Wherever you are in the world reading this, Coronavirus has impacted you. Social distancing, lockdown, quarantine, hygiene stipulations, business and store closures… the impact of the virus is inescapable. A worldwide crisis has changed the world. But will it change the church? Will it affect one of the most notoriously unchanging institutions in society? How will the post-coronavirus church be different? Will it even be different? Will we refuse to change, stay the same and grumble because the world considers us irrelevant through their spectacles of apathy? What are the future church trends and changes we need to consider?
Opportunity is staring us in the face. How will we as the church, and as church leaders, respond? What church changes are needed?
Let me elaborate on what I mean. Allow me to propose some future church trends and changes that I think will increasingly become the new normal. They may require mentality shifts for those of us in church leadership roles. To be honest, on the whole embracing each one was smart in pre-Coronavirus times, but I think they will definitely be essential post-Coronavirus for a healthy church.
The future church trends and changes I see coming that the local church needs to change its thinking around involve the following areas:
1. Changing our thinking about buildings
Not all churches benefit from having their own buildings, admittedly, but I’m wondering if they can be a mixed blessing. Of course, having a space you can do what you want in, when you want, how you want has many benefits. But there are downsides.
- Do we become fixed to a geographical space, where everything we do ultimately circulates around a specific physical place?
- Are we limited by the confines of our facilities, which results in either capped growth or multiple fundraising campaigns over time to continually develop buildings?
- Do we stockpile funds whilst searching for the perfect building, in the perfect place?
- Does having a building mean we default to hosting our ministry activity in the same space, which subtly leads us to have a ‘come to us’ mentality instead of a ‘go into all the world’ mindset?
- Do we have to spend more time than is really warranted juggling an ever-complex church calendar trying to squeeze everything in to a crowded timetable?
- Is it New Testament thinking to take our peoples giving and primarily use it to cover rent/mortgage costs, utility bills, and upkeep costs? How exciting is that church vision?
- Is it wise stewarding of leaders time and energy for them to deal with building management and maintenance issues, or smart stewarding of money to hire someone else to do it when those funds could be used elsewhere?
- Is it wise to add the weight of a business concern to increase income to the responsibility of church leadership, when we consider Acts 6 and the apostles’ ruthless focus on what they felt called to do? Or, as above, is it equally wise to use resources that could be used elsewhere to hire someone to manage a facility whilst covering costs?
Let’s be clear. I’m not against church facilities or building. I am against a church mentality that revolves around a building, because the church risks developing a ‘come to us’ mentality due to being psychologically or financially locked into having to use a specific building. It’s an Old Testament way of thinking, having a ‘house of God’ when the New Testament is pretty clear that we as the people are the house of God.
What are the future church trends or changes? Maybe it’s time to make use of public spaces more – cafes, pubs, community halls, even homes. Yes, they have limitations – capacity being one. But I believe the trade-off will free up finances, mobilise the church community, increase the depth of our relationships, and release us from being captive to orbiting a building that might not be located where the people are, or go to. Smaller settings make connecting easier, whereas larger settings are more about gathering. Perhaps churches will rent larger facilities – and by larger, I mean small to medium size spaces. This will cost less and allow for more flexibility, mobility and community engagement by being in the very midst of an area.
2. Changing our thinking about meetings
Nearly all churches focus and prioritise Sunday morning gatherings over other meetings, including midweek home groups – if they even have those. I can hear the response already: “But we do already have small/life/cell/whatever groups that meet in peoples homes every week!”
Good! But let’s be honest… are they equally valuable to you compared to Sunday morning meetings?
I’m not against weekend or larger gatherings. The New Testament church met in the synagogues as well as homes. But I am against churches becoming event-centred where we demonstrate a ‘sage on the stage’ ministry model yet wonder why everyone wants to meet directly with the leaders for any pastoral issues. I’m against meetings that are songs, speech and coffee – and the Holy Spirit being there wouldn’t make a single different to our timed running order. I’m against meetings that are primarily shaped by considerations such as performance quality and ability, on-stage persona and charisma, meeting look and feel, ‘buzz’ and energy, the sharpness of delivery, ability in front of a crowd, and stage presence and slickness. Many of us would say we are too.
So how do you assess your weekend gatherings? The first question surely has to be “did we allow God to do what God wanted to do?” A second question then has to be: “did we actually know what He wanted to do, or did we assume?” Sometimes we assume, instead of listening.
