There’s no question everything in ministry has shifted in the last eighteen months. But the real question is how?

Some things, of course, never change. The mission of the church is as critical as ever. The need for prayer, scripture, preaching, love, community, grace, forgiveness, and hope is as sharp as ever.

And yet church leaders are struggling with how to connect with a deeply changing culture and reality.

As church leaders prepare for a full hybrid future, which will feature both digital and in-person ministry, it’s not exactly clear what in-person services will offer that digital ministry doesn’t (and vice versa).

As the Barna poll results below demonstrate, everyone did not miss the same thing when church went online in 2020-2021.

Boomers missed different aspects of in-person church than Millennials.

One trend is that people miss connecting with other people, which is completely understandable.

In addition, live music is more important to Millennials than to Boomers. And in-person preaching seems to be missed more by older adults than those under 40.

In another Barna survey,  67% of respondents say they learn just as much from a streamed message as from an in-person sermon.

It’s still, of course, early days in terms of how all of this will fall out in the future, but looking at the trends, here are a few things that I sense will be true of growing churches in the future, both online and in-person.

1. Digital Ministry Will Be About Genuine Connection

Future ministry is hybrid ministry.

If digital ministry (the online side of hybrid) is going to do what’s it’s designed to do, it will become about genuine connection.

Right now, many churches are using digital ministry for content distribution via YouTube and social, but in its fullest form, digital ministry is about people.

Ultimately, the goal of digital content is not consumption, it’s connection and community. The goal is NOT the number of: followers, views, minutes watched, likes, comments (as significant as they might be).

Content alone doesn’t lead to engagement. Community and connection do.

The graphic below is a model for a Digital Engagement Funnel for churches that shows how to move someone who clicks on your content to a true connection and relationship.

The five steps move people from just watching or reading your content to connection, engagement and then commitment (to Christ) and, finally, for them to share their faith with others.

The challenge is, right now, most churches have only explored Step 1. They post content and haven’t figured out how to move much past that.

It’s a great first step, but real life change happens when you move into connection and relationship.

In The Art of Better Reaching course, I show you exactly how this funnel works and how to start turning anonymous clicks into genuine human connections. You can learn more here.

Being online is one thing. Connecting with people online and moving that into real-life relationships is quite another.

2. An Experience OF God Will Replace Information ABOUT God

Attractional church has seen thousands, probably millions, of people move into an authentic relationship with Jesus. Please hear that.

But sometimes what we’ve done (I say “we” because I’ve done this) is we tend to share information about Jesus or Christianity when we preach or host services. There was a day when that was really helpful, and that’s still not an entirely bad instinct. Who, after all, wants to lose people completely?

But remember, we now have the full-on internet that swallows daily life whole. We are drowning in a sea of information.

Fast forward to church, and guess what? People aren’t looking for information. They’re looking for transformation.

When people come to your church these days, fewer are looking for information about God; they’re looking for an experience with God.

Both the digital explosion and the cynicism of our age have left people hungering for a transcendent touch. Think about the explosive rise of porn. People are looking for intimacy, but of course, in porn, get just the opposite. They’re looking for more.

People are hungry for true community, deeper experiences, and authentic transcendence.

Which is why churches that are growing are focusing more and more on creating experiences that engage more than just the head on a Sunday…but also engage the heart and relationship.

In short, people don’t just want to know what’s true, they want to know what’s real. And what’s real is deeper than just an idea—it’s an experience.

They come looking for something bigger than themselves, and something frankly, bigger than us. They come looking for God.

It’s a shame when people come to church looking for God and only find us.

God, in his nature, is both immanent and transcendent. A few decades ago as the culture slipped away from church, focusing on the imminence of God brought many back.

But the cultural shifts of the last decade and a half have left people (especially younger people) longing for the transcendent.

This should be no surprise because of course the heart naturally longs for God. Sometimes we just long for God a bit differently than our parents.

I think the best future churches will have content that leans toward the immanent—practical, helpful and digestible. Again, being completely obtuse and incomprehensible or insider-focused helps no one. And future churches will also offer experiences that feel transcendent…a sense that you had to be there to experience what happened.

