Beyond Growth and Decline

The year 2050 seems like an overly futuristic date to some, but really it’s just a mere 27 years away. By then, there will be no majority race in America. Christian boomers and most Gen Xers will have received their reward in heaven. Millennials will be entering retirement, but most of them, along with Gen Zers, should be in their prime, leading missions and ministry with whatever ideas, tools and infrastructure they inherited from this generation. Our current decade matters tremendously for churches, mission organizations and Christian institutions as it will likely preside over an unprecedented number of leadership transitions.

Current leaders are taking into consideration several factors during this decade of transition, including racial, ethnic and gender dynamics. Just as important will be their ability to assess the integrity of their organizations for future durability and possible fragility. All of the shifts in this decade will point to an even more complex culture that will be fully upon us by 2050.

To understand where our current decade is in this era of American church history, consider this: We’re closer to the year 2050 than we are to, for example, the year 1980 when Rick and Kay Warren started Saddleback Church over 43 years ago. Forty-three years is almost one and a half generations.

The missional narrative—how leaders tell the story of mission in order to mobilize and motivate people—will likely need to shift and expand as this mass generational transition occurs. Our mobilization rhetoric and mission structures developed a generation ago will likely make less and less sense to the emerging generations. Much of the future will be decided in this decade.

Paul Saffo, a futurist and professor at Stanford University, says that to prepare for the future, you have to first look twice as far back into the past.

Why the 1980s Mattered 

Leaders like the Warrens played a huge role in pioneering the modern-day seeker-sensitive movement that helped church practitioners of their generation see American communities as a mission field to reach. Moreover, churches like Saddleback popularized the most prevalent form of church planting today in America sometimes referred to as the “launch large” model, where a team is assembled by an entrepreneurial leader to start a sizable Sunday worship service to ensure ministry viability and sustainability for the long term.

Last year, the Warrens passed the baton as senior leaders of Saddleback to a millennial couple, Andy and Stacie Wood. I joined many on social media in honoring the Warrens, celebrating and remembering their faithfulness. Although they will continue in fruitful ministry for many years to come, their retirement from Saddleback was symbolically the end of a missional era. It’s not that the era of attractional models and church growth is over, but our cultural moment in history is much closer to the realities of 2050 than it is to the times that gave rise to the church strategies and missional paradigms developed well over a generation ago.

In 1980, because of immigration, America was just beginning to diversify racially beyond the issues mostly framed by Black and white tensions. And even then, whites still made up 83% of the population. This was also the decade when the percentage of mainline Protestants dipped lower than the percentage of evangelicals, cementing a missional narrative that evangelicals made full use of in the decades to come, which we’ll call the “Church Decline” narrative.

Church Decline was used to motivate and mobilize many boomers and Gen Xers into an urgency toward evangelism and church planting in the West, especially in America. The language of Church Decline gets at many different things, but at the core of it is the idea that American society is becoming less and less Christian, and we need more evangelism, church planting and public influence to reclaim a more Christian nation. It plays off the culture wars and interprets declining church membership, shrinking attendance and church closures as important data points. It was no wonder then that church growth quickly became a methodology for some to combat this decline.

The changing racial and religious landscape of America, the plummeting mainline church and the rise of evangelical influence in public life seemed to justify such a narrative. And it was effective because to a large degree, it felt true.

Church Decline and Church Growth

The decades following saw the increase of megachurch, multisite and multiethnic churches. This was largely due to the rise of church planting and the proliferation of church planting networks. Gen Xers, in particular, led the charge in developing what once were boutique church-planting ministries into now an entire industry of large conferences, professional services and consultants devoted to helping church leaders identify, recruit, train, assess, launch and coach church planters.

Much of the language that recruited a generation, including myself, into church planting called us to “renew our cities” and to “push back the darkness” by growing our churches (the language of the ’80s and ’90s) and eventually to multiply our churches (the language of the 2000s to present). We were obeying the Great Commission of Jesus by fighting church decline through church planting.

