10 Bold Predictions about the Future Church in America
August 5, 2020
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It’s been a wild ride leading a church over the past decade, but the ride has gone crazy wild in 2020.  Nothing and no one could have predicted we’d be where we are right now.  It’s been far and away the most challenging year of ministry for myself, and for all the pastor friends that I know.

What we don’t know is what will be of the church when the dust settles.  But it’s important as pastors who lead people to at least be thinking about the future and in light of that, I have made 10 bold predictions about the future church of America.

Some of these predictions are based on data, and some of these are just random musings that I could totally be wrong about, but here goes…

  1. Church has never been more complicated in America and it will never go back to normal.

If pastors have ever needed your prayers, this is the season.  Many pastors are left with one congregation but in several formats (in person, online, and those going back and forth).  Finding resources and tools to unify a divided congregation will be paramount in the church of the future  There are many pastors who are simply waiting and buying time for their church to go back to normal but I have a hunch it never will.  Partly because…

  1.  30% of the churchgoers have not just left the building, but are gone.

It’s hard to keep track of who’s truly in your church anymore, but even for this optimist, I think a more natural outcome of the pandemic is that churches will get smaller, not bigger.  While there will be exceptions to this rule, I have a hard time believing the average church will grow.  New habits form so quickly and for many people the new habit they have made in this time is to not attend church, online, or in person.  Barna research suggests that one in three practicing Christians has stopped attending church altogether.  And only 53% say they have streamed their regular church online in the last 4 weeks. The optimistic side of me believes that if the remaining 70% truly do follow Jesus then we can do far more than the 100% of the old which was filled with many nominal, but not practicing, Christians.  If we were only as strong as our weakest link, maybe losing our weakest won’t hurt us in the long run.  After all, the Christian church of America was a shadow of what it was called to be, and God regularly prunes what will eventually bear much fruit.  Might 2020 be “The Year of the Great Pruning?”

  1. Online Church will change drastically from the way that it’s being done now.

I think there may be a select few churches that can create a positive online experience through streaming their Sunday worship service.  Most churches in-person worship services, however, do not translate well through a screen into a person’s living room.  Creating quality content that works in a living room is different than in an auditorium or sanctuary.  Long worship sets don’t translate well.  It can be weird or awkward to sing with my family in my house.  In terms of the preaching, I agree with what Carey Nieuwhof says: “5 minutes of boring is 5 minutes too long and 60 minutes of fascinating is not long enough.”  Online attention spans tend to be even shorter than live attention spans, so when thinking online, better to go shorter than longer.

  1. This COULD be the biggest change in the form of preaching in centuries.

What’s crazy to me is we really haven’t changed our style of preaching even though the world has changed and gotten so much more technologically advanced in the past 20 years.  Preaching has for many centuries been primarily done from a stage to an audience.  With the online revolution of the past couple of decades, one effective form of preaching could be to remove yourself from the stage and record messages anywhere.  In the past, bringing props onto a stage to help bring a point home worked.  Now, the preacher can physically put himself/herself on location to help bring the point home in an even more powerful way.  If you are preaching about fishing for men, what would it look like to film your sermon on a boat or in a fish market?  I’ve been very successful in creating videos largely for small group materials where we have recorded onsite with powerful visuals as I walk and talk, but now I’m thinking, why don’t we do this for our sermons as well?

  1. Online Church will be the new “worship wars.”

For decades the church, especially along denominational lines, has argued about how to appropriately do worship.  While those debates may linger, the bigger debate right now is if online church is really church.  I believe we have much to learn in this realm still but here’s a couple of convictions that I have: 1) the old “normal” way wasn’t working nearly as well as many want to think it was,  and 2) as you look at the trajectory of our world, I’m very convinced the answer for the church moving forward is “more online, not less.”  Smartphones, Amazon, and social media aren’t going away.  Not having any online answer will make you more like Blockbuster in a Netflix world.  You may have had a good run but your run will come to an end sooner than you think.  I’d rather be putting more energy, time, staff, and budget into being on the innovative side of this than playing defense and hoping that things go back to the broken way that they were.  If you are married to your methods, you’ll soon be divorced from having a church.

