We are in the middle of a pastoral crisis right now. Barna’s latest study shows that 38% of pastors have considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year. 46% of those are under the age of 45. 51% of mainline denomination pastors have considered leaving in the last year. Additionally, their research shows that only 35% of America’s pastors rated themselves healthy in their overall well-being.
As a result of this research, I’m organizing a 4-part blog series addressing this pastoral crisis. You can read Part One here, “There’s a Pastoral Crisis Right Now. Don’t Believe These 5 Lies.”
2021 was known as the Great Resignation or the Big Quit. More employees voluntarily resigned from their jobs than ever before. Unfortunately, this is making its way into our churches as well. Today, I want to explore what would happen to the church if there were a mass exodus of pastors.
When you combine the thoughts of quitting, the unhealth in pastor’s overall well-being, the aging of America’s pastors, and the natural pull to society that we are feeling in the Great Resignation, it’s fair to assume that more pastors will quit, retire, or move on from ministry now than ever before.
And if they did, what would happen to the church?
I want to give five predictions. And, for what it’s worth, I think the percentage of pastors who quit, retire, or move on from ministry will be higher than ever these next couple of years. So, it is entirely appropriate to start strategizing and planning for the future now.
Here are my five predictions. Would you add any to the list? Feel free to add your prediction or comment below.
1. The church will carry on, albeit differently.
In the significant disruption that has occurred the past couple of years, here’s another statistic:
God, and His promises, have changed 0%!
Hebrews 13:8 tells us that “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.”
- Just as loving
- Just as kind
- Just as merciful.
- Just as much in control
- Just as powerful.
God is not nervous in heaven right now as He watches the news on CNN or Fox News. He’s not pacing back and forth, wondering how we will get out of this mess. And He’s not biting his fingernails as He sees the alarming statistics brought on by two years of leading through the pandemic.
The church has changed, needs to change, and will look very different than it has in the past. Take comfort in that this is God’s church and not yours. Fast-forward to the end. After all the crazy ups and downs that have come since the beginning of time, God wins. His church wins. The gates of Hell will not prevail against Him. Just as He predicted in Matthew 16:8.
This all-powerful, all-knowing, fully-in-control God is still the same. And yet, how this expression of God, through the church looks, can and should change. For multiple decades in a row, the collective church had failed to change, innovate, and be relevant. As a result, we’ve been losing our influence and being pushed more and more to the fringes.
Major disruption brings about the opportunity to ask challenging but essential questions. In my eBook Reopening Christianity, I tackle what I believe are the top 5 questions we can be asking right now as individuals and as churches. If you’d like a free copy of the eBook, you can order it here and enter the code “Matthew16:8” at checkout. Valid until 3/31/22.
2. Church mergers will skyrocket.
Before the pandemic, many churches struggled due to decreased membership, declining revenue, an aging pastoral staff, etc. According to UnSeminary, 94% of churches were losing ground against the communities they serve. When you add on top of those statistics now 20-40% fewer people attending in-person church, and a higher percentage of pastors considering leaving the pastoral ministry, more churches will look to merge than ever before.
Church mergers are very involved and very detailed, but according to a 2016 Barna Study, 89% of churches that had undergone a merger reported a positive result.
Church mergers represent a beautiful picture of God’s restoration.
All throughout the Bible, we see the incredible power of God’s restoration. Restoration is about bringing something back to its original state. However, God is a master restorer. He doesn’t just put things back to their original condition. He brings them back to something even more beautiful, compelling, and glorious.
Jesus was far more interested in renewing, recreating, and restoring this world, not in blowing it up and destroying it. We see this in the overall scope of what Jesus said. Evidence is found in the Lord’s Prayer and in the revelation of John in the final two chapters of our Bible. From beginning to end, the Bible is about God’s complete restoration of the world, of which humanity is an integral piece of the entire puzzle.
Someone once asked the great reformer, Martin Luther, what he would do if he knew that Jesus was coming back today. Luther responded that he would plant a tree. Why? Because if God is about complete restoration, then the little things we do in this world matter. His belief is that somehow in the new, fully restored kingdom of God, the tree that he planted would be utilized, loved, and give even more glory to God.
More rapidly declining churches will choose not to die but rather to partner and merge with another leading church. And in doing this, they’ll give a beautiful picture of God’s restorative work. Considering a church merger? I found these articles from Church Law and Tax to be very helpful.
3. A few churches will move from megachurches to ultra-mega churches in the next decade.
What’s an ultra-mega church? It’s a new term that I invented to signify a single church that regularly reaches more than 100,000 people. As of right now, there is not a single church in the USA that reaches more than 100,000 people in-person for a weekend experience.
If there is a “Great Resignation” of pastors, then there will also be a “Great Re-sorting” of those who currently attend, belong, and participate in those churches. While the pastor isn’t the only factor in someone choosing to belong to a church, it is arguably the most critical factor. Pew Research did a study in 2016 and noted the top 7 reasons people choose to attend a church. The chief reason, chosen by 83% of the respondents as necessary, was the quality of sermons.
If someone’s pastor quits or retires, they very well could be looking to find quality sermons elsewhere. The quality of preaching has never been better than it is today. Where will they find these quality sermons? They will start online. And being able to “attend” an online church and check out the preaching quality and style of the pastor is something that nearly everyone does before physically attending a church. Online church is an excellent front door to the in-person church.
