Ed Stetzer: The Church of 2030

While the year 2030 may feel as if it is a long time away, it is going to be here faster than we know. What does the future hold for the church in the years between now and 2030, and then beyond? 

The U.S. Census Bureau issued a report just after the 2020 data was collected that notes two key demographic realities that churches need to get ready for now. First, by 2030 immigration is projected to become the primary driver of population growth in the United States. More people are predicted to be added to the population through net international migration than from natural increase. 

Second, the year 2030 marks a demographic turning point for the United States: All baby boomers will be older than 65 and, within the decade, adults aged 65 and older are projected to outnumber children who are under 18 years old for the first time in U.S. history. 

I want to discuss these two trends and add a third, all of which relate directly to the church’s future. But first, let’s look at what the census data tells us.

Population Trends

Three reasons for population change stand out: births, deaths and people moving in or out of a nation. Primarily because of population growth from outside the country, the United States will continue to grow in population. In 2030, the U.S. population will be almost 350 million. Only China and India will have more people. In 2050, the projected number is 458 million. 

The most recent Census Bureau data from 2020 also shows that July 1, 2020, to July 1, 2021, revealed the lowest annual growth since these stats were first collected in 1900 (only 0.1% or 392,665). Historically, population growth slows in times of pandemic, such as during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, and times of economic distress, such as the Great Depression. But the decline in growth rate in 2020–2021 also reflects a decade-long plummet in numbers. 

Trend 1: Increased Immigration

The most significant shift in population will come through increasing ethnic diversity driven by immigration. In 2020, white Americans made up 59.7% of the population. They will be a minority of the whole (47%) in 2050. This decline will be due to two primary factor.: First, falling birth rates combined with rising deaths in the white population, which will result in a drop from 199 million in 2030 to 179 million in 2060. 

The second reason is that 82% of the growth from 2005 to 2050 will come from new immigrants and their families over that period, according to the Pew Research Center. However, Pew notes that “possible future changes in immigration policy or other events could substantially alter the projected totals.” Pew’s predictions are based on the previous 50 years. Add to this the declining birth rate, and the result will be a substantial growth in the non-white population: Hispanics will rise from 14% to 29% of the population by 2050. Blacks will remain about the same at 13%. Asians will rise from 5% to 9%. About 1 in 5 Americans will be foreign-born in 2050, the highest percentage ever. 

The report by the U.S. Census Bureau notes, “The year 2030 marks another demographic first for the United States. Beginning that year, because of population aging, immigration is projected to overtake natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) as the primary driver of population growth for the country.”

Census numbers from 2019 showed the decade from 2010 to 2019 to be the first since the inaugural census in 1790 in which the white population did not grow. The important implication for the church is, predominantly white evangelical churches that do not begin to reach a more diverse population or plant churches to reach the changing demographic will struggle to survive in the coming decades. 

The nation’s population is slowly becoming more diverse. All followers of Christ, churches and church leaders must give a greater priority to intentionally developing friendships and relationships with those of other ethnicities to show and share Christ with them. 

Trend 2: Aging Baby Boomers

In the 1960s and 1970s, baby boomers propelled a dramatic rise in youth ministries in churches. A similar rise in senior ministries will be needed in the near future as America will become a much older population. By 2030, the number of centenarians (people over 100) will more than double from 53,000 to 130,000. By 2060, that number could reach 603,000. That’s a lot of older boomers. 

There were over 74 million people under age 18 in 2020 and 56 million over age 65; in 2030, the year all baby boomers will be over 65, the two numbers will be almost equivalent, with 76 million younger than 18 and 74 million older than 65. And by 2060, almost a quarter of the population will be older than 65.

From 2010 to 2020, the population of people over 55 grew 20 times faster than the population growth of those under 55, driven by baby boomers. The aging of the population means there will be a shift from youth-dependent to elder-dependent ministry. The churches that prioritized senior adults and their care during the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to make seniors a priority may be more equipped to reach the changing population.

Trend 3: The Rise of ‘Digital Campfires’

To these demographic realities I would add one more. Over half the population today is made up of millennials—the oldest of whom are now 40—and younger generations. These younger generations are increasingly diverse. The boomer population was 72.6% white, 10.7% Hispanic/Latino and 10.9% Black. But Gen Alpha, or the post-Gen Z, is only 49.6% white, 25.9% Hispanic/Latino and 13.7% Black. The Hispanic/Latino population has more than tripled from boomers to Alpha, a change that prompted what William Frey of Brookings calls a “cultural generation gap,” impacting everything from economics to politics.

The older members of Gen Z are in their 20s and in the workforce. But soon on their heels is Gen Alpha. These emerging generations are far more socially aware: 76% say climate change is one of their main societal concerns (37% say it’s the biggest one).

They are attracted to the freelance world and the gig economy, and this will grow as more of them enter the workforce. They not only live in the digital world; they will be the primary creators there. One study reported 53% of Gen Zers would pass up a traditional job for full-time gig work. This shows the trend toward employees wanting and getting more say in the working world. 

One study showed this of Gen Z: 

* 95% own a smartphone.

* 83% own a laptop.

* 78% have an advanced gaming console.

* 72% use the internet nightly for entertainment.

* 69% become uncomfortable after eight hours removed from the internet. 

Whereas millennials came of age when technology was exploding, Gen Z’s lives are centered on technology. Gen Z and Gen Alpha are digital natives, not digital immigrants like the preceding generations. If you want to impact Gen Z, you need an app for that, or reels, or the ability to capture their attention quickly through technology. Or, as Sara Wilson observed in the Harvard Business Review, Gen Z is moving from social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to “digital campfires” for three reasons: “to private message one another, to connect to a micro-community or to participate in a shared experience.” These campfires are often gaming platforms, which are no longer just for gamers, but are a new paradigm for Gen Z. These include Fortnite, Roblox, Discord, Twitch and, for the time being, TikTok, where communities are formed by algorithms through common interests. Australian researcher Mark McCrindle, who gave us the term “Gen Alpha” says: “This generation has access to technology and platforms that their parents don’t even understand. They have ownership, authority and influence in the realms they operate, and influence others of their own age.”

There was a time when people who sought to reach their community used door-to-door evangelism effectively. The big issue for believers then was overcoming the fear of knocking on a stranger’s door to share Christ. More recently, Sam Chan and others note how the Third Place (coffeeshops, cafes, etc.) became an important place to engage the unchurched (especially Gen X and older millennials) in a more neutral place for gospel conversations. There, overcoming a fear of speaking about Jesus in a public space—even in private conversations—was a fear to overcome. 

Today, the biggest obstacle in reaching the younger generations may be overcoming the fear of new technologies. But going where people are to reach them is the unchanging Great Commission call, and churches that prioritize reaching younger generations in the digital spaces they occupy will have an advantage in the not too distant future.

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