It’s 2032. Here’s What’s Left of the Church.

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This article is a summary of the keynote I gave at the Church Disruption Summit. The full video replay with more details is available as a bonus resource inside The Art of Leading Change course.

Imagine it’s 2032.

While it’s impossible to predict what will happen to the future church, the last few years have left us with more than a few clues.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, it’s fair to say no one was prepared for the drastic changes every leader simply had to make.

But it’s what happened after the initial shock and impact of the pandemic wore off that revealed the most.

Whether it was leading through heightened tensions and elevated conversations about racial justice, bitter political division, Supreme Court decisions, questions about how to reopen churches for in-person attendance, rampant conspiracy theories, and the importance of online services, the challenges church leaders navigated in those early days of the 2020s revealed a lot about where the church is headed.

Admittedly, there are some pretty bold claims/predictions/thoughts here. I’ll be the first to admit that some may be completely wrong. Others might be somewhat off course.

But the patterns shaping the next decade are emerging, and perhaps a few extrapolations might be accurate.

So, why speculate, you ask?

Simple. Isn’t it better to anticipate a world that’s changing and try to reach it than it is to stick your head in the sand and ignore it?

After all, over the last few decades, most church leaders have not architected change radically or boldly, which has resulted in an almost universal decline in attendance, discipleship, and engagement across so much of the church. Not to mention some incredible damage to Christian credibility amongst people who don’t attend church.

So, with some apprehension, and hopefully a spirit of humility, and the willingness to be corrected a decade from now when we really see what happened, here are seven things that might indeed happen to the church by 2032.

1. Christian America died. And the leaders who kept looking back never moved forward.

The pastors who kept looking back imagined a culture governed by Christian values and refused to see the world for what it was increasingly becoming.

Over the last decade, Christian America died.

As much as some Supreme Court decisions in the early 2020s made religious conservatives think they were winning the culture wars, any sense of victory was short-lived.

The overwhelming identification of Generation Z and Generation Alpha as having no religious affiliation transformed America into a thoroughly post-Christian culture.

All of this put Christian church leaders into one of two camps: Leaders who wanted to move forward and leaders who wanted to look back.

The pastors who kept looking back imagined a culture governed by Christian values and refused to see the world for what it was increasingly becoming. Churches led by those leaders saw a decline.

And the culture wars of the early to mid-2020s that conservative Christians believed they were winning by ensuring their candidates ran for Congress and Governor positions proved only to momentarily shore up a dying worldview. Power and coercion couldn’t reverse the tide.

In the process, that faction in the church alienated the next generation of unreached people from Christianity even more deeply.

The leaders who looked forward acknowledged they were in a post-Christian culture and decided to advance a decidedly alt-Kingdom centered around the Gospel. They saw renewal and growth.

Bottom line? The leaders who kept looking back never moved forward.

Leaders who keep looking back never move forward. Click To Tweet

2. Growing churches are now digital organizations with physical locations

In the last decade, dying churches saw digital church as an obstacle. Growing churches realized it was an opportunity.

As little as 15 years ago, most growing churches were primarily physical organizations with a nominal or underdeveloped digital strategy.

Throughout the 2020s and early 2030s, the dual trend of declining church attendance and decentralized attendance changed everything for growing churches.

Growing churches stopped treating church online as an afterthought, realizing that since everyone they’re trying to reach is online, becoming a digital-first church made them more effective.

The paradox, of course, is that the more leaders built community online as a church, the more it resulted in growth in their physical locations.

Ironically, churches that focus primarily on physical attendance only saw declining attendance. Churches that focused on digital connection saw the opposite.

Over the last decade, dying churches saw digital church as an obstacle. Growing churches realized it was an opportunity.

Ironically, churches that focus primarily on physical attendance only see declining attendance. Churches that focus on digital connection see the opposite. Click To Tweet

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3. The majority of church attendees are no longer in the room.

Dying churches confined ministry to their buildings. Growing churches didn’t.

As the digital revolution exploded over the last ten years, almost everything shifted out of central locations.

Everything from work, to shopping, to food, fitness, and entertainment shifted to digital and distributed access (i.e., accessed by people when they wanted and where they wanted.)

Dying churches confined ministry to their buildings. Growing churches didn’t.

Dying churches confined ministry to their buildings. Growing churches didn't. Click To Tweet

Pastors of expanding ministries long ago made peace with the idea that the number of people not in the building on Sunday now greatly outnumbers the number of people who are inside the building.

They got over their insecurity about smaller in-person crowds and saw the expansive potential of reaching people wherever they were and connecting them with each other.

Pastors of growing churches long ago realized that full rooms never guaranteed a fulfilled mission.

Another shift happened regarding how church leaders think about church buildings:

Pastors of dying churches kept using church online to get people into the building.

Pastors of growing churches used their buildings to reach people online.

Full rooms never guarantee a fulfilled mission. Click To Tweet

4. On-demand access now greatly surpasses live events.

On-demand sermon access reaches people when they’re ready, not when you’re ready.

Live events still have a great role in the life of a vibrant church, but they’ve long since been eclipsed by people who access content and schedule gatherings on demand.

Leaders who released control of a centralized calendar to allow people to figure out for themselves when they wanted to meet saw a far greater impact than leaders who didn’t.

