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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

19 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.

  • 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

  • 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”.