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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  • Kent Anderson says on

    I have believed for a long time that soon(ish) the church will lose its 501C3 status and that will be a real game changer. There is simply too much money untouched in property taxes alone for this not to happen. The various governmental entities are too cash hungry to leave alone forever.

  • Another model for multi-site that actually happens among some of our churches (IPHC) is the campus pastor actually preaches the message at the respective campus. Initial sermon planning happens collaboratively among the campus pastors, but the extensive sermon development and the preaching of it are the responsibilities of the specific campus pastor.

  • I think the networks will be more like similar congregations sharing ideas. An example is a congregation in Washington would have more in common with ones in NYC and Boston than one twenty miles away in rural Virginia or Maryland.
    Also, I think you will see more things like the highest of the hierarchy interacting with the lowest people, e.g. Cardinal Wuerl speaking to and taking questions from younger people in a bar one night in DC. The Cardinal would be more likely to talk only to bishops than anyone else but was told that the younger people had no voice and he wanted to hear directly from them. Evangelicalism still needs to listen to the few younger people still there before they are gone.

  • Christopher says on

    I’ve thought for a while now that big churches will get bigger and small churches will die off (or be absorbed) until the big church is virtually all that’s left. The multi-site church is accomplishing this.

    I don’t have a problem with multi-site churches but I do have a problem with pastors who think their face has to be on the screen at every location. That’s not church planting, it’s empire building.

  • Angel Moore says on

    This info is so thought provoking. The multi site church does seem to be huge, especially with the millennials. Wonder if merging with a MSC is a good consideration for churches who are declining or aging out? Definitely something to watch. We are looking to go through your study on millenials & GenX soon. Thanks for your continued insight and down to earth, clear communication.

  • I will be looking for how you suggest churches deliver and manifest the idea of #5. Will this work in-line with the idea of neighborhood churches? Thought provoking!

  • Any info available on multiple congregations meeting at one location? For example, the churches meeting at ______?

    • Two basic statements, Mark. First, it is becoming increasingly common and represents a wise use of stewardship. Second, there have been unintended consequences. For example, What does the sign on the street say? When it has two names, the passersby are confused.

      • Thanks Thom for all you are doing!!!!

      • Thank you for your kind words, Mark.

      • Pierre Naude says on

        Here in South Africa over the years I have had close relationships with a number of churches that share buildings.

        Some offer denominationally distinct worship services and other activities but choose to be wise stewards by sharing property and equipment costs. This facilitates a denominational presence in areas where they might not otherwise been present.

        Some, as above, but with some shared activities (outreaches, courses, and occasional services).

        Others have combined their services and activities (with a number of different ‘models’ being used).

        In all except one instance (and that was due to personalities rather than ministry factors) this seems to have been beneficial in terms of ministry into the area and in terms of common witness.

        I’ve never heard of anyone being confused by multiple names on the door … if anything people have been positive that Churches (that are so often perceived to be in competition) are working together.

        I suspect (here, at least) that the only people who have been confused are the sort of Christians who are more ‘territorial’ than Kingdom-focused.

  • Bob Myers says on

    I always find your thoughts to be stimulating and they weigh a lot in my leadership reflection. I’ll be watching these trends.

    As for multi-site churches, I think the healthiest models are not the “video-venues,” but rather the churches that have the DNA of the “mother” and have their own site pastor who does the local preaching. We have a video-venue site in our community and it just seems like a trendy place where disgruntled folks go to watch, enjoy the “concert,” drink their special coffees, and watch the inspirational message. Perhaps a bit unfair, but I don’t really see how a pastor in a large city fifty miles away can really preach to the unique people in our small city that has significantly different challenges. That’s not really incarnational ministry.

    Another church in our geographical region has had incredible success planting site-churches based on the DNA and values of the “mother church” but with local leadership. That’s the model that makes the most sense to me.

    • Great thoughts, Bob. Thank you.