And when centralized gatherings happen, leaders of growing churches quickly got over the fact that, despite a full room, far more people accessed their ministry at other times. And as a result, their mission kept growing.

Pastors of growing ministries quickly understood two underlying realities behind on-demand access.

First, they knew that on-demand access reaches people when they’re ready, not when you’re ready.

Second, when it comes to accessing messages and ministry content, they realized people don’t care if a message is new nearly as much as they care if a message is great. Hence, access to their message archive continued to grow, and they positioned it for that.

On-demand sermon access reaches people when they're ready, not when you're ready. Click To Tweet

5. Growing churches shifted their focus from gathering to connecting.

In the 2020s, churches that gathered people kept falling behind, while churches that connected people continued to grow.

In the 2020s, churches that gathered people kept falling behind, while churches that connected people continued to grow.

The shift wasn’t that hard once the pastors of effective churches realized that for years, the culture had increasingly relied on services that leveraged existing infrastructure.

For example, what small groups accomplished for churches in the 1990s and 2000s changed how churches approached gathering people mid-week. Essentially, a decade before Airbnb and ride-share services like Uber and Lyft emerged on the scene, innovative church leaders stopped building massive Christian education buildings and started ‘Airbnbing’ people’s homes for community.

The home-based small group model morphed into micro-gatherings and home-based gatherings for worship and other church events.

In the 2020s, churches that gathered people kept falling behind, while churches that connected people continued to grow. Click To Tweet

Leaders of growing churches never felt threatened by the fact that they couldn’t ‘see’ the people they were ministering to. They built the structures and systems that led to the church being ‘one’ wherever it met, much like multi-site churches have done for decades.

Connecting people eclipsed gathering people for the same reasons that on-demand content eclipsed live content. You gather people when they’re ready, not when you’re ready.

Insecure leaders, operating out of power and control and needing to ‘see’ the results of their ministry, could never make this transition. Healthy leaders did.

6. Community and connection matter more than content.

Growing churches made community and connection the goal of their ministry, not content consumption.

Growing churches made community and connection the goal of their ministry, not content consumption.

In a world that started drowning in content in the 2010s, adept church leaders realized that great content was no longer the compelling advantage it used to be. Sure, bad preaching could kill a church. But great preaching alone no longer guaranteed its growth.

Here’s what astute leaders realized in the 2020s. Scarcity drives value. The more scarce something is, the more value it has.

When something is scarce, it has enough value to make people change their patterns (physical, financial, or time patterns, to name a few). Conversely, mass availability drives down prices and perceived value.

For centuries, attending a local church was the only place most people could access a sermon. The 21st century changed that forever.

What became increasingly scarce were community and connection. So among growing churches, all of their content drove people to community and toward connection.

Growing churches made community and connection the goal, not content consumption. Declining churches continued to make in-person and online content consumption their main goal (Watch this!!! Don’t miss this!!!) and paid the accompanying price.

Growing churches make community and connection the goal, not content consumption. Dying churches keep trying to push content consumption. Click To Tweet

7. Growing churches staffed for digital

Make the goal of all staffing (digital or in-person) community and connection.

Because, after all, that’s far more at the heart of what the Christian church is all about than content consumption ever was.

A final but important point.

Dying churches kept staffing for a world that no longer existed. Obsessed with getting people into a building, they continued to make digital ministry an afterthought.

Growing churches didn’t abandon physical gatherings. They continued to make their in-person services deeply personal and meaningful and staffed accordingly.

But they also doubled down on digital, realizing that everyone they wanted to reach was online and that many they would reach wouldn’t live near a campus or, if they did, would be willing to drive to one.

So pastors of growing churches followed Craig Groeschel’s advice back in 2020: They went 100% in on digital ministry and 100% in on physical ministry.

Then they went a step further: They made the goal of all staffing (digital or in-person) community and connection.

Because, after all, that’s far more at the heart of what the Christian church is all about than content consumption ever was.

Make the goal of all staffing (digital or in-person) community and connection.Because, after all, that's far more at the heart of what the Christian church is all about than content consumption ever was. Click To Tweet

Change, Critics, and Coaches

The leaders we criticize today will be the leaders who coach us tomorrow.

Snap back to today. Will all of this happen? Who knows. But if even parts of this are remotely true, it’s clear that the next decade will involve massive change.

Change also comes with a lot of criticism. But as the wiser leaders realized, the leaders we criticize today will be the leaders who coach us tomorrow.

The leaders we criticize today will be the leaders who coach us tomorrow. Click To Tweet

The sooner you start to change, the brighter the future becomes, and the more effective your ministry will be.

Change is hard, but irrelevance is even harder.

Change is hard, but irrelevance is even harder. Click To Tweet

What’s Stopping Your Church From Growing? 

Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of church leaders to help them understand the dynamics of church growth.

And here’s what I've learned.

It’s almost never a lack of passion or effort that leads to stagnation, it’s that growing churches are effective at removing the barriers that stand between them and reaching more people.

And that’s exactly why I created The Art of Church Growth course.

By taking a thorough evaluation of your leadership team, volunteer core, missional alignment, and culture, you'll create an action plan to:

  1. Discover and eliminate the barriers that keep your church from growing
  2. Guide your church through transformational conversations that lead to growth and discipleship

While only God can grant growth, you can position your church for it. The best time to do that is now.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.

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