Twelve Major Trends for Churches in 2021

While escaping 2020 has been a stated goal for many people, there will still be challenges in front of us as we move into 2021. Churches will be among the organizations to confront clear and present challenges.

Of course, the topic of COVID is unavoidable as congregations move forward to a new year. The devastation the pandemic has wreaked among people and organizations has also been acutely felt by churches and their leaders. 

While predicting future trends is never a precise effort, we do see enough data points to suggest these twelve trends are potentially powerful movements that will affect congregations, some for better and some for worse. They are not listed in any particular order.

  1. Massive growth of co-vocational ministry. It will be increasingly common for churches to have fewer full-time staff. Some will hold other jobs because churches cannot afford full-time pay and benefits. Some of the staff will choose to be co-vocational so they can have a marketplace ministry. Both of these factors will result in a massive number of staff moving from full-time to co-vocational.
  2. Baby boomers will be greater in number than children in the majority of churches. This demographic shift has three causes. First, the birthrate is declining. Second, the boomer generation is large in number, second only to millennials. Third, increasing longevity means boomers will be around for a while. If a church is not considering what senior adult involvement looks like, it’s already behind the curve
  3. The micro-church movement begins in about 5,000 North American churches. A new manifestation of the multi-site movement will be multi-site campuses with 50 or fewer congregants. The early adopter churches, estimated to be around 5,000, will define this movement and become the models for future micro-churches.
  4. Digital church strategies will complement in-person strategies. We’ve seen some leaders advocate a “digital first” strategy while some insist on an “in-person first” approach. As we have followed thousands of churches, we are seeing more strategies where neither approach is a priority over the other. Church leaders are moving toward blending these two important areas in a complementary fashion. We will be looking at this reality in future articles.
  5. The number of adopted churches will begin to catch the number of closed churches. This trend is very positive. While we are not seeing a decline in the numbers of churches on the precipice of closing, we are seeing a major trend develop as more of these very sick churches get adopted by healthier churches. This development means more neighborhoods will have a gospel witness.
  6. Church fostering will move into the early adoption stage. Church fostering takes place when a healthier church helps a less healthy church for a defined period, usually less than a year. We anticipate 30,000 churches (meaning 15,000 foster churches and 15,000 fostering churches) will enter into this relationship in 2021. Again, this trend portends well for the overall gospel witness of local congregations.
  7. Once the pandemic stabilizes and the number of cases decline, churches’ average worship attendance will be down 20% to 30% from pre-pandemic levels. As of today, we are seeing quicker recovery among smaller churches. If this pattern continues, churches over 250 in attendance (before the pandemic) will have the greatest challenge to recover.
  8. The new definition of a large church will be 250 and more in average worship attendance. These “new” large churches will be in the top ten percent of all churches in North America. Before the pandemic, a church would need an average worship attendance of 400 to be in the top ten percent.
  9. Denominations will begin their steepest decline in 2021. In terms of membership and average worship attendance, denominations overall will begin a greater rate of decline. This negative trend can be attributed to three factors. First, the churches in the denominations will decline more rapidly. That factor is the single greatest contributor. Second, there will be fewer new churches in the denominations. Third, the combination of church closures and church withdrawals from denominations will be slightly greater than previous years.
  10. Giving in churches will decline 20 percent to 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels. For the most part, the decline in congregational giving will mirror the decline in attendance in churches.
  11. Overall conversion growth in local churches will improve. This indicator is mostly positive. We define conversion growth as the average worship attendance of the church  divided by the number of people who became followers of Christ and active in the church in one year. For example, if a church has 20 conversions and an average worship attendance of 200, its conversion rate is 10:1 (200 divided by 10). Lower is better with conversion rates. We say “mostly positive” for this trend, because some of the improvement in the conversion rate is due to lower worship attendance.
  12.  Nearly nine out of ten North American congregations will self-define as needing revitalization. Though this trend is troubling, it does indicate at least one silver lining in the cloud. Congregational leaders, particularly pastors, are more open and willing to admit they need help.

We will be following these trends and others closely. Follow us at ChurchAnswers.com as we continue to share this vital information.

