But maybe that’s a good thing.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research on what’s happening in today’s church. So I thought I’d share.
This isn’t an analysis of cultural trends, or a commentary on the church’s capacity to evolve. It’s a sharing of observations, through my own lens, to provoke some thought.
1. Not “Everything To Everyone”
There was a time when churches tried to have “something for everyone.” Few churches can sustain that—although some try. But more seem to be focusing on a few key things that they can do well. That may be a certain mission, or youth, or family-friendly ministry, or seniors.
More are letting go who they aren’t and focusing on some key strengths. Your strengths are clues to what God will do through you.
2. Less Denominational Affiliation
Fewer people seem to care (as much) if the church they go to is Presbyterian or Anglican or Baptist. That’s not always the case, but often.
From my reading and conversations there seems to be 3 main questions people ask when looking for a church home:
- Do I resonate with the message and music?
- Are there other people like me?
- Am I warmly welcomed?
And before you conclude that you’re welcoming, ask your atheist friend to show up for church and then tell you about their experience.
3. More Outward Focused
“People, people who need people.” Yes, I just quoted a Barbra Streisand song. But we are people who need people, and who want to help people (usually). When people are “helpful and hopeful” (to use Kennon Callahan’s words) others want to be a part of it. Oh, and Jesus had a bunch to say about that too.
At one time many people thought it was all about “bringing people in.” Now many are realizing (again) that a big part of our mission is to go out and help.
4. A Move Toward More Contemporary Music
Music to worship is like coffee to Canadians: We love it; it gets us jacked up; and you’d better not mess with how we like it!
Some churches do traditional hymns well. Some do contemporary songs well. Some do a mix. Each has their style.
It’s not all about numbers, I know; but it needs to be said that churches that are growing numerically have generally moved to more of a mix when it comes to music, often leaning toward contemporary. In a 2012 survey of growing Presbyterian churches in Canada, David Moody found that “Many of the churches emphasize a trend towards more contemporary worship music that aligns with local musical tastes.”
This doesn’t mean no-hymns-ever or that worship is a rock show. But it means that for many, there’s a significant move in that direction.
5. Strong Preaching (often without notes)
It has to do with how people hear and make meaning. When you look at the most effective communicators in our day, whether that be Steve Jobs or John Ortberg, they’re not reading essays. They are powerfully speaking inspiring ideas to those who are hungry.
(And having gone to a no-manuscript format myself I can say that this is more work for the pastor, not less.)
Preaching and communicating effectively is a priority in many of today’s healthiest churches. If you’re a pastor and people aren’t remembering or being changed by your messages, you may need to take another look.
6. Teaching Truth, Teaching Basics (while being open to questions)
“You have the greatest story in the world. Trust your material.” Lutheran professor Richard Lischer is right.
In a day of moral relativism (that can also creep into some churches), there is hunger for truth. This is not a naive fundamentalism. But a confidence that the Bible is inspired by God; that Jesus is who he says he is; and that he is the Way.
Since there is less inherited wisdom about the Christian faith, many churches are focusing on teaching the basics. Things like the 10 Commandments, the fruit of the Spirit, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer.
And it’s often happening in a way that honours questions. If we can’t express our concerns or questions, our growth can be stunted.
7. Small Groups
More and more churches are employing some form of small groups, often meeting in people’s homes. With various church sizes and attendance patterns (see #9) it is increasingly difficult for people to connect, know, support one another, and grow together.
Intentional and carefully guided small groups can help with this. This environment also encourages a wider number of people to use their God-given gifts and take a more active role in the church.
8. A Larger Online Presence
I like to say that the front door of the church is no longer a slab of wood on hinges—it’s a www. More and more people are not only finding a church through the web, but they’re using online tools to learn (with forums like RightNowMedia.org, online bible studies, podcasts, or blogs), and connect (social media, group email etc.)
An online presence used to be optional but that’s no longer the case. (Well, everything except Jesus and people is kind of optional, but you know what I mean.)
It’s not about being “cool.” (There is nothing cool about the internet.) It’s simply about using the everyday tools people use everyday as they live their lives.
9. Less Predictable Participation
The reality is that many people who were “every Sunday” people are now “two-Sundays-a-month” people, and those who were there once a month, are now there once every two months. This can be discouraging, but don’t let it be.
It’s good to acknowledge a changed reality with double-income families and shift work, more people travelling more often and over longer distances, split-custody families, and sports.
Work with the new reality. If you keep hitting your head against a brick wall the brick will win.
(Connexus pastor Carey Nieuwhof has a helpful blog called ’10 Reasons Even Committed Church Attenders Are Attending Church Less Often’ here)
10. A Loss of Inherited Knowledge
You can no longer assume that people know the “insider” world of the church or Christian faith. (What is the “narthex” or “justification by faith,” anyway?) The reality is that fewer people know how money or tithing works, who pays the bills, how decisions are made, or the theological basics (see #6).
There is, in many ways, a fresh slate to re-teach these things. And that can be a great opportunity.
11. Person-To-Person “Evangelism”
People are finding (and this isn’t really a “new” thing), that the most effective way to tell people about your faith and your church is by talking to them and inviting them. It seems that elaborate ads and door-to-door campaigns don’t seem to be as effective in our age of post-modern cynicism as someone you trust saying, ‘Hey, you should come to church on Sunday.’
Perhaps we need to drop the “evangelism” title and just call it what it is: Being human.
(Of course, if you don’t feel good about your church you are not likely to invite someone; but that’s for another day.)
12. Less Reliance on Buildings
It seems that a growing number of churches are renting space instead of building it. (Or sometimes meeting in people’s homes.) Why?
One of the reasons is because bricks and mortar cost a lot of money to maintain when that money is better spent elsewhere. There are real benefits to having a permanent space; but some are going the other way. I think most of us are still in buildings, and there are many people in building projects. But it just needs to be said.
Fred Craddock was at a building dedication at the University of Oklahoma and the minister said this prayer: “Lord, burn down this building and scatter these people for the sake of the gospel.” Yowzers.
As Sergei Bulgakov wrote, “The Church of Christ is not an institution; she is a new life with Christ and in Christ, directed by the Holy Spirit.” Boom.
Looking this over, it can seem kind of mechanical. But there is no magic. You can have it “all together”—but if you have no heart for Jesus or his kingdom none of what you do will matter. Well, it will matter—just in the wrong direction.
There are so many things I haven’t talked about like how effective leadership works, or how great churches care for one another. But this blog isn’t about everything. It’s about some of the trends I continually see coming up.
But I do want to end with something I firmly believe: Only when we close our eyes to pray can we see God’s vision for our lives and churches. This is true when we are alone, and when we are together as Christians.
In it all, we are wise to get used to being different as God’s people. If we are happy to blend in, then we are happy to die.
As revved-up pastor Francis Chan reminds us, “The church cannot help but be different, and the world cannot help but notice.”