Several churches in our nation are well-positioned for an incredible online church experience, complete with not only great preaching but incredible attention to detail with hosting and worship as well. Additionally, with more and more people comfortable doing hybrid church, some online and some in-person, people have realized how easy it is to “check out” or “attend” multiple churches.
These churches’ online reach will not only continue to soar, but eventually, their online reach will result in insane growth in their in-person attendance as well. Several churches are already positioned to multiply their campuses across cities, states, and even internationally. With those extensions happening more frequently, I envision 3-5 churches crossing the 100,000 mark in physical attendance by 2032.
4. More people will curate their own version of church.
What is “church?” It has always been hard to define. Some define church as the assembly or the gathering. Some define the church by the building. Others say it’s not the building but the people. The denomination I’m a part of says that church is where the Word and Sacraments are rightly administered. Some believe that online church is a “real” church, while others vehemently disagree. While all of these conversations to define church are essential and still happening, a higher number of people today are choosing to just curate and come up with their own version of church.
Decentralization is a buzzword we hear a lot about, especially in the Web3 that is coming to our doorsteps sooner than later. It represents the transfer of control of a single activity or organization to several offices or authorities. This is already happening in the church and will be even more common in the future. As a result, the church will become even more complex and complicated when defining it and measuring its success.
The latest Gallup Report says, “The U.S. remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion. However, far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship. While it is possible that part of the decline seen in 2020 was temporary and related to the coronavirus pandemic, continued decline in future decades seems inevitable, given the much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger versus older generations of adults.”
According to that study, 70% still consider themselves religious. However, only 47% “belong” to a church. So, roughly one in every three people who would consider themselves religious aren’t technically affiliated with a church anymore.
Tara Isabella Burton, author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, says there is a significant trend in how people mix and match various religious traditions to create their own. She says, “Many people who don’t identify with a particular religious institution still say they believe in God, pray or do things that tend to be associated with faith.” She goes on to say that a trend in American religious life is that more and more people today “have ownership over curating their own experience.”
People in your church today consider you their pastor. But, it’s also possible that they would consider Steven Furtick their pastor, Maverick City their worship team, Francis Chan their small group leader, Beth Moore their Bible Study teacher, and YouVersion Bible App their accountability partner. On top of this, online communities and movements will continue to rise. In other words, they can curate, pick and choose what they like, want, or need, and be encouraged, transformed, and renewed by a host of people, ministries, and churches.
I’m not saying this is all bad. There is so much “gold” to be had by some of these incredible leaders, churches, and platforms. What I am saying is that it’s going to get more confusing. Rather than being against this trend, we will have to have good discussions and figure out how to cooperate, support, and play nicely with other churches, ministries, and organizations. Some of these people, leaders, and churches we may never meet in person, but they are already impacting the lives of those in our churches.
5. Succession planning will speed up.
The church does not do leadership transition or succession well. Through extensive research and personal experience, Mark Zehnder, Director of Always Forward Ministries, says that about 80% of church leadership transitions do not go well. Much more will be expressed on this in next week’s blog.
Not only are more pastors thinking of quitting, but pastors are just simply getting older. In the last 25 years, pastors 65 and older have tripled, while the age of 40 and under has been cut by more than half. Today, the actual number of pastors 65 and older is higher than those 40 and under. 50% of pastors today are 56 and older.
As a 38-year old pastor, can I ask something of the older generation? Will you help set us up to lead well into the future, please?!? Can you stay engaged?
There is so much wisdom we need from you. In 2018, The New England Journal of Medicine, after conducting an extensive study, reported that the most productive stage in human life is between 60-70 years. The second most productive stage is from 70 to 80 years of age. Also, notably, they found that the average age of pastors of the 100 largest churches is 71.
Collectively, the best thing the older generation can do for the church is to set up the younger generation to lead the church into the future.
One of the primary reasons for leadership transition not going well in the church is the lack of planning, strategizing, and discussion. So what can you do? First, identify younger people to pour your leadership and wisdom into. Engage in discussions. Begin to think about your church without you at the helm. Finally, use however many years you have left to help the church carry on well beyond your tenure.
At some point, every one of our ministries will be over. We will have all quit, retired, moved on, or been moved on from our positions. Is your church set up to move forward without you?
When I think about the changes we have undergone and the more that will continue, I feel helpless. Doubt and confusion creep in. But then I remember, the church isn’t built on my strength, wisdom, or power. It’s built on God’s. And God has a history of growing His church in extraordinary times. Perhaps we are on the cusp of God bringing revival into our nation. So, even though I’m uncertain, I’m also excited. God still reigns. And I’m excited to see Him bring new mercies every day.
To serve the church as a pastor is a critical position. It’s one I know I’m unqualified for. Every day I wake up grateful, knowing it is the opportunity of a lifetime for me. I want to steward this opportunity as well as I can in response to His grace in my life. I know you do, too.
So, even though we may not have all the answers, my practical next step is not to ignore what’s happening. Engage. Talk about your struggles. Open up and tell someone your feelings right now. Discuss your opinions on where the church is headed and how you can better position the church in the future. Continue to learn. But, at the end of the day, after you’ve been faithful in serving God, place your complete trust in God.