The best churches will offer both because that reflects the character and nature of God and the character of the Christian church at its best.

3. Future Churches Will Go to People, Rather Than Expect People to Come to Them

Historically, the church has wagered almost everything on gathering people in a building.

In the future, growing churches will focus less on gathering and much more on going to where people are.

A small example.

I recently interviewed Simon Sinek on my Leadership Podcast. Usually, toward the end of the episode, I’ll ask the guest where people can connect with them online.

Simon’s answer was untraditional but resonated immediately.

My responsibility is not to tell you where to get my stuff. My responsibility is to put my stuff wherever you are. So some people use one platform, someone uses another, and I try and share my work wherever you are. So wherever you go, I’m probably there.

Did you catch that? So wherever you go, I’m probably there. 

It’s a really great point. Church leaders today should be taking notes.

In many ways, the first-century church was a church that met wherever people were. In the future, church will be much more like that, digitally, through central gatherings and micro-gatherings.

Companies like DoorDash, Amazon, Brooklinen, Peleton and other companies have realized going to where people are is a great strategy.

Connecting people who are engaging from home both with the church and with one another will become an essential skill for all church leaders.

The easiest way to think about this is the same way church leaders have thought about small groups for the last 25 years.

Almost no church leader today feels threatened by the idea that hundreds or thousands of people will be meeting in their homes to connect with other people. The church facilitates groups but doesn’t host them in a centralized facility.

Instead, leaders simply connect people who want to be connected and engage them in the mission.

This is where the potential for Sunday morning starts to move in a new direction.

Small groups by nature tend to be closed and intimate. Gathering in people’s homes and outside the building on Sunday morning (or off-Sunday) would consist of micro-churches that are outward-focused. Think of groups, but with an evangelistic thrust.

Gathering people on Sunday mornings will be as important as ever. It just won’t all happen in a building owned by the church.

What Do You See?

Those are three things I see as being true of growing churches in the future.

Obviously, the list is longer than that.

What are you seeing? What’s helping you reach more people?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

3 Things That Will Be True About Growing Churches In the Future

18 Comments

  1. Steve Carlisle on June 14, 2021 at 11:56 am

    I find it distrubing you did no research on Gen Z .
    7-22 years old the next generation
    is there a reason you did not include this important information/

  2. andy on June 12, 2021 at 8:47 pm

    All of these things have already been happening. There are entire online communities of gamers, creators, musicians, nerds, you name it. Hank and John Green have been hosting YouTube creatives in annual fundraiser “to decrease world suck” for years (their tagline: “don’t forget to be awesome”), TikTok is full of people teaching one another about culture and medical issues and social issues. People host virtual funerals through gaming platforms like World of Warcraft, even for people they’ve never met in person but only know through those chat rooms.
    Experiencing God is not something we can control, though we try to craft space where people can be free enough of their daily grind and guilt to enter that openness for approach. If you’ve never been to an Occupy community event, a Poor People’s Campaign event, a BLM protest, I’d highly recommend it for an experience of God. Allowing communal grief and pain to come into the open without judgment, working to hold those in power accountable for their abuses of power, experiencing community gather for actual healing and investment in one another’s safety, is Holy Spirit work. Early church was about belonging before it was about theological theories, and so many people have left church because what they’ve heard taught about God does not match up with their experience of God, and we need to respect that trauma and that experience of disconnect without defending the church. Experiencing God happens just as much on the dancefloor at the gay club as it does on Sunday morning, if not more, and when people have that experience at the club and then hear the church say it’s sinful to be gay, they’re going to either choose the authentic experience or rip themselves apart trying to fit into the church box (and end up in the church’s final box, aka a coffin).
    We can’t go to people in order to fix them, or to be missionaries, if we don’t care for the people right in front of us, though. Lots of folks are trying to evangelize people that have become painted as ‘target audience’ or some sort of stereotype trope, rather than just people the church can learn from and maybe even serve with the multitude of resources available to us. And we can gather any time/day for group dinners, for help with neighborhood yardwork, for nature hikes (anybody remember Meetup?), because we already are doing that. Just because something isn’t labeled ‘church’ doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t there. Just be cautious of ‘love bombing’ as an evangelism strategy, it does leave a sour taste in the mouth and is a total bait and switch, especially for anyone who has survived church trauma (our goal is not to help exvangelicals come back to church, it is to serve and heal and maybe even leave them alone if they ask us to).
    As long as we are focused on the needs of the community more than we are focused on the needs of keeping church doors open, we can actually get this going in a way that could be most authentic to the Spirit. I’d be much more interested to hear what the needs are in your location, and how you’re using these tools to address those needs. How are you dealing with the grief of a year lost, even in communities where nobody died of COVID? How are you supporting the people in your neighborhood who have long-term after effects of this virus? Or the communities that are devastated by loss, the communities of nurses and other essential workers who still aren’t being paid a living wage? That’s where I need to see the church in order to hope for it. And so many rural areas still don’t have access to broadband to even try to connect online, not to mention people who are currently houseless (though their ways of building community and looking out for one another are certainly something the rest of us can learn from).

