What will drive future church growth in the post-pandemic era?

It’s an important question to ask, because for most church leaders the pandemic has been a question of adaptation and survival, both personal and organizational.

The pandemic has been both discouraging and frustration for many church leaders.

Not only are the return-to-church numbers remarkably low,  but there’s evidence as many as 1 in 5 people dropped out of church in 2020 (see this post on the new exodus for why so many suddenly left the church).

There’s no question that many habits and patterns are being reset right now, but with every obstacle comes opportunity.

So what’s going to accelerate the growth of the future church?

Time, of course, will tell, but here are five things that will in all likelihood help churches accelerate growth into the future.

1. A Focus on the Core Mission

Before the global crisis hit in 2020, most churches were struggling, but so was church. Liberal and conservative churches were transfixed on politics and ideas (more than the core message of Christianity) were often struggling to reach new people.

Even attractional churches, which made up the majority of growing churches in the last two decades, were finding growth much harder than it used to be. (I wrote more about why here.)

If there’s one trend to watch moving forward, it’s that America likely accelerated its journey into becoming a post-modern, post-Christian culture.

Which means the future church will have to stand as an alternative to the culture, not an echo of it.

As a result, in the future church:

Cool won’t cut it

Hype won’t cut it

Fun won’t cut it.

Real will.

A focus on the core purpose of church: introducing people to a relationship with Christ, with each other and life-changing discipleship, will be the one thing that church can offer that the world doesn’t.

Churches that focus on this will grow. Churches that get lost in politics, ideology, hype or anything off mission won’t—at least not the long term.

2. An Actual Experience

So what kind of experience will help people move into an authentic faith?

For years, churches have grown through delivering great content. And trust me, excellent preaching still matters.

The problem is that great content is no longer scarce.

What used to drive church attendance—join us in the building at 10 a.m. for a brand new series—will no longer do so, because everyone now knows whatever message you’re preaching will be live-streamed or available later on demand.

And if your message isn’t, no worries. They can choose from a million others that are. For free. Here’s more on the new scarcity and why content alone won’t cut it in the future.

Our culture is drowning in a sea of information.

When people come to church, they’re not just looking for information—they’re looking for transformation.

Sure, people definitely need some information, but fewer are looking for information about God; they’re looking for an experience of God.

Today, information is everywhere. Transformation is scarce.

What does this mean?

Churches that focus on something more than head knowledge in their services or a ‘fun’ experience will likely see greater traction than those that don’t. Even pre-pandemic, churches that had a more charismatic, emotional experience were growing when many other churches weren’t.

In addition, churches that have a clear path into discipleship…that get people engaging their faith or at least experiencing it, will see greater success than churches that invite you to merely attend.

3. Community and Connection

Content used to be a competitive advantage. For the most part, it isn’t any more.

What is deeply scarce right now are community and connection.

A year into the pandemic, people are more isolated than ever. That’s playing out the crisis in mental health, rising addictions and the fractionalized tribes we’ve seen form in our culture.

Authentic, loving and genuine community are more scarce than they have ever been in our lifetime.

Every church should be running to fill that hole.

Community means connecting people to each other in groups, serving, friendship and relationships.

Nobody should be able to out-community the local church.

Connection means that even for those joining online or attending in person for the first time, the primary job becomes connecting with them and then helping them find connection with each other.

In the same way the purpose of a dating app isn’t to get people to connect with the app, but with each other, the goal of the church should be to get people to connect with one another, not just the senior leader. I realize that’s not a great analogy, but you get the point, right?

Moving forward, the competitive advantage of the local church isn’t content, it’s community and connection.

4. Church Online

What happens to online church once we’re move into a post-pandemic world?

Simple…it becomes your front door and side door, and as a result, becomes the greatest opportunity for you to reach new people (front door) and keep people in your church connected (side door).

In the pre-digital era, it took a lot to get someone to come to your church for the first time.

They had to gather the family, dress up (at least out of their PJs), show up and set aside hours for a first time experience. In a Christian culture, that was far easier and less intimidating than it is in a post-Christian culture.

The good news about church online is that the cost of entry is almost nothing to a first-time guest. Just one click and they’re with you.

