What’s the future for churches? 5 quick prognostications

“Where do you see the Church going in the future?”

As an innovator in the space of online faith communities, I get that question a lot.

There are a lot of people who are professionals at analyzing data, studying historical tendencies, and predicting future outcomes.

I’m not one of those people.

But I do fancy myself an observer of trends. I like to zoom out to the 30,000-foot view to try to see where various factors might intersect and influence the general direction of things.

So I thought it would be fun to gaze into the proverbial crystal ball to see what might begin to take shape over the next generation or so, at least in mainline traditions. These are a few of my own admittedly unscientific views of what the church will most likely become in the not-too-distant future:

1. Contextual

In our traditional/inherited models of ecclesiology, churches existed in a neighborhood-centric model. We’ve all been through towns where either a church building or a cluster of churches were built smack in the middle of a community’s geographic space.

As cities sprawled into suburbs, churches followed, centering themselves in new neighborhoods where their more affluent parishioners could access them more easily.

But as our cities have grown and modernized, as family structures themselves have evolved, and as economies have shifted from manufacturing to information management, the little white churches in the center of town became less and less relevant as community gathering spaces.

As thought leaders from the Fresh Expressions Network have noted, social interaction—and, by extension, community development—have shifted from a neighborhood model to a network model.

We gather with those with whom we share things in common…vocational interests, hobbies, affinities, etc.

At the same time, many of us don’t even know the people who live next door to us or across the street.

I believe the next decade or so will witness the emergence of more and more faith communities built around particular contexts than around proximity.

2. Diverse in expression

More and more people are realizing that they don’t need two hymns, a responsive reading, a selection of scripture, a sermon, an offering, and a benediction to experience the presence of the divine.

Nor do they especially need a building in which to do those things.

Even the more “contemporary” models of that formula are quickly going by the wayside.

Instead, folks are realizing that worship can emerge in a variety of models from within a variety of contexts in a variety of locations (including online).

In the New Wineskins community that I lead, we have discovered that we are very organically developing a shared theology of worship that’s rooted in vulnerability and deep conversation. Our liturgy (literally, “the work of the people”) is less about scripted actions and more about creating space for folks to be deeply known…and then allowing our shared practices to influence the ways we interact with the world in the varied and various spaces we occupy in it.

Contextual communities will discover their own ways of being together; of telling, hearing, and interpreting the Jesus narrative; and of living out their faith more holistically.

3. Dispersed and decentralized

In the age of the internet, it’s no longer necessary for people to join together in a single physical location to worship, serve, or form community.

In fact, it’s not even required that people come together at the same time to do those things.

Future models of faith community will be decentralized both in terms of location and synchronicity…in other words, folks in a community can be located in many different places AND will be able to participate in both synchronous and asynchronous activities.

Going back to my New Wineskins community, we currently have regular attendees from 5-7 different states and at least two time zones (Eastern and Central) who gather via Zoom every Sunday evening. That synchronous time together gives us a chance to interact and experience the kind of collaborative creativity that comes from real-time conversation.

We also use our various social media channels (see links below) as well as the curated content here at Accidental Tomatoes as a source of asynchronous community, where folks can engage with content and interact with one another on their own schedules.

Both synchronous and asynchronous models represent real community…neither carries more value than the other. But together, they help people get to know one another, become invested in one another’s wellbeing, and inspire one another.

Dispersed models of church have been around a long time, but as communications technologies continue to advance and social structures continue to adapt to them, and as church governance becomes more decentralized, I expect the dispersed church to become more and more the norm before the current decade is out.

4. Post-denominational

I’ve been saying for a long time now that the days of denominational loyalty are mostly over. With the exception of some of the more cultish brands of evangelicalism, most folks could care less what denomination your church is.

What people care about is feeling needed and being a part of a community that cares deeply for one another. Only after those needs are met do they tend to think about what a particular church’s theology is.

As the major denominations continue to see dwindling membership and decreasing resources for institutional preservation, I suspect the ones who are slow to accept and adapt to current and future realities to gradually fade from existence.

And while denominations will likely remain a major force in training and deploying clergy for some time to come, their practical congregational influence will continue to decline, especially as the professional clergy class continues to atrophy.

Simply put, people will continue to care less and less about what you say and more and more about what you do.

5. Integrative

A friend and colleague posted something the other day to the effect that they expect the church to become more and more about integration than about assimilation as we enter the post-pandemic era.

What they meant by that was that they expect the way people integrate the teachings and actions of Jesus into their lives to become more important than simply coercing people to join a movement and agreeing to all think alike.

In my mind, this represents another macro-level trend I’ve been observing: the age of orthodoxy (right thinking) is giving way to the age of orthopraxy (right practice).

In other words, faith communities will evolve around acts of justice, mercy, and service that express the love of Jesus, rather than around shared ideas of what they consider “right” or “wrong.”

. . .

So there you have it. Granted, it’s all pretty speculative. But I think these trends will all play out in some fashion or another over the next 10-15 years…some of them sooner rather than later.

What trends do you see? What notions do you have for the future of church and faith communities?

We’d love to get some conversation going about this, so please feel free to comment below or post your thoughts on one of our social media channels:

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