  3. St Cecilia hermitage on June 9, 2021 at 12:33 am

    Thank you for the insight – just before Covid started I had started on a pilgrimage towards the Hermit lifestyle. As my spiritual journey continues as a Hermit with a weekly priest support I am so at peace. Part of my new life has also been starting an online presence which includes live daily prayers of the church x 4 and a Gospel &coffee video of scripture but putting all the background information with the passage . We are all hungry to be feed and to be led well so for me the question I ask myself daily is ‘Am I leading that person to God ‘ and if so then I can sleep at night knowing I am doing all I can to witness but I have learnt without prayer before I witness is nothing more than pride

  4. Patrick Steven Mateketa on June 8, 2021 at 10:56 am

    Point no. 3 in my belief is what The Great Commission is all about. Just that the GOING indicated in the Scriptures (Mat. 28:19 -20) is showing the mode being physical traveling while now we have see that we (the church) can go via the media ( a digital church).

  5. Jackie on June 8, 2021 at 9:59 am

    I really appreciate these insights. For number 3, I am envisioning additional strategies that may offer opportunity for a more diverse group of people, for physical locations specifically. Instead of small groups in homes, I see the church downsizing and being where the people are in a more “Starbucks strategy”… for lack of a better term right now. The burden on the leaders of small groups in homes is probably more than necessary. It’s a lot to lay on the volunteers, and it has an adverse impact of separating the people from the church leadership, which means there is a bit of a telephone game when the leaders are trying to lead, both spiritually and logistically. Of course good structure can help this… but the staffing and particular mindset for this to be a successful flat model actually counts out a lot of really amazing leaders who have gifts that don’t jive with this model. But, I see that a strategy in which a church campus is planted in the size, scope, and location of a people, could achieve the same goals. The churches built in town squares now need to be built in neighborhoods, shopping centers, food trucks, airports, public parks. The transformational model of a church liturgy together is hard to replicate in the small group, no matter how much you try to impart upon the leaders that it is a church, or more evangelistic. Doable, of course, but difficult I think for most church leaders. For instance in my church of about 200 people, we have 5 staff, only the lead pastor is officially full time. Decentralizing takes more than centralized… so the question becomes a logistical one: How can we decentralize spiritual growth and mission while using the benefits of centralization which allows small, or non-affluent, churches to thrive. Answer: 1) more cross-demoninational support, 2) developed “plug & play” strategies for ministers which aid in the planting of small churches that are capable of being led by small and less affluent teams and communities, and 3) better financial methods which sever conflicts of interests inherent in giving-only based ministries.

  6. Smokie Norful on June 7, 2021 at 4:51 pm

    Great Read!

  7. Susan on June 7, 2021 at 10:53 am

    We just started back to in-person, outdoors along with Zoom & YouTube. We’re a small church and this is hugely challenging. But what I see is that the young families DON’T engage online- it’s too hard from home, with the little ones’ short attention span and propensity to get in trouble when parents are otherwise engaged. Two young families have come in-person so far. It’s heartbreaking that their little ones don’t REMEMBER church, and the parents are anxious about their behavior (even though we have ALWAYS been a church that welcomes little ones’ noise, etc.) It appears we have to rebuild our chur h culture fir these families and go out of our way to encourage them to take part.