Posted on December 21, 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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21 Comments

  • Thom,
    I have heard you quoted twice in the past two weeks as saying, “20% of churches in North America will close in the next 18 months.” That is a staggering number and why I searched for it today. Of course its not here. Have you found information of pastors quitting? It is not simply Covid that is wearing on them. Most of them are taking hits from both sides of the social, political, educational, mask or no mask, divide. Both sides demand allegiance to their cause.
    At CMM we are finding very similar patterns listed here and among many of the comments. Churches pivoted, giving remained stable, new converts, new prayer zoom meetings. Still there are many who are saying they just don’t know what will happen when it all lifts. How many will actually return? Will volunteers return? Others use the terms, replant. Two pastor search groups report a huge increase in churches looking for pastors and pastors looking for a new church.
    Thanks for the information you provide for us.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Tom.

    • I didn’t notice him answering you, but I’d like to try. I’ve explored Thom Rainer’s startling numbers before myself, and it’s always hard to tell exactly how he arrives at them.

      With church closures, it can be very difficult to ascertain exactly how bad things are for American churches because there’s not really a way to tell how many there are in the first place, much less how many are closing each year/month/whatever. No central authority exists to keep track of this stuff. More study is being devoted to asking this exact question, but still, the difficulties remain.

      Simon Brauer has written a good paper on this topic. It’s a bit out of date, but if I remember correctly, his conclusions were that about 5k churches (give or take) closed per year in the early 00s to 2012. The 6k-10k figure that Rainer likes to throw around (and has been throwing around for years now, strangely enough) doesn’t seem to be supported by any credible/reputable sources. Until Rainer reveals exactly how he came by it and why it hasn’t changed despite massive changes in Christianity’s membership levels, I can’t agree it’s anywhere near 10k and is probably only just now approaching 6k. Still a lot, but not 10k.

      I’ve also seen a lot of stories lately about pastors quitting amid the pandemic. Digital church administration sours them quickly — and I can see why! That does clear the way for other new pastors to take the reins, but congregations can no longer really afford a properly-educated and trained pastor anyway. Thom Rainer is quite correct about that trend. Volunteer levels seem to be dropping quickly as well — in my perception at least.

      Remember that Thom Rainer is writing these posts to sell his product. His product is church revitalization/replanting/etc materials. He needs pastors to think that their congregations are in great danger of collapsing — but that his product can absolutely save them from that fate. He’s a good salesperson, I’ll give him that, but be really careful about taking him seriously without knowing exactly how he gets his information. He’s always been very opaque about that, unfortunately. Sad too, esp. considering I deconverted from Christianity upon realizing that true things do not require any sleight of hand, dishonesty, or sneakiness to sell themselves. It’s like that from top to bottom, though.

      Good luck out there — the post-pandemic world is going to be rough for evangelicals. We won’t hear much gloating from them (like we did after that 2015 Religious Landscape Survey came out), not now that the decline has finally come to roost for them. This is going to be a brutal year, I suspect.

      Cas
      PS: I do love the font on this site. Love love love it. I’m a typography nerd.

  • DeWayne Wyatt says on

    Excellent information for current and upcoming church consultants. My home church is in the less than 250 range and the in-person attendance is climbing every week. Interestingly, the giving did not decrease when we were not meeting in-person. There is great optimism about our future. I believe most gospel-centered churches can enjoy an optimistic outlook with good leadership and a gospel-centered vision.

  • Tom – one of the interesting things I’m seeing is the number of churches being planted 100% online. I just did a Zoom teaching session with 50 pastors who are launching church plants online. I don’t exactly know what to make of it, but it’s a fascinating idea in the age of COVID live-streaming.

  • Scott Nowell says on

    Good article. FWIW, there is a typo in #11, “attendance of 200, its conversion rate is 10:1 (200 divided by 10). “, should be “divided by 20”.

  • ANNIE CHIMBUVU CHILUBA says on

    appreciate thank you need more couching for building the kingdom of God..as a church

  • Thank you for sharing this info and insight.
    I don’t know you guys at all, but took the time to read the article.

    As a evangelist leading a church community for many years we are in uncharted waters where we deeply need one another(all hands on deck).

    Bless you all in Jesus name
    Steven Daly

  • JOHN E FAIR says on

    I think you would have consensus from most of us on your points. We hope you’re wrong on some, but realism is better than pragmatism. People have been away from active congregational participation for too long to make return an autonomic reaction. It will take work and a lot of imagination to get the congregations from their TV and comforts of their dens back into the pews once the pandemic subsides to levels where on-site worship is plausible.

