Ten Critical Trends for Churches in 2018

Never in my lifetime have I seen local congregations at such a critical juncture. Cultural Christianity is all but dead. The “Nones,” those without any religious preference, are increasing. Many of the communities are no longer friendly to local churches; some have become adversarial.

But in the waves of these seas of negativity, are mercy drops of hope and possibilities. Look at these ten major trends carefully. See how God would have your church respond.

  1. The audio revolution. The e-book has not proved to be nearly as popular as we thought it would be. Many blog writers are reporting declines in readership. But audio books are rising in popularity. Listeners are moving to podcasts so they can learn while they jog, drive, and exercise. Outside of preaching podcasts, churches have many other opportunities to reach and disciple people through audio ministries.
  2. Boomer retirement crisis. Boomer pastors and church leaders are retiring in large numbers. But most of them don’t have succession plans. They are in churches from the small to the large. We will have many churches that are looking to fill these voids with little success.
  3. The deferred maintenance crisis in church facilities. My friend, Tim Cool of Cool Solutions Group, keeps reporting about churches that have done little to keep their church facilities in acceptable condition. For many of them, they are experiencing times of reckoning. A church with which I have familiarity had to close 4,000 square feet of space because it was deemed unsafe and uninhabitable. Like Tim says, you pay some now or you pay more later.
  4. Churches moving into retail spaces. The United States has a surplus of retail space, and that surplus will grow. The demise of many brick-and-mortar stores and chains presents an incredible opportunity for churches to find prime space for new and additional sites.
  5. Ongoing church closures. This trend shows no signs of slowing. I hope church leaders and members will be more receptive to acquisitions and mergers before its too late. Too many of these churches are expecting to be bailed out without lifting a finger.
  6. The rise of the neighborhood church. Churches that were once at the center of life in a neighborhood have declined and died. But we see them experiencing a renewal and revival both through acquisitions and re-plants.
  7. The learning revolution of the best church leaders. It is almost cliché to talk about the pace of change in our world and culture. I won’t bore you with the statistics and reality of change. But one thing is becoming glaringly obvious. Church leaders who are becoming ongoing learners are becoming the best leaders of these churches. Indeed, we created Church Answers to provide a learning platform for church leaders on a regular basis. Those church leaders who are not continually learning will not be leading well.
  8. Downsizing of worship centers/sanctuaries. This trend is one I have mentioned in recent months, but the pace of downsizing has accelerated. For certain, some of it is due to declining attendance, but that is not the only factor. A number of churches have intentionally moved to smaller worship services through multiple services, venues, and campuses.
  9. The rise of networks. More churches are aligning with both informal and formal networks with a common cause and common purpose. Those that are part of denominations typically choose to stay with their denominations for both doctrinal and legacy reasons. Acts 29 is an example of a church planting network more aligned with Reformed churches. Watch for new networks to form with different emphases and a broader evangelical doctrine.
  10. More Great Commission intentionality. When cultural Christianity was alive and well, churches could do minimal evangelistic activity and still grow by transfer growth. Such is not the case any more. Churches will have to be highly intentional evangelistically in the months ahead or they will head toward death and closure.

In future posts, I plan to offer solutions for churches for many of these issues. For now, I am sharing information about Church Answers to assist church leaders with the challenge of ongoing learning.

Many congregations are at a tipping point. Some will die. Some will thrive. My prayer is that the summary of these trends can be used of God in your churches to move your congregation toward greater health and Great Commission obedience.

Posted on December 11, 2017

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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  • Lee Harvener says on

    Hey Thom, where do you get the statistics for these trends? I agree and see many of the trends that you are outlining here. Do you use surveys, polls, or just word of mouth in the pastoral communities?

  • Thom, I have enjoyed observing your journey the last couple years. I respect you and love your insight, even though I am a “done”. I am not a “none”, for I read the Bible and love Christianity more now than ever. I would join a church in a heartbeat, but alas two components of nearly evey church I research keep me as a “done”–someone outside the gates of Christendom and one who does not attend church or even pray.

    The Bible’s book of Galatians best describes why I remain a “done”.

    In the first days of Christianity, the circumcision party arose and became marked in nearly the same way our American Churches are marked:
    -They were focused on proving the requirement for circumcision doctrine to be a Christian.
    -They separated themselves from the uncircumcised. Even Peter did this.

    How did the Christians resolve the issues mandated by the circumcision party?
    -They focused on essential Christian belief, discarding circumcision (Acts 15).
    -They welcomed the uncircumcised even though God and holiness command circumcision. They broke the God’s Old Covenant Law in order to remain united. Amazing joy ensued!

    Today’s American churches, especially in Evangelical/Reformed circles are marked similarly:
    -They are focused on proving the requirment for “one man, one woman marriage” doctrine to be a Christian.
    -They separate themselves from non-binary friends and family who do not fit the “male and female” paradigm.

