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10 Questions About Future Church Attendance No One Really Knows How to Answer

future church

Talk to any church leader, and they’ll tell you it feels harder than ever to get people to come to church on a Sunday.

Even in growing churches (like ours), the competition for peoples’ time, attention and devotion seems to get more intense every year.

You’ve felt it too.

So what’s up? And where is future church attendance heading?

Well, first, even people who attend church are attending less often (here’s why). Second, we know that non-attenders remain interested in spirituality but less interested in church than ever before.

You’ve also noticed that what used to work in church a decade ago doesn’t anymore.

None of this means it’s all gloom and doom. Not at all.

But for centuries, church attendance on Sundays has been a primary way for Christians to connect as well as to connect people who want to explore a relationship with Jesus.

So what happens when regular attendance isn’t nearly as much the norm as it used to be?

I’m a firm believer in the future of the church and the gathered church. It’s here to stay not because we always get it right, but because the church is Jesus’ idea, not ours.

While I think there are some good guesses as to what the future church will look like (here are 10 predictions about the future church), we’re at the point where there are almost more questions than answers.

Hence, this post.

As you chart the future, questions can become your best friend.

Why? Because usually the future isn’t pioneered by the clarity of the answers nearly as much as it by the quality of the questions.

Ask the right questions, and you’ll eventually get the right answers.  Fail to ask the questions, and you’re sunk.

If you’re upset about the current trends, good for you.  It means you’re positioning yourself for a breakthrough. Or at least someone is because discontent drives far more innovation than contentment ever has.

History belongs to the innovators.

So, in the name of driving some innovation, here are ten questions that no one knows the answer to when it come to future attendance.

1. Will infrequent church attendance become the universal default?

If you grew up in church, you were likely raised never to miss a Sunday. Well, those days are pretty much gone. I outline ten reasons for that in this post.

Frequent church attendance (say 3 weeks a month) seems to be most prevalent among

  • Volunteers
  • Long time (and older) church attendees
  • Families with very young children
  • Some new attendees and new Christians (at least for a season)
  • Quite honestly, lower income families for whom travel is not an option

As infrequent attendance becomes more normative, it raises a series of other questions.

2. Does infrequent attendance lead to lower devotion among Christians?

Some might argue frequent church attendance is not an indicator of devotion to Christ but is infrequent church attendance a sign of lower devotion to Christ?

Obviously, there is nothing that inherently says that’s the case, but generally speaking, people are less committed to things they attend less often.

Showing up at the gym once a month rather than 3 times a week usually communicates something. Skipping a weekly date with someone you’re supposed to be in love with is usually a sign of something deeper.

People usually commit to things they’re devoted to. Until they’re no longer devoted to them.

Naturally, the goal of faith is to get people to commit to Jesus, not to a local church, but still, as I outline here, Christ and his church are intricately connected.

3. Will online church replace in-person attendance for many?

So if people aren’t attending church as regularly anymore, then what’s the new normal?

In addition to simply staying away, many are substituting online options for in-person attendance.

The last decade has seen an explosion of online options for Christians, most of which are free: from social media, to podcasts and to services streamed both live and on demand.

The opportunities are endless and will only grow from here.

Even if your church doesn’t have any online presence, don’t worry—thousands of other ministries do. There’s no way to shield your congregation from a changing world.

And actually, come to think of it, there’s shouldn’t be. The church has always adapted to a changing world because Jesus loves the world.

4. Does online participation feed consumption or drive engagement?

One of the key goals for Christians is to engage the mission in front of us: to share the love and salvation of Christ with the world.

But does online participation drive Christians into deeper engagement with that mission or does it drive us deeper into consumerism?

The challenge with technology, of course, is that we are both its parent and its child. We shaped it, but we’re unclear on how it’s shaping us.

So, given the rise of digital options, are Christians increasingly seeing their faith as something to be consumed?

The Gospel by nature demands sacrifice, engagement, and risk.

Christianity at its best has never been about consuming much and contributing little. We shouldn’t start now.

In many respects, online consumption builds the kingdom of me. We’re called to build the Kingdom of God.

5. What happens to evangelism in a low attendance world?

Of all the things that concern me most about lower attendance patterns, this one is the highest on my list.

If you’re consuming your faith online and only attending sporadically, how do you invite your friends into that? That’s right, you don’t.

Sharing a link on Facebook is not the same as personally sharing your life with a friend.