In the future, wise leaders will realize that this is the best way to reach people, and if you develop a great way to meet people, connect with them and move them into relationship and a discipleship path, you’ll see significant growth.

The other opportunity for church online is its ability to act as a side door for people who are away for the weekend (or a season).

Again, in the pre-digital era, if you were gone…you missed everything. Now you don’t have to miss a thing.

So a robust digital presence moving forward can result in both greater growth and deeper engagement.

Plus digital church scales in a way that physical church doesn’t.

The old thinking was (and still is in many cases) that you’re competing with your in-person services by having a great online experience. That’s scarcity thinking at its finest.

You’re not competing with yourself by investing in a digital future, you’re expanding your mission.

5. Agility

One of the biggest temptations for all of us when the post-pandemic era arrives will be to take our foot off the accelerator, find a method that works and lock it in.

That might be a fatal mistake.

The era of set-it-and-forget it strategy is over.

In all likelihood, culture will continue to morph and change quickly. The pace of change will continue unabated, and that will create the need to stay agile.

The gap between how quickly you change and how quickly the culture changes is called irrelevance.

Too many leaders sacrifice the mission in the name of finding predictable methods. Agile leaders are willing to continually sacrifice methods to advance the mission.

I realize that sounds exhausting, and here’s some encouragement (and advice) on how to hang in there for the long haul.

What you’ll realize though is that remaining agile, open and ready to change is one of the greatest strength you can have moving forward.

And ultimately, agility is far less exhausting than decline is.

What Do You See?

What do you see as you look to the future?

Anything you’re seeing that’s getting traction as you move into the future?

What will drive future church growth in the post-pandemic era? Here are five things that will drive future church growth.

24 Comments

  1. Bob Wiseman on February 15, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    “The old thinking was (and still is in many cases) that you’re competing with your in-person services by having a great online experience. That’s scarcity thinking at its finest.”

    For starters, quit using “old thinking” as a pejorative. In some cases, “old thinking” can be bad. In this case, I’m not sure it is.

    I’ll preface what I’m about to say with this: I’m 30. Most of the things old people say to “gripe” about millennials usually can be somewhat true with me. I’m invested into technology and spend a lot of time on social media… and I’ll be brutally honest here:

    20 & 30-somethings don’t need more online engagement. Most of us don’t WANT more. We actually want less.

    See, Carey, we just spent 11 months realizing how awful it was to be disconnected from our friends and families. To be without community. To be stuck online. When our church made the decision to re-open for in-person services… the most eager people were our young families and members. They were the ones pestering our leadership team about re-opening. When we waited a few months to re-open children’s ministry… they were the ones making a stink about it.

    Very few, if any, of our younger members are watching the live online service. Not because of a lack of quality or engagement, but because they are tired of online stuff. That’s the direct response they’ve given.

    If you want younger families, begin to find ways to get them (safely) in-person. Build a safe community for them. Get them offline. You’ll begin to see them show up…

    Online services are great for the 48-year-old. Those dudes will love anything that looks new and cool.
    They 28-year-old sees it as just more substitutions for the thing they really crave: face-to-face community.

    Save your church the money and ditch your “Online Pastor”. Make him go shepherd a real church community. And focus on meeting in-person again.

    • Bob Wiseman on February 23, 2021 at 10:13 am

      In thinking about it, most of these “online pastors” thrive really well, because, let’s be honest: most of them don’t have a single soft skill for ministry, so they get relegated to commenting “Hey Judy! Thanks for watching!” on the Facebook Live stream.

      So, even though it might anger the Online Pastor’s uncle/brother/in-law/best friend’s son, or whatever level of nepotism likely existed in that hire, ditch them. Demand that your pastor has actual pastoral skills and push your in-person services as much as possible.

      Us “younger people” see right through it.

  2. Rachel Priestley on February 13, 2021 at 12:52 am

    As someone who is disabled, I am excited about the church being more accessible to all. What a brilliant beautiful blessing to rise from the ashes of the pandemic. Jesus is alive. And in new and loving ways we can reach out and grasp the hem of his garment. And we can be connected to one another in life changing ways. What a time to be alive!

