By Jennifer Johnson
This past weekend Matt and I had the rare chance for a Friday night date and somehow, after cheesesteaks and The Imitation Game and overpriced desserts at a French bistro, our conversation turned to the future of the church in America. Yes, we are nerds. Yes, this is what happens when a blogger and a pastor get married.
I predicted that many of the churches enjoying success today will no longer be recognizable in a few generations, since most communities go through cycles of growth and decline. I predicted that churches will continue to franchise, with large mothership headquarters divvying up resources, prewritten sermon outlines, graphics, and programming decisions to smaller locations around the country. I predicted those pragmatic alliances—with pastors receiving management and money from a church or network of churches—would supersede denominational allegiances. And I predicted that fewer and fewer leaders would have the luxury of pastoring full time, and that most would be bivocational at best—or, like most of the leaders at Mission Church, volunteers.
I’m not the first person to speculate on future trends, or the one with the most letters after my name. Carey Nieuwhof says that “future large churches will likely become large not because they necessarily gather thousands in one space, but because they gather thousands through dozens of smaller gatherings under some form of shared leadership.” In his book Unfinished Business, Greg Ogden predicts “denominational life as we know it is perhaps 50 years from extinction.” LifeWay Research President Thom Rainer says, “The era of the large worship gathering is waning . . . churches that are growing will likely do so through multiple services, multiple venues, and multiple sites.” And in his book Bivo, Hugh Halter argues that “full-time vocational ministry (American style) is not normal (less than 200 years old) and there are exciting opportunities for ministry in bivocational or volunteer paradigms.”
It’s easy to feel nervous about these changes and to wring our hands about the future. But these trends—which may threaten church as we know it—can also be opportunities to do better than we’re doing now. More flexibility on structures and staffing can mean more people engaged in meaningful ministry. Smaller local bodies connected to strong regional resources and leadership might offer the best of both worlds. And aren’t we the ones who don’t like denominations?
No one knows exactly what this will all look like, but two things are certain: church in the 21st century will look different than it ever has, and it will continue to be Jesus to a watching world.
The more I read, the more I’m coming to another prediction: the American church’s best days might be ahead of us. If we can become less tied to old models and more open to new methods, that’s a future to look forward to.