Future Church: Five Developments on the Horizon

I have a pretty good track record of seeing the future of churches in America. I hope I am not making such a statement out of arrogance or delusion.

The reality is I am able to see some of the future developments because I hear from so many churches in the present. According to our estimates, we hear from about 250,000 different congregations each year. That’s about two out of three Protestant congregations in America.

So, I’m really not that smart. I just have the blessing of hearing from incredible church leaders and members every single day. In that light, I see five major developments on the horizon.

  1. Shifts in the multisite model. The multisite congregation is the single most profound change in American congregations in the past century. That’s a profound statement, but I really see it. Though I don’t have the objective data yet, I anecdotally see that a multisite church is more likely to be healthy than a single-site church. I will expand on that issue in my post a week from today. For now, watch the multisite church on a number of fronts. For example, I really see the multisite church becoming the catalyst for the recovery and revitalization of neighborhood churches.
  2. More churches seeking to be acquired or merged into a multisite system. A corollary of the first development is the proactive posture of churches seeking to be acquired. More church leaders see the health of multisite models. They thus desire to be a part of a healthy system rather than remain a struggling single-site church.
  3. Return to some level of programmatic behavior. It was not that long ago that many church leaders were touting their abandonment of the programmatic model. “We are not a program-driven church,” many declared. I get it. Programs had become ends instead of means. Many churches were waiting on denominations and resource providers to tell them what to do. It was unhealthy indeed. But we have thrown out the baby with the bath water. When we have a healthy view of programs, they can save us much time and energy. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel (I know. Too many metaphors). More churches are asking for programs and templates, so the leaders can spend their time being more productive.
  4. Rise of networks. Denominations will not die off completely, but they will be augmented by more and more networks, both informally and formally. Those networks are more likely to have a common ministry focus rather than a common geography. Wise denominational leaders will see these networks as potential partners rather than competitors.
  5. The attendance frequency issue becoming a greater focus. Declining attendance frequency of “active” members accounts for more church decline than any one issue. This reality is getting the attention of more church leaders. It will become a greater topic of conversation and action in the near future.

Yes, the times they are a-changing. And these five developments are among the most dramatic changes we see on the horizon.

I will be sharing more about the future outlook for congregations at a new site, x.church, in early 2019. In the meantime, let me hear from you.

Posted on June 11, 2018

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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  • Churches should switch to a different model that is biblically aligned.
    see My Dream Church https://sites.google.com/site/mydreamchurch/

  • Gary from Southern NH, USA says on

    I really like the idea of the multiple sites.

    I just went to a site my home church opened recently about a 20 minute drive from the main campus.

    Being tied to the larger church gives lots of resources to the leadership at the smaller site.

    My wife and I were part of a church plant that did not have the connection to a larger church body.

    This turned out to be a very challenging situation to be part of.


  • Cotton Mathisc says on

    In the justification of a pastor teaching a Sunday School class of 300, the pastor told me it is better to have one person who is educated, informed, and prepared in front of 300 people than to have 30 in front of 10 each who are ignorant and under-trained. Few laymen in our churches really know how to teach the Bible and know enough about it to be teaching.

    I think it is better to have one person who is spirit- filled, educated, doctrinally sound, and an able preacher in front of 300 people on 10 screens (3,000) at 10 locations than 10 people who are ignorant, unskilled, and really unable to preach the word.

    We have to admit it; not every preacher is called and anointed. There is a difference between “having something to say” and “having to say something.”

    The idea of having a local elder with ministry groups to oversee the “pastoral” care needs of the group and work with a team of volunteers could work well. A “screen preacher” would not bother me at all.

    I am over 50 and teach in a university where I teach “web assist” courses (a combination of live lectures and computer designed learning). The “screen” is a part of my livelihood.

    I did a distance learning course once that had 3 sites: I had 12 students in front of me; 17 at another location about 100 miles; 1 at another location, all satellite colleges. The students at the satellite could interact verbally. It was a bit robotic, but it was a great venue. However, the students in front of me watched me on one of two screens they saw me on to my right and left, rather than look at me :-). I enjoyed that a lot.

    We need to get out of the 1950’s and reach the current generation on a level they can understand.

    More screens please. Fewer preachers who are anointed and spirit filled to deliver the Word. Or let the smaller, dying churches merge with a Mega Church before the young people become more unreachable than they are now.

    • Christopher says on

      Once again, it’s all about the individual preacher and his personality, no one else can do it! Paul spent three chapters in 1st Corinthians arguing against this very concept.

      Did you ever think that part of the pastor’s responsibility is to train others to soundly preach the Word instead of just gathering followers to himself?

  • Thom,
    While multi-site is not exclusively a congregational-polity model, it is more common there than in a Presbyterian-model. That’s because Presbyterian polity already has many of the advantages of the multi-site, whereas the independency-polity does not. I say this because I think the growth of multi-site is a move toward a more Biblical polity in independent churches.

  • Pierre Naude says on

    Thank you, Thom, for your insights. I look forward to you ‘unpacking’ some of these developments.

    Undoubtedly a HUGE issue for many of the more ‘traditional’ denominational Churches in South Africa is the demise of effective and far reaching ministry to Millennials and Generation Z’s. I know that it’s a problem in the UK and Europe as well.

    The fact that you haven’t mentioned it makes me think that churches in the USA might have figured out some of the answers to this problem.

    I’d go so far as to say that this is the single most important challenge facing the long-term development of the church in South Africa today.


  • Concerned says on

    Here’s some food for thought – 1. Are multi-site churches really growing or are smaller churches giving up?
    2. Will the multi-year church eventually replace the association (ie. if it has swallowed all the smaller churches)?

    • Christopher says on

      I think it’s both, but I think much of the growth of mega churches comes from people who just show up to enjoy the show. I’m not saying it’s completely inauthentic but many mega churches are simply built on personality and marketing, not on the Spirit. In our society there are many talented people who have become very adept at “selling” their church. Whether or not the Holy Spirit is involved is another question.

      As for your second question, most large churches have nothing to do with local associations as it is.

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