If there was a heyday of church planting in the church growth era in America, it may have been the first decade of the new millennia. That’s when we saw the emergence of Tim Keller and Ed Stetzer’s influence in church planting. There was also the founding of Exponential—the largest annual gathering of church planters in the world. That happened along with the founding of significant church-planting networks such as ARC, Acts 29, Redeemer City to City, Stadia and NewThing, just to name a few. The start of the 21st century also saw the resurgence of denominations revamping their strategies to start new churches, hoping to avoid the fate faced by their mainline counterparts.

According to Warren Bird’s 2022 research for ECFA, The New Faces of Church Planting, which is the largest survey ever focused on church planting in North America, the median age for a church planter in 2007 was 33 years old. Church planting, it seemed, was a ministry for relatively young people. This would line up with the experience of many former angsty-youth Gen-X pastors who wanted to do church differently from their senior pastors or the freshly graduated (and likely naive) seminarians who wanted to put theory into practice. A few years before, it would’ve also included the Emergent church folks who wanted not just new forms of church but also new streams of theology.

Bird’s research also uncovered that by 2022, the median age for church planters had steadily increased to 42 years old—the oldest of millennials. While it would make sense that the typical church planter today is a millennial, the fact that the median age has seen such a large increase changes the opinion that church planting is a young person’s game. By 2022, church planting had become a middle-aged person’s game.

It’s not strange to see the median age adjust and plateau around a certain age. However, according to Bird’s finding, the median age is steadily climbing. It begs the question, if left unabated, what will be the median age for church planters in the decades to come? What would it say if in a few years the median age of church planters were 50 years old? This trend is not dissimilar to the growing average age of pastors. In 2021, Lifeway Research reported that the average age of a pastor in 2000 was 50 years old, and by 2021 it had risen to 57.

A multitude of factors contribute to the increasing age of pastors and church planters. But unique to church planters is the recruitment language and pathways that draw them into a highly evangelistic and entrepreneurial endeavor. And it seems that there’s something about the mobilization rhetoric developed a generation ago that is wearing off with today’s young adults.

To say it another way, the narratives of Church Decline and Church Growth may not be mobilizing young adults the same way they did a few decades ago. The Church Decline narrative may be facing decline, and it is a good thing that we found this out now before we get too close to the realities and complexities of 2050.

Why This Matters to Gen Z

A few months ago, I was hosting the Church Planters Leadership Fellowship (CPLF) in Houston. CPLF is a collaboration of around 75 denominations and church-planting networks. Our conversation that week was focused on how we might increase the national capacity to plant more churches in order to keep up with population growth in the U.S. and Canada, especially amid the increasing demographic diversity and cultural complexity. One of our presenters was Keith Weiser, founder and lead pastor of Resonate Church, which is a network of churches planted near colleges and universities in the Pacific Northwest.

Weiser (born in 1977) is a Gen Xer originally from Houston, but moved to Pullman, Washington, with a vision of reaching college campuses, not just through campus evangelism, but through planting churches with a strategy of engaging unchurched freshmen. What started as one church in 2007 has now turned into a movement of 15 churches across six states composed largely of college students.

As Weiser told the journey of Resonate and how their network of churches came about, he openly shared how Gen Zers seemed more resistant to the language and structures prevalent in Church Decline and Church Growth paradigms. Speaking on the difference between millennials and Gen Z, Weiser said, “We started with older millennials, and if you had lunch with them and asked them if they want to start something cool, they would respond with, ‘Yeah! Pick me!’ But today if you ask a Gen Zer the same thing, their response is more like, ‘(nervously) Yeah. Maybe someone else should do that.’”

According to Weiser’s experience, Gen Zers prefer more guidance, and require a lot of affirmation and communication compared to previous generations. Moreover, they’re potentially triggered with anxiety by things such as leadership pipelines and rigid organizational structures that have high command and control. He believes this is the result of the cultural and institutional chaos around them which has left them highly skeptical of grand visions and perhaps even strong personalities.

While it’s probably true that 18–25 year olds of every generation are sort of anti-institution, we have not seen any other generation born into the age of the internet, extremely heightened by social media, raised in an economic recession, plagued by mental health diagnoses, navigating college during the most politically and racially divided moment in our lifetime, and then thrust into the workforce in a global pandemic.