Sure, theoretically, you can share your faith around a kitchen table. But let’s be honest, not many people actually do that. And something tells me that most people who attend infrequently rarely share their faith.

Christians should live like the good news is good, not just for them, but for everyone.

6. What happens to discipleship in a virtual environment?

Christian maturity is not marked by how much you know, it’s marked by how much you love.

And love has an outward thrust.

Sure, to grow as a disciple you need to consume. So listen to messages and podcasts, take online seminary classes… do what you need to do.

But consumption has never been the goal of true discipleship. Jesus never asked you to be a disciple; he called you to make disciples.

If your mantra in avoiding other Christians on Sunday and consuming what you feel like on Monday is to build yourself up, you’ve lost the mission.

7. How much of a virtual experience actually translates?

With more and more congregations streaming their services, it raises the question of what happens on the other end?

First, I suspect the attention span of viewers and listeners is fractured and intermittent. Watching while running on the treadmill is not the same experience as being in the room live when something is taking place. Listening while cooking dinner and while the kids are running up and down the hall is not the same as being seated and attentive for a sermon. Sure, people have been distracted in church for centuries, but it’s a different kind of distraction.

Second, even if you sit in rapt attention to what’s being streamed on your device, is it the same as being in the room? If you only watched online for a year or attended for a year, would your experience be different?

I think to some extent it would. First, you’d have little human interaction (except maybe in a chat room). But beyond that, I think there’s something of the total experience of being together with others in the presence of God that gets lost.

But it’s too early to tell.

8. Is a digital relationship with Christianity enough?

As physical attendance continues to decline and digital engagement increases, will it be possible to have 100% or near 100% digital relationship with Christianity, much the way you have a completely virtual relationship with gaming, movies or Hollywood?

Perhaps. But I think something gets lost.

A high percentage of couples today meet online. But no couple who meets online wants to stay online: the goal is to meet in person and (maybe) start a life together.  Should Christians be different?

If the goal is to do life together, to engage in a mission together, to quite literally change the world together, well… that involves actual human relationships.

But in a world where more and more are choosing virtual connection over real, we’ll have to see what that produces.

9. What happens to kids whose parents only attend online?

This one bothers me more than most. Parents will often skip out on attending church because they’re busy or want a day off.

And parents can easily catch up on a message and maybe even still get to a small group.

But what about kids?

We’ve built a relational ministry at our church for all ages based on the Orange strategy and curriculum because, well, I think the Gospel is inherently relational.

You can’t podcast a relationship or stream it (entirely).

When parents skip church, kids lose far more than the parents.

What happens to a generation of kids who grow up disconnected?

10.Will fragmented individual believers carry the mission forward?

Whether the future trends are toward more online engagement or just more sporadic attendance with no online supplementation, the question is whether fragmented individual believers will carry the mission forward?

The church has always been strongest when it’s been a movement of people gathered around a common set of mission, vision, values and strategy.

The hyper-individualism of our current culture (I’ll do what I want when I want to) runs at crossed-purposes to the Gospel and the mission of the church.

I realize many Christians argue they’re done with church (I wrote about that here… the comments will curl your hair), but that still doesn’t change my view that the only one who believes Christians are better off alone is the enemy.

So… What Do You Think?

I really don’t want this to sound like a doomsday scenario. Our church grew last year… and many other churches are growing too. But increasingly church leaders will tell you it feels more like an uphill battle than ever before.

That’s in large measure due to the massive cultural shifts happening around us. I cover many more issues surrounding the church today in my latest book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow. You can also get the Lasting Impact Video Team Edition here.

I do believe the future will be amazing for the church if we ask the right questions, seize the moment prayerfully, and begin to innovate.

These questions above aren’t just strategic questions, they’re theological and philosophical questions.

The church is far from dead, but asking the right questions will breathe life into it.

Is there any question you’d add to this list?

Any hopeful answer you’d like to offer?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

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14 Comments

  1. […] Any other things you miss when you miss church? I would add that of all the people who suffer, I believe the kids are affected most. Here’s why. […]

  2. […] 10 Questions About Future Church Attendance No One Really Knows How To Answer by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  3. […] Click here to leave a comment. […]

  4. Jeff on March 12, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Carey, where do you get your pictures at for your blog posts?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2017 at 7:30 pm

      Hey Jeff…generally speaking, Shutterstock. I buy them there.

