Five Ways Churches Will Have Changed One Year From Now

I am not prophetic. And if I am prescient, it’s only because I have the incredible vantage point of hearing from tens of thousands of church leaders every year.

While it is admittedly difficult to project trends in typical times, it is exceedingly difficult to do so in a time of pandemic headed for, hopefully, a post-quarantine era. Because we hear from so many church leaders and church members, allow me to venture where local churches will be in one year. 

  1. At least 20 percent of those who attended before the pandemic will not return to church. Of course, this number will vary from church to church, but early indicators point to this level of losses. Some of the former in-person attendees will become digital-only attendees. Most of this group, however, will not attend at all.
  1. More pastors will leave vocational ministry over the next twelve months than any time in recent history. Pastors suffer a death by a thousand cuts. It’s usually not just one or a few factors that push their limits, it’s the drip-by-drip effect of constant criticisms and conflicts they experience. That continuous pressure and discouragement has been exacerbated by the incredible pressures brought by the pandemic. 
  1. Churches will move to a new emphasis on conversion growth. Churches have been quietly disobedient to the Great Commission for three decades. We are seeing signs of a new wake-up call. Church leaders are becoming increasingly convicted that they must lead their churches to reach those who are not believers in Christ. Church members are reflecting that same conviction and commitment. Most church growth for the past three decades has been transfer growth, Christians moving from one church to another. That dismal reality is about to change. 
  1. Churches will start more churches, many of them as microchurches. Churches are moving from vertical growth (getting as many to attend as possible at one place on Sunday morning) to horizontal growth (growth beyond one site on Sunday morning). A lot of this new growth will include the starting of microchurches, congregations of around 25 to 30 people. As a side note to be unpacked later, these trends will have huge implications for the future of church facilities. 
  1. Two movements will grow rapidly: church adoption and church fostering. There will be more unhealthy churches needing help in the next few months. There will be more struggling churches without pastors. Some of these churches will be adopted; they will be assumed into another church family and become a site of the adopting church. Others will be fostered, which means a healthier church will help those struggling churches for a short season. I will address both of these movements next week.

While it has become cliché to say we are living in unprecedented times, we are living in unprecedented times. Those organizations that view this new reality as an opportunity will indeed see limitless possibilities. This perspective is especially true for the organizations we call churches. 

It’s a challenging time. It’s an exciting time. 

The next twelve months will be incredibly telling for the future of local churches around the world. 

Let me know what you think.

Posted on August 17, 2020

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I am delighted but will see if this will applicable in Nigeria .

  • Melvin smith says on

    This was very helpful

  • James k. Underwood says on

    Very thankful insites.

  • Ken Botes says on

    Totally agree. Have a conference centre and on Sundays 4 different churches utilize my facilities. Each growing smaller in membership and difficult to pay hiring fees except 0ne church. Have cut the normal rent with 50% and still they struggle and rent made payable weekly whereas was one payment end of month. Ken

  • Frank Teat says on

    Thanks for the observations Thom. Elements of all the above are happening. I would like to know, if you have the stats available, what the drop-out rate is presently for pastors/ministers leaving the ministry, as well as for churches that are closing their doors or have closed their doors – even prior to the pandemic, in the last year or so.


  • Thom. Thanks for your insight on critical matter related to the church. I don’t doubt your 20% figure but I’d like to know how you arrived at it. Thanks!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Timothy –

      You should doubt the 20% number because our information is anecdotal at this point! We are asking pastors (many of whom can name the status of most of their members) this question, so the data comes from them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this number is on target or perhaps even higher.

  • Ray Crews says on

    Great info for the church.
    I feel this virus will cause the church to get back to doing church God’s way.

  • Rene Melendez says on


    Very much what I have seen already. The Church needs to adapt to change and not with a view that things will be as before. God is doing a new thing and we must adopt His program for the times we are living in. I see great potential in the changing Church of today. Much like a battlefield commander, pastors must keep up with the ever changing developments and take advantage of both the favorable and not so favorable conditions that exist in the Church today.. God is able and He changeth not. I believe their is an urgency to reach out to the lost as you said in point #3. Jesus ordered His disciples to Go and to Preach. Every believer has received the same orders. We must not depend on technology or the media alone to reach the lost. We all have a personal message to tell of God’s amazing love towards us, a personal testimony to share. May the Lord bring holy conviction on us all to reach out to the lost.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Rene.

    • Ms. Melendez,
      I have often wondered HOW spiritually DARK our society has to get before some unbeliever says, “Hey, could we have some [spiritual] light?” Because if a lot of unbelievers are asking this, we could well be headed toward a REVIVAL, hallelujah!!
      In the service of the true King,
      Ron Deere

  • Bob Myers says on

    In her 2008 prescient book, “The Great Emergence,” the late Phyllis Tickle observed that there was a massive shift going on in the church. She linked it to the phenomenon of what she called “great rummage sales” that happened in church history every 500 years. By her calculation, we were due.

    Tickle was a liberal theological observer and a proponent of the short-lived “Emerging Church.” But her premise about massive changes happening has merit, IMO. There are indeed massive shifts going on now – much greater than they were in 2008, though many of strands of change during that time have grown (or festered, depending upon your perspective) into almost seemingly irresistible forces today. The secular wave that is crashing upon us is intensified by Critical Theory that has been laying in the academic weeds for the last fifty years, poisoning the minds of the last couple of generations in the West. We see the manifestations of CT in “cancel culture,” rioting in our major cities, and the deconstruction of our history. To be sure, the church is a target of this cultural war and we will no doubt see more and more pressure on committed Christians in the West. It seems to me that the pandemic has hastened the trajectory of these changes that have been happening for quite some time.

    So these are very challenging times in which we are living. I admit to being just a bit unnerved as a pastor. I believe the church is being pruned for more effectiveness, as Thom Rainer suggests in his point about focusing on conversion rather than transfer growth. The potential growth of “micro-churches” is perhaps a very good thing as the church as a whole may be facing more cultural pressure. Smaller, in that case, will be better to fly under the radar and be effective for the Kingdom. Many of the things that we have held to be precious will perhaps wind up in Tickle’s great ecclesiastical “rummage sale” of this era. We need to be able to think critically and biblically to discern what should go and what we must strengthen.

    This Monday morning brings me a number of fears. Seems like we, as the church, are facing what Henri Nowen called “downward mobility.” Perhaps, that’s where we need to be in order to truly be like Christ. Still, hope should be greater than our fears. Historically, when the church was under societal pressure, it was healthier. Perhaps that is where we are headed and that’s a good thing.

  • Yep. I agree with all of the above. Number 2 is especially spot-on. As you have mentioned previously on the website, more and more pastors will gravitate toward co-vocational ministries or will look to serve in other capacities.

  • Hi Thom,

    As our church begins to reopen, my biggest fear is that 20% number. We have been doing outside worship services for the past two months.
    I have already seen a major drop in attendance, particularly among our older members.
    Also, we have probably lost some who used to attend but were not members. I haven’t seen any of them since the shutdown happened here in Illinois.
    In short, we will be a microchurch moving forward…One bright spot, we have seen an increase of visitor’s viewing the weekly worship services online…
    Dr. Frazier

  • Susan McClash says on

    I can see some of this happening already. It sounds like some great adventures ahead as we prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven.

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