Let’s go back to small group meetings. Many of us would say “yes, we value them.” So, let’s dig deeper:
- Do you spend more money on resourcing Sunday mornings, or home meetings?
- Are you spending more time planning Sunday mornings, or home meetings?
- Do you spend more time reviewing Sunday mornings or home meetings?
- Are you investing more time and money training leaders involved with Sunday mornings, or home meetings?
- Are you more aware when a Sunday morning meeting goes wrong than if a home meeting does?
- As church leaders, do you lead or even attend a home group that isn’t populated by other staff?
What are your answers? They reveal how highly you really prioritise your small group life.
What are the future church trends or changes? Stronger and more pivotal, central and resourced small groups in churches. Considering the questions I just asked, what would happen in our churches if we flipped these around and strongly invested and prioritised our small groups? The reality is that more effective teaching, training, discipleship, pastoring and connection happens in home groups. We all know this, yet our use of resources doesn’t line up with that conviction.
So, again, what would happen to our churches if we flipped these around? How would the church be mobilised, released, pastored, discipled, training and impactful to the world around it? I’ll repeat something I said earlier. Smaller settings make connecting easier, whereas larger settings are more about gathering. These are not the same things. The buzz and excitement of gathering, after a while, fades. People want connection.
3. Changing our thinking about recruitment
To hire, or not to hire. That is often a question. As soon as money allows, many churches look to answer whatever challenges they face by hiring someone to fix it. We dream of hiring someone with people skills, leadership ability, pastoral sensitivity, theological depth, strategic thinking, mature and steady character, Holy Spirit insight and wisdom, servant-hearted, and who will be happy in the job for a couple of decades. In short, the silver bullet dream candidate!
Let’s be clear. I’m not against churches hiring people – I’ve been on church staffs myself. But interestingly, it’s not unusual when I conduct a staffing and structure review with a church that I see role redundancy, people in roles who don’t have the right gifting or aptitude, unclear roles, or full-time employees in roles that are really part-time. I’ve noticed full-time leaders who actually don’t spend full-time hours focused on the church. Now, this isn’t all leaders – some are working more than full-time. But generally speaking, the smaller the church the less responsibility there is, therefore the leader should be less of a financial drain.
Many churches overspend when it comes to staff. Typically in churches, staff costs are the largest expense. Overpaying for staff can suggest a staff-centric culture, whilst underpaying can suggest gaps in the church structure. The average church staff budget is between 44% and 54%. I’m not saying it’s wrong to have higher or lower than that figure. The key question is why is your figure the percentage it is? Having staff is wonderful but it does present some challenges:
- If you hire someone, you are limited by that person’s gifting and ability. What happens if the church needs outgrow their capacity? You could have someone in a role who can no longer actually do it.
- Hiring staff means that they have to be managed and pastored. Some church leaders don’t know how to or want to manage staff. So who is going to? How do you manage the tension of managing staff members performance well, but also shepherding and caring for their hearts? One without the other is irresponsible leadership. If you have staff, you need to have a plan for their development.
- Always hiring someone to address issues in the church means you are always dependent on the right person being in the right season to join your team. If they are mature, gifted and anointed, chances are they will be in employment already being paid more than you can afford to pay them!
- Hiring people to catalyse growth momentum actually means you are limited by your budget. If you can’t afford to hire, what are you going to do?
- Lastly, and most importantly, hiring people continually risks disempowering your people and communicating to them that being on staff is the only way you can have genuine and meaningful authority and influence in the church. Inadvertently, it’s less ‘priesthood of all believers’ and more a clergy/laity divide. You’ll have a disengaged people who are only really wanted to fill seats, give money, and be the muscle for someone else’s vision.
I wonder if many jobs we look to hire people for could actually be done by genuinely trusted and empowered volunteers. I’ve found that competent people are more than willing to volunteer if they know they’ll get clarity, direction and support. Letting volunteers start, shape, direct, manage, lead and genuinely run ministry areas – even significant ones – will develop leaders far more effectively than having staff continually do it. After all, most of the people in your church are volunteers. Many of them have responsibility and authority in the workplace. Make the most of it by giving them room and space to lead.
What are the future church trends or changes? A shift that means that the role of any staff moves from leading and directing ministry areas, to serving, supporting and assisting those actually leading and doing the ministry. Ultimately, it means fewer all-rounders on staff and only specialists who have minority or specific skills being hired. How would that model impact your leadership development?