  5. A Amos Love on March 12, 2017 at 9:58 am

    Hmmm?
    “Jesus never asked you to be a disciple;
    he called you to make disciples.”

    In the Bible, can anyone name one of “His Disciples”
    Who ever made a “Disciple of Jesus?”

    In my experience…
    Most “pastor/leader/reverends” today, who promote “Discipleship.”
    Making Disciples, Training Disciples…

    Do NOT teach *from the Bible…
    What Jesus taught “His Disciples” *in the Bible…

    Even if, Mat 28:19, KJV, is correct, “Go… teach all nations.”
    Or, Mat 28:19, ESV, is correct, “Go… make disciples…”

    Mat 28:20, in most versions are similar…
    In verse 20, Jesus, teaches, His Disciples, what to teach.
    When teaching all nations – Or, making disciples of Jesus.

    Mat 28:20 ESV
    …teaching them to observe ALL that I have commanded you…

    Sounds Simple – Read the four gospels…
    Make a list, teach what Jesus Did, and Taught, “His Disciples.”

    In the Bible, did Jesus teach, command, “His Disciples”
    To take the “Title/Position” pastor? Or to call themself pastor?
    Or shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend?” – NOPE!

    In the Bible, did any of “His Disciples”
    Take the “Title/Position” pastor? Or call themself pastor?
    Or shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend? – NOPE!

    If Jesus, did NOT teach, command, these things?
    If “His Disciples,” did NOT teach these things? Do these things?

    Where did they come from?

    Could “these things” be? The Commandments of Men?
    The Doctrines of Men? The Traditions of Men? WE are warned about?
    That “Make Void?” “Nullify?” The Word of God? Mark 7:13

    Wouldn’t you think, pastors, “church leaders,” today?
    (A term that does NOT exist, in the Bible, for one of “His Disciples.”)
    Who say they are Making Disciples? Practicing “Discipleship?”
    Look something like one of “His Disciples” in the Bible?

    And, in the Bible, NOT one of “His Disciples” called them self pastor.
    Or shepherd. Or leader. Or church leader. Or reverend.

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

  6. A Amos Love on March 12, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Hmmm?
    “6. What Happens To Discipleship In A Virtual Environment?”

    Can anyone find “Discipleship?” In any Real Bible Environment? 🙂

    I can NOT find “Discipleship,” in my antiquated KJV.

    Has anyone ever noticed…
    Paul, with all the instructions in his epistles to the ekklesia of God, Paul never mentions disciples? making disciples? “discipleship?” or discipleship training?

    Neither does James, John, Peter, or anyone, in the NT epistles, mention disciples, making disciples, discipleship, or discipleship training.

    Seems the word “Disciple/s” is only found in
    Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts.

    Hmmm? Things that make you go – Hmmm?

  7. Mark on March 11, 2017 at 9:31 am

    In my experience many churches have become competitive with one another. As pastors attempt to keep their current congregation as well as draw new people in, it has in many ways become a business with full marketing departments and plans to keep people coming. Very few churches disciple anyone anymore and much of the congregation have become spectators in the service. As more and more churches try to “out do” each other with what they have to offer, pastors now preach what people want to hear as to not to offend anyone so they don’t leave. Cheap grace instead of hard truth have become the norm in many churches as pastors cannot risk offending anyone because there’s another church down the road that won’t confront you with the truth. The state of the American church is pathetic in it’s maturity level and as long as candy is the main meal at any given service, the decline will continue.

  8. IXQUS on March 11, 2017 at 8:55 am

    It can take great effort to reconcile attending a meeting place with those purporting to possess great spiritual wealth, while those burdened are clearly left wanting. With so much space that finds so little appropriate use, for its stated intent, attendance can be paradoxically comforting and disheartening. It ends up being more like a business, than it is a house. At home, we don’t let children go hungry, nor do we overfill their bellies. A business is indifferent, benefits only when the hungry bring an offering, and will gladly serve to the point of collapse. So, what happens when a home is run strictly like a business?

  9. daveme7 on March 7, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    I think we should have pastors who have one thing in mind, to pour the word of God into their people, to preach it and teach it, to replicate themselves in their people to love them and place the burning passion for God ‘s word into them and for the things and people God loves.