  1. Hip-hop and rap will be the fastest growing worship song genre.

Hip-hop and rap music dominate the charts amongst the youth and I highly doubt many churches are thinking about creating worship music in this style.  Taking lessons from YouTubers, we need to be putting our own agendas aside and creating content that younger generation wants to consume.  It may annoy you to listen to hip hop music and to have animations flash across the screen but these are things we must consider in the future of creating video content if we are serious about engaging with and reaching our youth.  If we are not serious about reaching the church of the future, the church simply has no future.

  1. Engaging church content will focus on BOTH consumption AND contribution.

There is great debate on how to “count attendance” right now.  And while I won’t be able to tell you if you should use the multiplier 1.7 or 2.3 on your streaming service, I am certain that every person and every view is vital.   God desires that every person be adopted as one of His children.  Every view therefore is an opportunity for someone to hear Gospel which gives the Holy Spirit an opportunity to change hearts.  If you truly believe that God’s message is effective every time it goes out, then that includes the power to cut through the screens people are watching on.  You should do everything in your power to create Jesus-centered, Spirit-led content that people want to consume, and you should monitor your views, because every view matters.  AND because we are still trying to grow disciples, your content should absolutely lead to next steps and ways to contribute to the advancement of God’s mission, or else, we will just be catering to our consumeristic culture.  I believe that people are starving to not just be inspired by God’s Word, but to be challenged by it.  When you are creating content, think inspiration and challenge.

  1. The church’s volunteer median age just jumped at least a decade.

Most of the people I’ve seen come back to church are in their 50’s and above and not the 20’s and 30’s that have the younger families.  Younger families that I have spoken with enjoy being able to sleep in on Sunday, and to do church online.  It offers for them a slower pace and more family time than the pre-Covid norm of one parent rushing out and abandoning family so he/she could serve as an usher while the other parent was tasked with getting the children ready for church.  I love the Sunday service and the gathering of the people, but I am wondering on the inside if I wasn’t a pastor would I choose:

Option 1:  Sleep in, make breakfast, and spend time in worship and God’s Word for 45 minutes at home with my family and friends.

OR

Option 2: Get up early, wrestle around quickly in order to spend five disjointed family time hours on Sunday morning so that I can attend and serve at a service.

It’s my tendency to rush and overcommit in life which can lead to an unsustainable pace.  What if Sunday could be a day where we slowed our pace down?  I can tell you that this is what young parents, especially, are thinking about right now.  Was church the way it was done promoting an unhealthy pace and family rhythm?  And, if so, how can we avoid that in the future?

  1. Discipling your church will happen mostly in the other 111 waking hours of the week. 

There are 168 hours in the week.  And if we sleep 8 hours a day like the doctors recommend that leaves 112 waking hours.  For the past, the church has been largely focused on discipling the church during the 1-hour weekly worship service.  In the future, churches will be putting much more focus and creating more content to help grow disciples in the other 111 waking hours of the week.  Content creators, production managers, and content editors will be a rising position in the growing church.  I personally love the idea of focusing more of our discipleship efforts outside of Sunday and equipping and arming our parents, guardians, and ministers with tools during the week.

  1. Jesus has never more been needed.

The only answer to all of the major problems in this world continue to be Jesus.  Anxiety and depression will continue to rise in our country as fewer are looking to Jesus as the solution.  But, even though fewer will be looking, Jesus remains the hope of the world.  And it’s on the confession that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God that the gates of Hell will never prevail.  In light of all of the changes and disruption the church has experienced, and while I certainly believe that there are a lot of unknowns, one thing I am certain of is the fact that Jesus and His church will reign.

I predict the church will look very different in the coming decade, and I have mixed emotions of  great optimism and serious fear, but when I remember that church isn’t centered on me and my methods, it’s about Jesus, I can breathe a little bit easier.

If you are a pastor, God bless you!  I am praying for you.  If I can be helpful to you, please reach out to me here. 

If you are a faithful churchgoer, thank you.  Reach out to your pastor and encourage them.  Pray for them.  This is the toughest time they’ve ever had to lead.

After reading through this list, does one of the ten predictions stick out to you?  Which one?  Or do you have any predictions you’d add to the list?

Zach Zehnder

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