4. Changing our thinking about teaching
I love preaching and teaching. I am convinced of its value, so much so that I’ve trained preachers and study communication skills. But the landscape on this one has changed. Many of us still work with a model of forty to sixty minutes for preaching. Why is this the model many of us have inherited? It might be a hangover from previous centuries when people were more likely to be illiterate and couldn’t read the Bible, so the sermon was the weekly time for spiritual input. But if that’s true, we don’t live in an illiterate society anymore. Society has changed, so our public teaching style needs to as well. Does preaching for forty-five minutes guarantee effective preaching?
We hear people comment that attention spans have diminished. Whether you feel this is a fact to lament or not doesn’t matter – but your response to it does matter. You can ignore lower attention spans and continue to solider on with longer sermons, or you can adjust to your audience – or the audience you want – and learn to preach shorter. Sharper. Smarter.
I’ve been thinking about the popularity of TED talks recently. Complex subjects made accessible in 18 minutes without losing any depth, with the purpose being to equip people how to use what they’ve heard to think differently. Now let’s read that paragraph again with a key change.
Biblical preaching that takes complex subjects, makes them accessible in 18 minutes without losing any depth, with the purpose being to equip people how to use what they’ve heard to think differently. If that doesn’t sound like effective preaching, I don’t know what is.
Sometimes, as preachers, we actually say so much we don’t say anything at all. Communication isn’t just about what is said, it is about what is heard. Perhaps shorter, focused messages have more clarity simply because they are shorter!
It’s fascinating to me that I find it harder to prepare for a 20-minute sermon than a 45 minute one. Is that because I have to be more disciplined in what I say and how I say it because I don’t have the liberty of time to allow myself tangents and waffling? My ego would prefer to speak for longer with a captive audience, but it is wiser leadership to speak shorter and leave people remembering what I actually said.
Focusing on equipping rather than simply imparting information will make a huge impact on our discipleship. Try it next time you teach. Instead of having ‘application points’ – telling people what they can do to implement what you are saying – ask questions to get people reflecting and thinking. People will be more likely to own what they determine and follow-through. They’ll share their victories and learn from others.
What are the future church trends or changes? A revolution in preaching, that doesn’t dumb down but does tighten up. Shorter, sharper, smarter teaching that makes it easy to actually equip people to hear and act what God is wanting to say to them about their lives.
5. Changing our thinking about technology
This one might cause a bit of a guffaw from some of you: “but we have a website, podcast and social media. We’re using technology.”
To that, I say well done. Not everyone is. But there is a difference between using technology, and maximising it.
We live in a digital world. Most importantly, a generation is now alive that has never known a pre-digital or analogue age. My parents told me stories about black and white televisions in the same way I have to explain to my daughter what a CD or DVD is. I remember when clunky, chunky mobile phones started to appear in the 90s. Now, smartphones are ubiquitous. Do you remember dial-up internet? Floppy discs? Explain those to millennials! In fact, show them using Google whilst remembering that Google might not have been around when they were born.
Using social media well is a lot more than just posting Bible verse memes on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram a couple of times a week. It’s about having a strategy to expand your digital influence. Jesus went where the people were. In our time, that means the internet. People check your church out on its social media pages before they even cross the threshold of your building. If people looked at yours today, what would it say to them? What would Christians take from it? What would non-Christians take away? Social media means engagement. It means interacting with comments. It means strategically thinking and planning what to post, when, and how that works with the wider plan and strategy of the church.
Websites are essential. But not just a website that looks good – one that functions well. A good question to ask is “who is our website aimed at?”. Surely, it has to be at people who don’t attend your church! I’m not saying it shouldn’t be useful for your people, but your website is your ‘shop window’ so to speak, so it should give an insight into who you are as a church, what you do, and what you are about.
Your mission, vision and values should be easily found, as should details about where you meet and how people can connect with you. If these aren’t on your front page, you can’t assume that people will take the time to hunt around for them instead of clicking onto the website of the church down the road. Oh, and please please please keep your website up to date! If it has event details that are old and no longer relevant, it just says to the visitor that you don’t have anything fresher happening, which paints a picture of your church you might not want!