  • Clifford Michael says on

    God is still God of mystery, no body on Earth can predict what the 2021 church of God can be, let us fully trust in Him as the owner of His church, infact, from my understanding, commitments will increase double, giving will increase extraordinarily, the truth about Jesus will penetrate deeper into our hearts, the church will greatly match forward to the surprise of everyone

    • JOHN E FAIR says on

      I hope you’re right but think you’re likely delusional.

    • I’m with John E. Fair here. From the look of things, Jesus does not approve at all of American Christianity, especially not evangelicalism. The moment evangelicals lost their cultural powers of coercion, their membership went right down the tubes. Weird. And not one single reputable source gives them a single hope of recovering their lost dominance.

      I’ve been hearing Christians (particularly evangelicals) say for years that if everyone just starts Jesus-ing properly, that’ll fix everything. But either they just can’t get their act together or… maybe… Jesus-ing isn’t the key at all. Maybe it’s time to start looking at how to really staunch customer churn:

      * Offer a product more people actually want at a price they’re willing to pay.
      * Create communities that people actually like being around and becoming/staying part of.
      * Stop doing stuff that drives away the customers you have AND the potential ones you need to survive — esp. the culture wars and ultra-right-wing politicization, the surreal alternate reality evangelicals now live in, their propensity toward being completely awful and doing reprehensible things, their constant fights against human rights and compassion, and acting like foul, disgusting hypocrites all the time.

      But evangelicals are kinda stuck there, aren’t they? Their Dear Leaders have been teaching them for decades now that they can’t possibly change a thing about how they’re acting. They’ve gotten so hyper-right-wing politicized and submerged so deeply in their alternate reality that they’re repulsive to almost everyone who encounters them. We know now that they can’t even ensure the safety of children in their churches. And they’re proud of all of it. If anyone even dares suggest they change at all, like Russell Moore did, they run that person out of town on a rail!

      Jesus has nothing to do with why evangelicals are in such startling decline, and Jesus-ing perfectly won’t fix anything either. Evangelicals brought this on themselves, and there’s really no way at all for them to recover from what they’ve done to their religion. It’d be funny, except they seem hellbent on destroying America on their way out.

  • Thank you. Your seminars and understanding of the times as related to churches is invaluable. I have tried to be on every webinar you had this year. Unfortunately I had to miss a few through scheduling conflicts. I recently began the Church Revitalization certification. It is content is awesome. I have not been able to find this as complete or succinct anywhere. Thank you again.

  • I always “enjoy” the lists. Often, I don’t like the trends because they make me aware of the holes in our ministry. The difficulty is getting church leaders to understand the implications.
    While we want to reach the “next” generations, I am seeing the truth of “Boomers” returning to the in-person gathering.
    Younger families, which have been our focus, have chosen the on line option. Many were not giving in the first place, but not they are not attending either.
    My heart breaks for those who are struggling to recover.
    Revitalization is going to be a booming business if the church as we know it is to survive.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    Your last observation is one to which I have been giving some thought lately. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic we talked about churches rebounding from the effects of the pandemic upon attendance, giving, etc. But nine months later our perspective has changed Now we talk about our churches being replants and we are recognizing an increasing need for revitalization. We are still thinking of our churches in pre-COVID-19 terms. The pandemic has been a game changer. May be some of the old terms and categories that we have been using may no longer useful. The other trends that you noted point in that direction. Most of us agree that the pandemic has accelerated the pace of change. Maybe it is time to rethink our terms and categories. What we are looking at might be described as the emergence of the 21st century church. Our churches in the last two decades were still 20th century churches. Now they are morphing into 21st century churches—a leaner church, a more outward-looking church, a church more willing to embrace technology, a church whose primary focus is not the Sunday worship gathering but engaging the community and making disciples.

  • Thanks from a church member/leader……we are experiencing a larger percentage of baby boomers who are very active/contribute…..your info validates our situation…from a church of 120…..
    Your info also helps us to realize our finances, attendance, and digital environment is not abnormal. Soooo glad we started a formal Revitalization in the fourth quarter of this year—feel like we are “not behind”.