Consumers are leaving church in droves and attendance is dropping. Here’s how that will shape the church’s future.
Church attendance is dying. Big time.
It’s not just reflected in the size of the decline, it’s reflected in the quality and nuances of those numbers.
At least two massive, seismic shifts are at work in our culture causing this. First, we’re moving from Christendom into a post-Christian, post-modern era literally in our lifetime.
Second, we’re in the midst of the biggest technological shift in human history. The digital disruption happening all around us. The digital disruption isn’t just coming. It’s here. And it’s changing attendance patterns at your church whether you recognize it or not. (By the way, have you heard Clay Scroggins talk about the digital disruption on Episode 193 of my leadership podcast? Cue it up for this week.)
We could add a third reason: We Western Christians have been anemic in our mission over the last number of decades. But that’s kind of one of the main points I’ve made again and again. So we’ve covered that before and will cover it again.
Regardless, people who used to attend regularly aren’t. Whole groups of people are gone.
So what does this mean for today and for the future church?
As we’ve said before in this space, in the future church only the engaged will attend because only the engaged will remain. (Here are 5 reasons engagement will drive almost all future church growth.)
But what exactly does all of this look like?
Here are three trends as we head into the future.
1. The future church meets anytime, anywhere, sometimes.
As Erwin McManus said, “To be a futurist in the church you only need to see the present clearly.” A little too true.
All of this is so obvious, but somehow we miss it.
On the positive front, done well, our whole model of church is based on community (the gathering of people) which will continue forever. The gathered church is here to stay. Not only did Jesus commission us that way, but as we are all experiencing in real time, the more connected we become technologically, the more disconnected we feel. All of us need community now more than ever, and the church is uniquely positions to provide the best community there is if we lean into it.
But our Sunday gatherings have not only been based on community. Much like cable TV and traditional broadcasting, our model has been based on scarcity. In other words, we hold the means of production (the music, the message, the programming and the gathering space) and therefore you need to gather here at X hour to experience it. You can’t get until we say you can.
Of course, that’s no longer true. As I outline in this 2018 church trends post, church in a box is an outdated strategy and the digital has very much become real.
Life now slips seamlessly between the digital and the analog. After all, you’re reading this on your phone or on your laptop (digital) and in the next five minutes you’ll make some real-world interaction, ordering coffee, talking to a colleague or family member in real life.
Digital slips into analog, analog then slips back into digital. We all live there.
So will the future church.
Most church models are still mostly anchored in the past—gather here at a set time and we can be the church. Miss it, and well, you miss it. But as more and more churches move seriously into online and social, that will change.
In the future, the church will meet any time, anywhere, sometimes.
Let me explain.
In the future, the church will meet anywhere, any time, sometimes. You’ll have set gatherings and people will gather together in person, but the digital will supplement, enhance, expand and sometimes replace your local gatherings.
For example, when people are out of town, they’ll join you online. But through email (yes despised email … people read them every day), online church, social and more things we’ll invent, we can engage people daily in the mission. And we can reach people who haven’t been reached every single day, not just Sunday.
People may even choose to gather spontaneously on their own … meeting with friends and inviting new people. The expressions are as limited as you want them to be.
Even if your church doesn’t decide to invest in the internet, nothing stops anyone in your church or community from following dozens of churches and church leaders who have. When it comes to technology, the toothpaste is out of the tube.
If only the church would live like this was an opportunity, not an obstacle, our mission could expand dramatically.
And yet most churches don’t even spend 5 percent of their budget on their online presence. How’s that working for you?
Online is not a threat to the local church. It’s fuel.
2. Consumers are leaving … and won’t be back.
Part of the tension we’re all feeling is that we live in a consumer-driven culture. While there’s been a backlash to materialism to some extent among Millennials, Generation Z appears to be embracing it with zeal (so far anyway). We’re not exactly in a post-consumer culture.
Add to that the fact that many churches have a consumer mindset (come to us … we’re the best/coolest/hippest/most orthodox/most whatever), the arrival of digital options means you no longer need to attend to consume.
It’s far easier to consume content on a treadmill or on your commute than it is to drive to a place at a set time and sit in a back row and consume.
As a result, many consumers have left and more will leave. It’s just more convenient.
Consumer Christianity isn’t about what you bring to the mission, it’s about what you can squeeze out of it. A podcast or online broadcast and a few songs on Spotify is just an easier way to do that.
Not much is lost in seeing consumers leave. It was hard to build the future of the church on them anyway.
3. The contributors and the curious will step up.
While consumers lean away, two more groups will lean in … hard.
The contributors are people who engage in the mission. They love to serve, give, do community and invite their friends. They aren’t into consuming nearly as much as they are into contributing.
Bold visionary leadership that calls people to give, sacrifice and exist for the sake of others will define the future church. These will be life-giving people, and their willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom and outsiders is something you can build the future of the church on.
The final group that will lean in are the spiritually curious. These are people who haven’t made a commitment to Jesus, but want to know more.
Despite all the disillusionment with the church (much of it deserved), over time the curious will become a growing group. I think we’re seeing early pockets of this in Canada, where I live, and perhaps in Europe. The angry, disillusioned and hostile generation of people who left the church gave birth to an indifferent generation, who in turn spawned a generation where curiosity is emerging (Jesus? Really? Tell me more … I’m looking for something …). It may take a decade or two for the curious to really emerge in the U.S., but they’re there now in pockets.
Curious people are open people. And they’re looking for Christians who can answer their questions.
The curious are looking for people to engage with. People whom they can bring their questions to … people they can do life with. And they’re looking for experiences and services (online and in person) that move them to inform, inspire and transform.
If you think about it, these are exactly the people you want in your church &ehllip; the contributors and the curious.
So why not start building the future of the church on them now?
How fewer can lead to more.
So where does this leave us?
Well, if you’re watching consumers slip out the back door … there’s no big worry. Sure, pray for them and wish them well, but you can’t build the future of the church on people who are in it for themselves.
So who’s left? Well, if you can get your contributors more engaged, serving, giving, inviting and in community, you can build out from there. In fact, at a certain point, the growth and life in the community will become contagious.
Fewer gimmicks, less inertia and more passion about the mission is a great recipe for the future.
Want to get people more engaged? Here are 7 ways to grow church attendance by increasing engagement.
Letting consumers go while welcoming contributors and the curious is a great step in the right direction.
Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church in Toronto, Canada. He’s the author of several best-selling books, including his forthcoming book, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That No One Expects But Everyone Experiences (September 2018). This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com.