many.

    Again, online is just a tool to reach people. Just like TV is and every other channel, including live. The cliche is true – the methods may change, but the message is the same.

    Jesus!

    I could go on… and on… 🙂

    See you soon!

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  • Sammy Millar

    Hey there. Really good article. I followed the link to the preach better seminar, and the first thing I notices was that all the speakers are male? Is there a reason for this?
    Thanks heaps.

    • Richard Jones

      I don’t mean this as a criticism, because I find great value in Carey’s blog and podcast and I believe he loves God and loves people and has a real heart to help the church of Jesus Christ, but the church tradition that Carey (or should I say most of his blog/podcast audience) comes from has historically believed that men should preach. Among evangelicals, this is an extremely common position. As a United Methodist, it is not my position, but I believe we can all learn from each other.

      • Sarah Cochran

        It is difficult to try to seriously learn from someone who seriously believes that they cannot learn from me. Simply because I am a woman. How can I believe what they say if I do not believe that one thing that HE believes?

  • Great insights to share with my team and network of peers! Thanks!

  • Great post Carey,
    Your title threw me off at first – then I was entangled in the truthful web of your presentation. Yep, I was an engaged reader 🙂

    While I enjoy technology and some online ministry, I have always felt that some new technology and social media have been the detriment to the influence of a local church. Thought we surely can take advantage of it, there will always be a crowd that will stay behind, disengaged, or may not feel like they are part of the “in” crowd who is in the up and up with all that is happening around the world, even locally through social media.

    Having said that, I’ve always believed that (and this is old school – yet always relevant) that the biggest disruptive church trend for the church has been preaching, teaching, interpreting and trying to live a Kingdom book, with a democratic mindset. Thus the need for additional fluff and the disinterest of others especially those of the household of faith.

    The kingdom of God works every time – religion doesn’t. People want and need a faith that changes, influences and moves forward with power – not listen to somebody give an opinion or their views. No wonder more lighting has been a driving power, rather than the raw power of the transforming kingdom of God.

    BTW, I will use this blog post to created a discussion in my Wed night class. Thanks again for a great post!

  • Additional trends I anticipate in 2016, for which I have been trying to prepare those whom I have been coaching:
    1. Accelerating closure of churches that would be museums rather than missions.
    The number of churches that have bled off resources to the point that they have reached the “event horizon” (which, once passed, survival is no longer possible) continues to grow. Many organizations have simply given up on church renewal and now put all their eggs in the church planting / satellite basket.
    2. Resurgent interest in doctrinal preaching and teaching (related to your #5)
    Contrary to the currently popular notion that Millennials and “Nones” are indifferent to religion, they are intensely interested in churches (and preachers) that address the core questions they struggle with on a daily basis. Humans don’t change in fundamental ways, even when the culture around them does: they are still driven by angst and the need for meaning in life. Pastors and churches who go deep with the ancient message couched in contemporary voice will continue to experience significant ministry growth.
    3. Decentralized theological education will continue to accelerate
    Colleges and seminaries simply cannot provide *most* of the training that students need to lead effectively out on the hostile mission frontier which American culture has become. This is not to devalue seminary education because it equips preachers and teachers with much needed skills – but they can only train pastors to do about 20% of the job. The rest of the leadership skills – relationship management, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, change leadership & etc – can only be learned on the job, preferably under the tutelage of an experienced mentor.
    4. Further fragmentation of the evangelical consensus around cultural issues
    In retrospect we may ultimately conclude that the “moral majority” was an exercise in folly (the attempt to make people good and to ‘leaven’ a society by force of law). But the divide over social issues such as abortion, immigration, government spending and many others will continue to accelerate.

    • Brian Cunnington

      Strong resonance with what you have written Bud, particularly #2 and #3. Anyone who thinks that people (young and old) are just interested in having a “moving experience” each week and not at all concerned with the “deeper issues of life” is sadly out-of-touch. What we, as the church, need is the willingness to listen to how those “issues” are currently being expressed and the ability to respectfully join those conversations.

  • Brian Cunnington

    Thanks Carey — another great post! I like that you emphasize movement towards engagement. I am concerned that many might see e-church ventures as end-points rather than next-points. Obviously there are many cautions with e-tech including the diminished ability to communicate effectively and engage with others in relationship. Perhaps we need a broader understanding of missional engagement and how the local gathered congregation can encourage and support each other in that engagement — having just written that, I am sure you have already blogged or posted on that very thing. Blessings