Recording the audio or video of your sermons as a podcast is a must. But what about extra content? Instead of trying to leverage in extra classes, courses or sermon series around more complex or theological content, why not record them as video or audio series and upload them to your website? Imagine the possibilities of having an entire library of topics and classes taught by trusted people in your church that is freely accessible to your people. It would certainly help develop a teaching culture. Once recorded, that resource is yours for as long as you want, available to new and existing members in the years ahead. I know of a church that has a weekly Bible Q&A podcast with their leader, for example. People email in questions and the church team work through them together.
There are plenty of memes and tutorials about Zoom now. Its capability to host multiple people on a video-call has become essential for meetings in the business and church worlds during this time. Why not keep using it when things settle down into whatever the new normal will be? Rather than spend an entire evening travelling to a meeting, sitting through it (which is inevitably too long a meeting as well!) and travelling back, use Zoom or something like it to have a meeting webinar. It’ll cut down on travel time, be easier for those with families to attend, and make engagement more likely.
I know of a church that is running a leadership development course using a combination of pre-recorded Zoom teachings and live calls, to help people fit listening to content around their schedules so when they do join a call, it is to discuss and dialogue, and not just simply listen passively. I also know of a church leader that is hosting weekly prayer times via Facebook Live, ministering to anyone who logs in and shares a prayer need. One more example – I know a church who is hosting weekly prophetic ministry times where people receive encouraging words to strengthen them during this time. Accessibility is something technology makes easier – let’s leverage it for good.
What are the future church trends or changes? Intentional, proactive, strategic and integrated use of social media to increase influence, and technology to develop resources, connection, ministry opportunities and accessibility.
6. Changing our thinking about outreach
I love the Great Commission. “Go out into all the world!”. Elsewhere, Jesus says go to “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.”
Jerusalem represents people like us
Judea represents people similar to us.
Samaria represents people offensive to us.
The Ends of the Earth represent people not like us.
Between those four categories, that pretty much covers everybody! But it is fascinating to me that many churches seem to not really have any idea who their ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Judea’ is! They are ministering or giving to a Samaria or someone in the ends of the earth but are neglecting their very neighbours – metaphorically and literally.
Elsewhere I argue that an outreach focus and local community ministry are keys to a healthy church. It’s easy to send money to faraway places, or teams that annually fly over, do good work or speak at conferences, but don’t actually plough the ground and build something sustainable, lasting and impactful. It’s a bigger challenge to see a real, significant difference in your hometown.
We live in a world where social causes are aggressively championed through social media and clever PR campaigns. For churches to talk about love and not get their hands dirty screams hypocrisy to many.
I love churches that have a big worldview and dream of reaching ‘the nations’. But not at the expense of the people right on their doorstep. There are plenty of opportunities to make a local and significant impact. Homelessness. Job retraining. Skills training. The list goes on.
I know of a church in a village that hosts weekly activity games with inflatable bouncy castles for local teenagers. All for free. They’ve become the community hub, using their church building in a way that is healthy and positive.
I know of another church that not only helps with the major foodbank in its town but actually manages it because of how well they’ve stewarded it. They have cultivated favour from the local government authority to a point where they can input and shape proceedings themselves. Incidentally, one of the women involved with kickstarting the initiative has actually met with national government figures to discuss related issues of poverty. That is favour that wouldn’t have come by having a non-local outreach view.
I know of another church that tithes to its city council, anonymously, with no strings attached. They want to serve the place they are called to, and show respect and value to the elected officials.
What are the future church trends or changes? Churches demonstrating a greater awareness, involvement and commitment to local issues that impact physical, emotional, material, psychological, economic, and yes, spiritual needs in the community. They’ll partner with local agencies, bodies and government in addressing these issues that impact the community. Churches can have a level of manpower and even finance that makes a significant difference. The community will notice this, and these actions say more about the love of God than any fete or open-air service would.
There you are – six future church trends and changes regarding buildings, meetings, recruitment, technology, teaching and outreach that I believe churches need to engage with.
I’m aware that these future church trends and changes may present a significant shift for many. For some, it is a total invert of ministry philosophy. In a sense, you may have to become a totally new church – in the very least, you may have to do some things very differently. But that’s OK. Change for purpose is wisdom. If we don’t change, we’ll become irrelevant.
The good thing is that you aren’t alone. I’m working with churches that are looking to respond to these future church trends and changes, helping them implement some or all of any change they see they need to make. To find out how well prepared you are for these future church trends and changes, consider taking a free church health check.