5 Disruptive Cultural Trends Affecting the Church

Paying attention to and learning from these cultural trends will help your church adapt and thrive.

As everything seems to change around us more quickly than ever, what trends should church leaders pay attention to in 2019?

For the last three years, I’ve kicked off the new year with a post on disruptive church trends. You might still find those helpful. Even though some of them are a few years old, they all deal with cultural shifts that are still happening.

Here are the direct links:

7 Disruptive Church Trends for 2018

6 Disruptive Church Trends for 2017

5 Disruptive Church Trends for 2016

The reason this matters so much is two-fold.

First, there’s no shortage of information in our culture. But there is a shortage of meaning. It’s one thing to know something is happening, it’s another to know what to do with it and which trends matter most.

Second, leaders who fail to navigate the disruptive trends happening in our culture won’t be left with much to lead.

Leaders who pretend nothing needs to change end up being the blacksmith in the era of the automobile, Sears in the age of Amazon, or Kodak in an Instagram culture.

If you ever hope to reach the next generation, change is your friend.

So, in the hope of helping every leader better accomplish our collective mission, here are 5 disruptive church trends I see defining conversation and action in 2019.

1. Charismatic Expressions of Church Will Grow While Attractional Churches Will Continue to Stall Out

Over the last few years one trend has emerged that hasn’t been talked about nearly enough: almost all the growth happening in churches seems to be coming from churches that have a more charismatic expression to their worship, preaching and culture.

I’m not talking about charismatic theology here, although some churches would definitely fit that bill. What seems to link most growing churches these days is a more charismatic or expressive style to how they worship, teach and gather.

A few characteristics synthesize this trend:

Worship that’s actually worship, not just a band performing music in front of a passive audience.

Preachers who speak to the heart as much as they speak to the head.

Communicators who preach as much as they teach.

A congregation (large or small) that actually engages each other and the mission (not just people who randomly assemble).

Facilitating moments of transcendence, not just immanence.

In other words, it’s personal. It’s more emotional. It’s more real. And you can feel it.

I realize that you can poke holes in my theology or definition of this. That’s not the point. I have the privilege of speaking all over the world and connecting with thousands of leaders each year. This is just something I’m seeing.

It’s loose, it’s not particularly well-defined, but it is happening.

Meanwhile, I see churches that cling to a purely attractional model struggling more and more. By attractional I mean:

Their bands perform more than they lead people in an experience of worship.

Communicators who speak more to the head, not the heart, and teach more than they preach.

A congregation of less engaged people who seem to randomly assemble to experience an event, rather than to connect (this is true regardless of how large or small the church is).

A greater focus on immanence without much thought to transcendence.

Why is this? I outline 5 reasons in this post and you can read the background there.

As we watch this develop, at least from where I sit, there are two cultural shifts happening that are driving this change.

First, as I outlined in the post, the foyer moved. The genius of the attractional church was to make someone’s first encounter with church accessible. That’s still super important (don’t lose sight of that, please), but the internet means that almost everyone who attends church has watched online first. And even if you don’t have an online stream, they’ve checked out someone else’s or Googled their way through some questions.

This means when they show up, they are ready to go a little deeper a little faster. Not please enroll me in seminary deep, but show me the real thing because I want to know if this is real kind of deep.

Second, I’m sensing younger adults are deeply craving connection and transcendence. In a world that feels like a cacophony of noise and anger, and in a day where they have anything they want whenever they want at their fingertips, young adults are looking for something (SomeOne) beyond themselves—an experience that can’t be reduced, fully explained and isn’t even fully definable.

Which is, of course, part of the character of God. He’s so much bigger than us. The mission is bigger than us. And it’s all bigger than our words can explain.

One further thought on this trend. Total anecdotal observation. But I noticed via Instagram that people seemed to put up their Christmas trees much earlier in 2018. As in late-October and early-November early. As I drilled down a little further, guess what I noticed? Almost every doing this was 35 and under.

Complete conjecture, but here’s what I’m guessing. In a world that seems increasingly unsafe and unsound, for young adults, the Christmas tree, lights and decor are reminders of wonder, peace, and stability. Whether that’s nostalgia, a bold declaration or a bit of both, wise leaders would think about how to make their church a little more like that. Because of course, if the church can’t offer wonder, peace and stability in uncertain times, who can?

Either way, there is massive opportunity to connect with a culture that deeply wants connection—something other than the hopelessness that seems to be today’s news cycle.

Final word, all of this is a great opportunity for churches that currently do attractional really well. This is not about suddenly becoming inaccessible or completely different. A shift in tone, expression and focus can recalibrate the experience for everyone.

Weird isn’t the goal. Connection is.

2. Online Church Will Evolve to Become a Front Door and Side Door, Not a Back Door

There’s an ongoing debate about how much church you can do ‘online’.

Laura Turner wrote a helpful piece recently for The New York Times in which she argued that online church isn’t the same as in-person church. Laura cited this blog and we had a short but great chat via email about her piece. Largely, I agree with Laura and as a local church leader, I really appreciate her viewpoint.