      • Bill Pitcher says on

        I tend to agree. I’ve only been to one video venue church, and that only one visit; but I felt pretty empty; they did a lot right. A LOT right…. but not having a living, breathing body delivering the message was a turn off for me.
        Even though I’ve met and have great respect for the pastor in this case, I’m not likely to return.

      • Bill, what you say is true, but I wonder how much of our thoughts are influenced by our age & what we are used to. A millennial who has spends a great deal of time on-screen may be bothered less by the media in which the message is delivered than some guy like me, who is past 50. This is only a hypothesis. The multi-site churches may have one central teaching pastor, but each ‘parish’ still has its own live pastor.

    • I would point to the Church of the Highlands, her ein Alabama. They are currently at 18 locations and are about to open #19. And they’re all video-feed-sermon except, of course, for the main location.

      I had a friend who told me his wife dragged him there kicking and screaming when they moved to this area, and they’ve been there ever since. And his wife told him she’d never been so well discipled, and for 10 years, he was her pastor!

      Each side does have a designated Elder, however. And they are one of the largest churches in America.

      • Yes, Bob. You are right. The Church of the Highlands is a very big example of the multisite model.

      • Christopher says on

        So, in other words, the pastor at Church of the highlands believes that no one can preach a sermon as well he can. #empirebuilding

      • Craig Giddens says on

        Just my opinion, but there should be a local person doing some type of Bible teaching and preaching at a local assembly. I don’t know anything about Church of the Highlands and have no reason to doubt their success, but increasing numbers of locations isn’t necessarily an indicator of being grounded and built up in the word of God.

      • Apparently the members of his church do.

      • Christopher says on

        Exactly, it’s all about him. The church is built on his personality and presence.

      • Or….. maybe he’s trying to maintain a unified vision and mission integrity.

        Christopher, do you know personally know the pastor of the Church of the Highlands? How can you make that statement? Your comment strikes me as a pretty presumptive statement, especially about someone God is using to advance the kingdom at that level.

      • Christopher says on

        Yes, the unified vision is: “I’m a great preacher and everyone wants to hear me, I’m the reason everyone is showing up.”

        When you have 19 locations and you have no desire to raise up other pastors, what that tells me is you are either too arrogant or too afraid to let someone else preach. You either believe no one can do it as well you or you are afraid that someone can do it as well as you. The overriding motivation is growing the empire, not the kingdom.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    A writer who recognized the growing trend toward affinity networks was the late Lyle E. Schaller, From Geography to Affinity: How Congregations Can Learn From One Another (2003). See a description of his book here: https://www.amazon.com/Geography-Affinity-Congregations-Learn-Another/dp/0687022665

  • Thom,

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “networks”? Are these networks like those found in local associations? Could you explain networks a bit more? Thanks!

    • Associations almost always have the commonality of location. The churches are geographically located close to one another. Networks typically have a common purpose like church planting, but they are not necessarily geographically close.

      • I also see networks in the form of churches which are in the same proximity (neighborhoods) whose leaders meet regularly (monthly lunches, etc) for prayer & support, and to address local problems. There are so few churches which partner together for the good of their communities, yet collectively reflect the largest possible resource for effectuating change and bringing blessings to their communities.

  • Ken Jerome says on

    Thom – you are absolutely correct in your assessment of the Local Church. I have been an intentional interim pastor for the past 18 years. Worked with churches of all sizes struggle with purpose and leadership mostly. Some have made great mistakes in the past. Like building buildings that cost far too much and are stuck with large payments and fractured fellowships. And bringing on too many staff people, sucking down their financial reserves. The problem this creates seems to be a mountain, some can see others just feel like it all work out.
    Thank you for addressing this, we are looking for short term and long term solutions.

  • Da v id Tr ou bl efie ld, DM in says on

    Six characteristics of the only kind of team achieving exceptional results (the kind God and our neighbors deserve) consistently, despite the changes/challenges:

    1 Common purpose
    2 Clear roles
    3 Accepted leadership
    4 Effective processes
    5 Solid relationships
    6 Excellent communication

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