  3. Tim Poff on February 11, 2021 at 10:38 am

    Agree

  4. white faucet on February 10, 2021 at 7:55 pm

    You have nice information. I adore the way you write. So perfect!

  5. Louis Karman on February 9, 2021 at 3:05 pm

    I’m a home improvement specialist & try to share truth with people in their homes while I’m working there. I find it very hard to share the truth with people. They have they’re own preconceived ideas about God that are NONSCRIPTURAL. The Holy Spirit convicts me not to pursue the discussion any further because they are stiff-necked.

  6. A. Spencer Koulchar on February 8, 2021 at 9:08 pm

    I love the entire article, but especially about the Church being connected to the community. Now, more than ever, communities across the globe are looking for answers and hope. I believe that if we’re called to love God and love our neighbors, then we should prioritize the relationships of our community. If the church can do this, it could change the world.

  7. Sarah on February 8, 2021 at 5:45 pm

    I’m a millennial and a volunteer at my church. We are leaving in droves. Leadership has become a them against us camp, pitting ideas as for or against. We just want to be understood and heard. Church leadership doesn’t ask for any feedback, and if we do venture to be bold enough to try and broach a convo, its dismissed. Much of the reason people are leaving isn’t because there is an attack on gathering and our mental health is poor. Its because stillness in the presence of God realigned us with Him and our eyes have been opened to the facade. I’ve personally had far more “community” with church gathering being less. I have so much more time to actually connect with my circle of influence, and lives are changing. It’s not even so much about what churches are doing as much as the attitudes or the heart and what they aren’t doing. It they fail to create a space for GENUINE relationship where you can ask questions, care more about calling and character than giftings, and fail to lead new and old members into the transformational process that is intended, then it doesn’t matter how great their experiences are, it’s all a gimmick. Furthermore, we had crossed into gaslighting territory. I’ve had close to 18 or 20 people reach out to me about how hurt they have been by the church. Leadership is pushing people out by ignoring their suffering (some caused by them) and then actually blaming them for not getting the vision and falling in line. Denim jackets and blundstones aren’t cutting the cheese anymore.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 9, 2021 at 2:31 pm

      I’m so sorry to hear this.

      I really hope that churches can begin to learn from the younger generation more and more.

    • Louis Karman on February 9, 2021 at 3:07 pm

      Absolutely True!!

    • Tola Adesanya on February 10, 2021 at 12:33 pm

      Sarah dear,
      Hope you took time to pray for these people, have had time with the Lord on this matter?
      It seems hell has opened her mouth against the global Church much more, and the leaders don’t even have idea how better to respond.
      I say, pray that you be able to keep your faith at this time. Pray also, for all that are falling away.

      Peace, Grace and, Blessings.
      Tola

  8. Michael on February 8, 2021 at 5:29 pm

    Keith, I had the same thought as I read that article. While I value a genuine experience with God, through the person of the Holy Spirit, we are living in a culture that has a massive Truth Vacuum. Each person is encouraged to “live your truth”. For years I have watched the church try to be relative with packaging things right and using relative language all the while becoming less relative. In our current climate I believe people will be more drawn to raw truth.

  9. Yvonne Cottrell on February 8, 2021 at 1:47 pm

    Excellent, thank you!

  10. Robbie Jones on February 8, 2021 at 1:33 pm

    I am finding that many want at least some connection with the visionary who shares the mission of the ministry. I did see where one ministry had made over 44,000 phone calls to their congregation. This was also shared with me by a very large non-profit who was used to taking in close to $1 million a week and was hit hard by the Pandemic. Talking about making a quick pivot!

    So, starting this evening I will begin making 8-10 phone calls personally as the senior leader from 6:00 to 7:00 pm. (Discussed this with my wife first and she is supportive). Emailed the congregation and shared each call is to be 5 minutes. Three questions:

    1. How are you and the family?
    2. Any thing I can pray about?
    3. Do you have any questions for me?

    Working on connecting again!

    • Sarah on February 8, 2021 at 5:32 pm

      Wow!! What an amazing effort! It’s super commendable to me that Covid lockdowns aren’t being used as a scapegoat, but a way to genuinely connect in a different way. I bet the congregation really finds that meaningful.