    If you want to revive Christianity in our generation, I humbly suggest the following starting point:
    -Focus essential Christian belief, not proving your doctrine of “male and female” marriage.
    -Welcome women and non-binary folks to the table. Break the old wineskin of one man, one woman marriage. You won’t lose what you think, and you will find the gospel in effervescent glory.

    Practically, I suggest first spending time with the ante-Nicene Fathers, to clear your mind of the last 500 years of tangled mess that ensued after Luther’s nail. Clement of Rome, for example, knew that righteousness was not bound up in “male and female”. The Fathers of Christianity knew the essence of the three reformations found in Galatians 3:28.

    This is unexpected. God is doing a new thing and He will do it. Do these tihngs, and you will flourish; even now dead bones will dance.

  • Jim Gilliland says on

    Thank you for these Thom. Our pastor is Micah Fries (Brainerd Baptist Church) and he is leading our church family based on some of these trends.

    Thom, do you think retirement is biblical? Us late boomers should not buy the lie Wall Street has been selling for years. As long as we late boomers can earn, learn, and/or teach, we should resist the lie of retirement. I can find no scriptural mandate that we should retire when we age. I respectfully admonish us all to resist #2. Storing up treasures for ourselves so we can spend our latter days of life satisfying ourselves b/c we think we are too old, too weak, too sick, or too anything that is bad, is simply buying in to Wall Street’s fear-based motivations.

  • Amen to #1!
    I am a pastor at an SBC church in northern Michigan. I also have a podcast that produces scifi/fantasy audio dramas by Christian authors. We’ve been going five years are are starting to pick up steam. My church has been very supportive.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Brian –

    I see the entire denominational structure in flux, and I’m not smart enough to see how it will look in five or ten years. Many denominations were built on both doctrinal and geographical realities, and the latter has changed dramatically in the digital age.

  • Brian Horton says on

    Dr. Rainer, as a result of #9, how do you see the future of the local association and the role of the DOM?

  • Danny Hedgepeth says on

    Thanks for sharing trends. Agree. One perspective on Number 2 is that hard data shows a clear trend that people are waiting later to retire due to financial needs(healthcare, lack of retirement funds) and better health in older adults. Many Baby Boomer Pastors will attempt to hold on much longer than 20 years ago.

    Hopefully this will not be a time for late in life Pastors to put on cruise control,, but intentionally invest our fourth quarter years in:

    1. Mentor young leaders in basic skill sets for pastoral leadership without entrenching
    next generation in 20th century church culture.
    2. Lead in revitalization/replant efforts for groups who cannot support a fulltime Lead

    Great opportunity for us boomers to give invest ourselves in the future ministry of the local church.

    • David McKenna in his book ~ The Leader’s Legacy ~ does a fine job assisting pastors who are considering or preparing for Pastoral Succession by walking them/us through 12 chapters of this decision. This topic created much interest and practical application for senior pastors through our seminar – Every Pastor is an Interim, during the BASS Church Workers 2017. Hot and timely topic – especially a senior leaders need to deal with IDENTITY and FINANCES “after” the baton pass.

    • I am 70 years old and started a Church plant 30 years ago. We have planted 5 churches in the general area around where I am located (within 60 miles). My Church is 600 plus on the weekends. We have missionaries in many places in the world and some of our Mission outreaches have larger budgets than our church. We also have a Christian School of about 130 students from Kindergarten to Grade 8. Just over 4 years ago i mentored a young man to take over but a year ago he and his family felt called to another ministry and he has gone with our blessing – often returning to preach. I am very healthy. A long distance cyclist who can keep up with much younger people. I continue to take Seminary level courses and try to improve in my preaching skills. I am aware of my mortality but i have often been saddened when men in their 60’s retire – men who have a lifetime of wisdom that is needed today. The average age of my congregation is declining with many families having new babies. The other Pastors are much younger than me but i try and keep up with the culture so i am not irrelevant and i am mentoring a number of young men who could eventually replace me. I don’t know why i wrote so much but i do worry about the large loss in our community of older Pastors with great learning and wisdom who have retired. Not everyone can be a Charles Stanley or a Chuck Swindoll – but certainly more than we are not seeing. I understand if you don’t publish this – maybe I’m just an old guy who is not willing to step aside until i die:-)

  • Excellent round-up, Thom. What do you think is causing the rise in the neighborhood church?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Eric –

      Three major factors. First, there is an increased awareness that many neighborhood churches are no longer vital witnesses in their respective communities. Action often follows awareness. Second, many multi-site churches have an intentional neighborhood church strategy. Third, a number of replanting efforts are taking place with neighborhood churches.

      • Can you point to good resources concerning neighborhood church strategies and how is the strategy different?

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Michael –

        Someone recommended to me The Neighborhood Church by Robert Moss, but I have not read it.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        I just received another recommendation: The Neighboring Church by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis.