There are a few things that seem to be widely felt by church leaders these days when it comes to the future church:
- It will never be the same – we aren’t returning to pre-pandemic church life
- It was already needing reformation because of external and internal factors anyway
- It will change whether we like it or not
- To some this is a threat, and to others an opportunity
This may be the opportunity of a career or lifetime for many men and women leading the church. Famous change management guru John Kotter taught us that the first step of eight is Creating a Sense of Urgency. Without this, change will be difficult to execute. As leaders in the church, we were just handed a sense of urgency on a silver platter.
There is virtually no one in church leadership or the congregation that believes the church will get back to 2019 “normal." Even the most change adverse members of congregations are expecting that the church will need to modify. They will be ready and willing to challenge the degree of that change, of course.
But leaders that needed a reason to start, stop or continue certain aspects of their ministry just got handed a golden ticket.
The first step to any of this is a posture of humility. This implies that leaders of churches are willing to listen to God first and then listen to each other, the congregation and the culture. With a demeanor of humility, we may be better equipped to connect the timeless wisdom of scripture with our cultural context in a way that reflects the heart of the heavenly Father.
Here are three shifts to consider now if you haven’t started already…
1. Gathered to Scattered – It is time to put the pedal to the metal when it comes to taking Christ to the streets.
For a long time, inviting, bringing and bussing people to church seemed to work in our culture. In the last 75 years we have seen shifts in strategy that may not be as big as the future will require. Out of the bus ministry model in mid-century came the seeker friendly explosion of late century. The seismic shift of the 21st century has been the precipitous decline of "people coming to church”.
The global pandemic accelerated the end of the “come to us” attractional church method. This conversation (often called the “missional” church approach) that has been around for a decade but still has not taken root in most churches because of what it implies. It signals that much of what we fund, staff, and focus on is the emperor with no clothes.
There is extraordinary opportunity, however, in gathering a group of trusted leaders and friends in your church to ask questions – about your mission, its effectiveness, the community and the world. Ask, “What if we focused as much energy on equipping our congregation to scatter (activating their faith outside the walls of the church) as much as we spend time on the “gathered” aspect of our life as a congregation?”
2. Self-Funded to Revenue-Funded – It is time to consider alternative ways to fund the movement of Christ in the world.
Whether we like it or not, something massive is happening in the way people view money and funding ministry. In part it is due to the pressure placed on the church by future generations. Young people have more options and ability to spread their resources quickly to where it is needed all over the world. And for many, churches have earned a black eye in some of their use and abuse of financial resources. Agreeing on the cause of the funding challenge is not as critical as considering the cure.
Much of what makes the church expensive and less agile will be questioned by those outside and inside the church. We can be humble or defensive about this. Everything from big buildings to big staffs will be scrutinized under the rubric created by nonprofits that seem to have more direct effectiveness and less overhead.
You have probably already noticed the trend of younger Christian leaders that are starting coffee shops, bars, businesses, clothing companies and more as a platform to both earn a living for their families and spread the gospel. They have cast off Saul’s armor, picked up their slingshot and marched into the battle right past the previous generations. Older generations in the church are faithful, but still trying to figure out how to “create a fund to make sure we can fix the roof when it needs it." Yawn.
Ask yourself, “What are ways that we can create funding models both inside and outside the church that create safe places to explore the claims of Christ?” Or a more delightfully dangerous form of the question: “What if we brought 20-somethings in to run the place? What would they keep and what would they discard?”
3. Preaching to Podcasts – It is time to consider the implications of the fact that for the first time in history we are not bound by time and place.
This is not a suggestion to start a podcast. Although that is not a bad thing. And it is certainly not a proposal to stop preaching. It is an even deeper question about the implications of the presence of the internet. We knew it was central to our personal lives – now the secret is out. It is one of the key factors impacting the church going forward.
For centuries, the gathering of the church was on a certain day at a certain time. The faithful gathered for spiritual and social reasons. And if you wanted to hear a sermon, receive communion, or worship in a formal way, you were required to be physically present at 11am in the sanctuary.
It is hard (but necessary) for us to imagine what this implies for how we communicate with and spiritual form people in our churches. Church leaders are still prone to think about the health of their church in terms of in person attendance. And can you blame them? That’s all we were ever taught either overtly or covertly.
There are significant implications for the church when we realize that the next generation has especially re-oriented their way of learning. The lecture format of a traditional 40-minute sermon seems outdated. We are talking about generations of people that are finding their spouse online so what makes us think they will feel the need to come to a church service for spiritual guidance?
Again, this is not a baby and bathwater recommendation that we abandon all forms of personal engagement or Sunday sermons. But to ignore the tectonic shift in the way people engage with information and people in the virtual world will be to our eventual demise.
Ask yourself, “What are the ways we need to shift our thinking or even hesitation to adopt virtual methodologies to do ministry?” or “How have we adapted to show our willingness to embrace new ways of discipling people in the new world?”
There are many more small and potentially large sociological and technological changes that we may face very soon. But these first three will give us something to talk about with the leadership teams at our churches. The future is bright, but not if we keep covering our eyes and ears waiting for it all to return to what we once knew. God is not surprised nor alarmed about the future. We are in good hands.
Senior Lead Navigator, Director of Generosity