  11. Keith Morgan on February 8, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    Excellent article! The only thing I would add based on what I am seeing is that while people are looking for an “Actual Experience” this isn’t just about a “good show”. In fact, what is becoming very clear to me is that folks are looking for an “actual experience” with Truth. It is hard to find the truth these days, and when they encounter it through God’s Word being shared they recognize it and want more. There is a “truth vacuum” currently being experienced in our society and people are hungry for something they can build their lives upon not just something that entertains. IMHO. 🙂

    • Louis Karman on February 9, 2021 at 3:04 pm

      I’m a home improvement specialist & try to share truth with people in their homes while I’m working there. I find it very hard to share the truth with people. They have they’re own preconceived ideas about God that are NONSCRIPTURAL. The Holy Spirit convicts me not to pursue the discussion any further because they are stiff-necked.

  12. Tom on February 8, 2021 at 10:12 am

    Great article, with lots of great points that challenge me to pray about where the church is going. One point of disagreement. I do not believe the best way to reach people is through online services. I believe it is when Christians live as missionaries to their friends, coworkers, family and neighbors. Online is helpful, no doubt. Even in the church I serve we have seen people connecting that way but it is still a “service” centric methodology. There needs to be a movement of disciples who love others and build relationships to demonstrate God’s love and goodness by the power of the Holy Spirit.

  13. Warren Pattison on February 8, 2021 at 9:50 am

    The challenge I face is identifying who new people are in a digital space. If they don’t voluntarily complete an online connect card, they are, quite literally, a number. How are people identifying and connecting with online visitors? How do you help people overcome anonymity and become vulnerable enough to say “I’m here”? We can’t see them unless they reveal themselves and we can’t connect them if they aren’t seen. On a related topic, we continue to be largely online or outdoors in our worship and discipleship offerings. I have people who were previously deeply connected who refuse to do community in digital or outdoor spaces. It’s not their preferred method of connection, and they hate being in Zoom meetings for work all day, so they just unplug and then gripe that the church has abandoned them in their time of greatest need. How can we help to keep them connected in community when the way they previously connected isn’t an option and they refuse the alternatives?

    • Jim Mericle on February 8, 2021 at 2:18 pm

      Warren: we face the same issue. We have clearly seen an uptick in our weekly attendance due to being online, but it is very hard to know who it is. We invite people to comment or message us, but only get the same few for the most part. Any ideas here would be very helpful.

    • Sarah on February 8, 2021 at 5:56 pm

      Hello! I don’t know the full answer to this, other than it’s not so much about just doing something, as much as it is about it being meaningful. Check out The Way Church in Vancouver. They just planted a few months before covid and have managed to grow purely online. It’s not about the Sunday show. They connect with pastors leading prayer online more frequently, having conversations, and setting up home church groups. Those groups have purpose though. Not just to say you did it and people didn’t like it. We spend all day on zoom and then most of us spend all evening watching tv or face timing and texting with friends. It’s about the meaning. Those groups need to focus on going deep. Seeking to understand yourself and one another. Learning about Jesus and becoming more like him. We want to know our place in the body. That’s the purpose. Healing, transformation and outreach. Church of multiplication by empowering people, not batch salvations based on a message that floats your ego. Just one persons perspective!!!

  14. Paul Huenefeld on February 8, 2021 at 8:49 am

    Connectivity.
    That’s my 2021 word.
    Not there;
    On our way.

  15. Andaza on February 8, 2021 at 8:03 am

    Find Community Be Connected. Sounds like something I can definitely run with. 😊

    • Chuck on February 9, 2021 at 8:48 am

      I would add the phrase “Ancient/Future.” As much as we all want and desperately desire community, people also need an anchor into the timeless principles of God’s Word, the power of Authentic worship, the experience of the Holy Spirit moving and Transforming lives. Where the church used to be content driven we need to realize that we need a balance. I believe Camps and Conference Centers might be the greatest way to for churches to engage with. Camps have content, community, transformation, worship all microwaved into a powerful weekend. Great article.

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.