    • Pastor Josee on June 7, 2021 at 12:05 pm

      Have you thought about “take out church” for the kids? Sunday school lessons and activities for them that relate to the service? We did this 2 times – once packed in pizza boxes and once in styrofoam containers. It has worked well

  8. Mark on June 7, 2021 at 10:36 am

    Clergy and lay leadership will have to embrace new methods and hybrid approaches. Jesus never said work to get butts (bums) in pews but “love one another” and “follow me.”

  9. Mary on June 7, 2021 at 10:35 am

    Carey so grateful for this article just the word and confirmation I needed from God!!! So grateful for your ministry. God bless you!!!

  10. Christopher Pineau on June 7, 2021 at 8:31 am

    “The need for prayer, scripture, preaching, love, community, grace, forgiveness, and hope is as sharp as ever.” Problem is? Maybe it’s just my outsider’s perspective talking, but those last five items you mentioned often seem missing, to me, in churches in favor of “PRAY AND OBEY” and enforcing the cult mentality, for want of a better way to put it. The more gung-ho types out there would insist that the first three of those elements are lacking in favor of feel good vibes (a la the Osteens in Houston’s Lakewood Church). I’d want balance in my church to make me come to it and keep coming to it, a balance of all those elements, minus legalistic dogma and the closed minds that can bring. My problem is that with my trust issues, which are deep and profound, it’s going to take a *lot* to get me to come to any given church in the first place at all. With due respect I say all that, mind.

  11. S.C. on June 7, 2021 at 8:05 am

    There are marginalized groups in churches. As a single parent, I often feel out of place and disconnected from the church I attend in person and have for a while. Before Covid, there wasn’t the option of attending online, so I just continued to show up in person as I have done all of my life. Now, with the digital option, I can assume that there are some people that attend digitally to avoid feeling left out and disconnected from an in person service . Granted, attending digitally hasn’t made my connections stronger either. At the heart of the matter, whether in person or digital, people need to feel and be connected to other believers.

    • Mark on June 7, 2021 at 10:42 am

      I have said for years that there are (not supposed to be) second- and lower-class Christians. Those include any or all of the following: single (not windowed), non-parents, ultra-educated, minority political leanings, leadership material, pedigree, and a few others. The apostles were probably regarded like followers at one time of the Grateful Dead, opposite the learned, scribe and rabbinical classes.

    • Pastor Josee on June 7, 2021 at 12:08 pm

      I am sorry that you feel disconnected as a single parent! I hope that your church can put programs into place to solve that. It makes me sad to hear that some people join online because they don’t feel connected in person

      • Amy on June 13, 2021 at 2:30 am

        Its not a program that’s needed. Its eyes to be opened and sensitive heart to who’s around you.

        From a single mom who serves in church.
        I get it. But a program didn’t help. Relationship did.

  12. Mamie Norman on June 7, 2021 at 7:57 am

    This COVID 19 is just bringing us where we should be if we are going to do like Jesus. Jesus did not invite the people to come to him, Jesus said we must go to the highways and byways. All Jesus did was to preach God’s word, taught people about God and healed. Today, we are doing everything but that. So commercial, so worldly in our worship. Satan is distracting us from what Jesus wants and expects us to do. Be aware!

  13. Matt on June 7, 2021 at 6:36 am

    This is a huge shift in thinking for many, especially those with deep roots in the idea of church needing to be certain things – in a certain place, with certain music, wearing certain clothes – but it’s a new world we live in. I agree that the churches that will still be around in 5 years will be those doing hybrid ministry well. Not only does the digital side catch a whole new group of people, but it gives options for attendance for those times when an in-person attender may miss a Sunday (vacation, sick child, etc.) to still connect. I believe that we will see the digital “campus” of hybrid churches be larger than the in-person “campus” in the future (in fact, my guess is that most are now…we’re probably 70/30 right now leaning digital).

    The survey information above is interesting. There was a time when we were told that the most important thing is childcare during services, but that’s barely on any age groups list. I think that everything is changing for churches and how we will reach the world in the coming years. We have to be open to ideas, open to trying new and different things, willing to take risks and willing to allow God to take us in a whole new direction!

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