Gen Z is not a snowflake generation. They’re just accurately reflecting back to us the cultural chaos that started off this decade.

Given their skepticism toward institutions, of course they might be triggered by any vision that thinks the church can reclaim the culture, restore Sunday church attendance and reverse religious decline by doing more of the same like previous generations. If researchers such as Lifeway, Barna, Pew and Springtide agree on anything, it’s that young adults today are affiliating themselves less and less with this vision of Christianity in America than previous generations did. Young adults aren’t correct on everything, and of course they don’t agree on everything, but what they feel in this decade about mission and church planting is probably the best gauge for the strengths and weaknesses of Christian leadership in America leading up to 2050.

In his book Meet Generation Z, James Emery White writes, “As the first truly post-Christian generation, and numerically the largest, Generation Z will be the most influential religious force in the West and the heart of the missional challenge facing the Christian church.”

However, their spiritual formation and our understanding of their emotional resonance—or lack thereof—to our missional narratives is not something that can wait until 2030. They were being formed—the oldest likely already have been formed—at the start of this decade. A few are currently trying on Church Decline and Church Growth to see if they fit, and the early reports are coming in telling us that Gen Z is wearing it the way David wore Saul’s armor—it feels clunky and they’re unsure if they can grow into it.

A Different Missional Narrative 

Some streams tell alternative, or at least parallel, narratives to Church Decline in hopes of reimagining the story of mission in North America. Among second- and third-generation immigrants, there is a sense that mission in America is part of navigating and negotiating their ethnic identity, especially those who are considered forever foreigners by some. Theirs is more of a fulfillment narrative. For historically marginalized groups like Native Americans and African Americans, the justice and reconciliation narrative has mobilized many to engage even with their oppressors for the sake of the kingdom. They often resonate with Liberation theology, and have developed American traditions that have seen movements all across the world.

Narratives that aren’t centered around the experience of white Protestant Christians in America often have their origins in something besides Church Decline and Church Growth, although that isn’t to say these other traditions aren’t facing the ebbs and flows of decline and growth. That is to say that minorities have learned to navigate Church Decline and Church Growth because in their eyes, it is what’s happening in the mainstream.

But to Gen Zers, regardless of race, ethnicity and cultural background, all these narratives feel heavy like Saul’s armor.

The greatest challenge of leaders presiding over churches and mission in this decade is not to primarily combat decline and to innovate growth and comeback strategies to be implemented for the decades to come—to be clear, these things have led to a lot of good and may continue to be necessary—but to tell the story of mission in a way that is beautiful and life-giving to a generation that sees the world through a lens of anxiousness and division.

If Christian mission is not a part of healing their own anxieties and the ailments inside the church, then it will not be a mission worth pursuing for Gen Z.

Jesus understood this well for the band of teenagers and young adults he led in the first century. He neither coddled nor exasperated his disciples. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus lovingly paid attention to the internal lives of his closest disciples just as much as he modeled for them how to deal with external responsibilities. He right-sized their expectations of themselves and of the world so that when they faced disappointment, they wouldn’t feel fragile in their identity and lose sight of their mission. By the time Jesus ascended into heaven, these young adults didn’t feel like they were advancing the cause of a religion. They felt like they were healing the nations (Matt. 28:19–20; Luke 9:6; Rev. 22:2).

Gen Zers need to feel that they aren’t advancing the cause of a declining religion. They need to feel as if they’re a part of what Jesus is doing to heal the nations. Whatever missional narratives emerge over the next few years, the most effective ones will likely feel less anxious, and instead feel more beautiful to them. The urgency will not be created by appealing to fear or uncertainty. The urgency will be created by captivating them with how beautiful the kingdom of God is and how good the way of Jesus is.

And in order for that to happen, boomer and Gen-X leaders must examine their internal narratives to see if they are truly enamored by the beauty of the kingdom of God and the goodness of the way of Jesus. Our conviction and certainty of this—more so than the charts and graphs that remind us of church decline—are the greatest indicators that we have in this decade for whether or not the missional narrative will change in time to effectively mobilize today’s young people to greater faithfulness now and into the very near future.