    You are making the same mistakes that produced the salesman pitch kind of gospel presentations you and so many pomo preachers abhor and I do to. No! The gospel is not a commodity that can boiled down into four spiritual laws or a five minute presentation many of my evangelical and fundamentalist brethren have perfected. But you are doing the same exact thing-meeting the the thirst of the age instead of meeting what was prescribed in the scriptures-preach the word!

  10. Mike on March 7, 2017 at 1:35 am

    Good questions, Carey. For me, I would also add:

    Why do we meet on Sunday the way we do (in rows, facing a stage, watching a performance put on by clergy)?

    Is church a place to find truth? Are questions welcome?

    Why does church feel more like Amway then like a family dinner? Is this what Jesus intended his bride to be?

    • daveme7 on March 7, 2017 at 5:11 pm

      Preaching the word of God is putting on a performance?

      Teaching sound doctrine is putting on a performance?

      Asking questions, no problem. Not when the preacher is preaching and teaching. Maybe in Sunday school. Our Pastor allows that. Don’t be offended by the answers though.

      Don’t know what church you attend or a member of, but my church sounds nothing like an Amway meeting.

      Isn’t this like making some hasty generalizations? Maybe not…does not fit really. But I would say you are making some very broad judgments there lumping every church into one category-composition. That is the fallacy am thinking of.

      How many churches have you attended in your life time?

      100?

      1000?

      10,000?

      How long would it take to visit 1,000 different churches. Most churches would have three different services a week. So, 1000 divided by 3 is 333.3 weeks. so 333.3 weeks divided by 52 is 6.4 or roughly 6.5-but I will round down-six years. Have you ever visited that many churches? We probably have that many denominations and then some in the United states. So let me ask again-how can you make those judgement about all these Pastors, Churches, and Christians?

      So here is the obvious question to me-who gave you the omniscience of God to be able to make such judgments about Christian pastors and churches?

      You talked about a place for truth and asking questions, right?

      • Mike on March 8, 2017 at 1:17 pm

        Thanks for the reply, Dave. I’m sensing a little anger in your response. I am sorry if my questions offended you or I’m misunderstanding.

        What I’m hearing you say is that preaching the word of God (the Bible) from the pulpit is not a performance but a necessary part of the gathering. I am also hearing you say your church is nothing like Amway. Finally I am hearing you say that my generic use of the term “church” and “clergy” is too broad to encompass all gatherings and all pastors and it makes me sound like I have the omniscience of God.

        For the first part, I suppose I’m asking the question why preaching to the followers of Jesus is important. I’m not discounting the necessity of preaching (proclaiming) the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to those that haven’t heard it before, but if the church is supposedly full of followers of Jesus why do we need to continually hear preaching/teaching? Hebrews 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:26 seem to contradict the modern church service structure of passively sitting while one man preaches. It also seems to contradict how Jesus did life with his disciples. That’s more of what I’m asking. What value does preaching hold to people that have already heard the good news and accepted it?

        Regarding the Amway comment and the generic use of “church” I am glad to hear your church does not have the same feeling as Amway. Part of my problem in communicating is with language itself. Church seems to have different meanings: the building Christians attend, the weekly service, the structural organization, and the people. When I refer to church, I am referring to the institutional church or the 501 c3 corporation that is governed by a senior pastor and board of directors, owns or pays a mortgage on property and hires staff.

        It’s in this context that I’m observing the Amway feel. Obviously it’s impossible for me to speak to all organizations. Of the five years churches I’ve attended over 35 years I have experienced a similar proclamation of the purpose of the Christian: go and bring your friends to our organization so they can hear the preacher, get saved and join our organization. Then they can go and bring their friends to our organization so they can hear the preacher, get saved and join our organization. And on and on the cycle goes. It is this idea (salvation is joining an organization) that gives me pause about the validity of the organization. Maybe I am speaking too broadly to place all non-profit organizations in this camp. I don’t know…

        For me salvation is a radical transformation of the heart of person that is evident in their very character and nature. That when you are around them and taste their life they taste like Jesus, the God-man who laid his life down just to have relationship with people.

        I apologize again if I offended you. I’m just a dude trying to figure stuff out…

  11. Doug Sevre on March 6, 2017 at 10:50 am

    Carey-
    Another good thought provoking and heart stirring set of questions to keep leaders in motion.

    Two questions-

    1. How will increasing persecution play into the present and future scenario?

    2. What about future disciples who will come from ethnic backgrounds that value community above individualistic freedoms and expressions?

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