I think what can be missing from the discussion about the online church is that too often our conversation is binary. Church online is good or bad. Wise or dumb. A cop-out or great.

Here’s what I think the future holds for online church. In the near future, online church will become almost exclusively a front door and side door, not a back door.

In the early days of online church, the internet functioned as a back door. Consumer-oriented, disengaged or lazy Christians headed for the back door and traded the drive and the traffic for the comfort of a warm bed or the convenience of a treadmill or commute. If your primary disposition toward church was to consume content, online just gave you a far easier way.

But those Christians are an endangered species. We’re a decade+ into church online and they’ve drifted off into the background, and honestly for the most part, into Kingdom-irrelevance. You can’t change the world if your only connection with the Kingdom is through your earbuds.

That group has become consumers, not contributors. And you can’t build the future of the church on them. Mission requires engagement movement. So the back door people are history.

Ditto with the casual observers who consume and never contribute. There’s no future there, so move along, people.

The future of church online is not with the internet as a back door. The future of the church is the internet as a front door and side door.

Church online will become a front door for the curious, the skeptic and the interested. It will be the first stop for almost everyone, and a temporary resting place for people who are a little too afraid to jump in until they muster the courage to jump in through physical attendance.

What we’re seeing at Connexus where I serve is that almost everyone who attends for the first time has engaged online for weeks, months or upward of a year. They see online as the new front door, which it is.

It’s also a side door to Christians who travel or who can’t be there on a given Sunday. In that respect, it boosts engagement because it keeps people connected. They never miss a Sunday or a moment because of the seamless slip between digital and analog that our lives have become (I write more about that here).

But wait, you say, what if they don’t come back as much in person? Well, then that’s not a side door or front door issue, that’s a consumer who’s using online as a back door, and as we’ve already seen, there’s no future in that.

I’ll write more about this issue later this month, but in the meantime, think about how you can position your church to see the internet as a front door for new people and a side door for engaged members. Forget the back door. It’s irrelevant.

3. Churches and Organizations Will Begin Staffing Online As If It Were a Real Thing

Although for the reasons outlined above, most churches are beginning to realize that online church is a very real thing, unless you’re a very large, multi-site megachurch, you probably don’t staff your church as though it is.

Until now, most churches (even churches over 1000) cultivate their online presence by tacking it onto the job description of someone in the creative department. As in Here, you go run social, please. And oh, can you get these sermons uploaded? And then once every five years, the church allocates X number of dollars to hire someone to redo their website hoping that will fix the problem for another half-decade.

The problem? The vast majority of churches spend 99% of their staffing dollars on in-person gatherings.

Increasingly, this will be the year many churches realize you can’t have a massive impact online when you spend 1% of your staffing resources on it.

So why does this matter?

Well, as outlined in trends #1 and #2 above, the internet is the venue in which the entire community you are trying to reach lives. If you want to reach them there, spending 1 percent of your resources on it is likely not the smartest strategy.

I know this is about as basic as it gets but look around you. Do you know of any church near you that’s spending 30 percent of its resources to reach people online?

Didn’t think so.

And we wonder why we don’t see more direct results from online outreach.

Mystery solved.

4. Consumer-Centered Approaches to Church Will Continue to Lose Momentum

A lot of church growth from the 80s to a few years ago was fuelled by churches who embraced that fact that we live in a consumer culture.

While that approach has always had its critics, it actually did result in a great number of people who authentically followed Jesus and churches that experienced explosive growth.

But things have changed and that era is coming to an end.

Ultimately, consumer Christianity isn’t about what you bring to the mission, it’s about what you can squeeze out of it.

The digital explosion of the last decade has meant people feel more marketed-to than ever before. Which also people are seeking an alternative (see trend #1 above).

Churches who use the approach of “Come to us, we’re the best/coolest/hippest/most orthodox/most whatever” won’t have enough of a basis to hold people together in an era where content can be consumed anywhere/anyhow/anywhere.

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 consumer-oriented Christians won’t commit to anything, and the remaining few will leave. It’s just more convenient to do whatever you feel like from wherever you are than it is to gather or commit to a cause that’s bigger than you.

Not much is lost in seeing consumers leave. It’s hard to build the future of the church on people who won’t engage. So let them go.

5. You Will No Longer Be Able to Get Away With a Bad Workplace Culture

In many ways, 2017 and 2018 raised both the awareness of abusive workplaces and leaders and (helpfully) increased our unwillingness to work in toxic environments or for toxic people.

This is good—and needed.

While sexual safety, dignity and integrity at work are a given, the bad culture problem runs deeper than just sex.

Too many church leaders who lead people in the name of God create a team culture that feels nothing like the Kingdom of God—arrogant leadership, selfish manipulation, office politics, gossip and deceptive maneuvering have killed far more cultures and harmed more people than you can count. All of this has left a body count of people who say they’re not done with God, but they’re done with church (I wrote a response to that here.)

Don’t believe the cynics. This is not every Christian workplace. But it is some. And some is too many.

And, again, for the cynically minded, this is not just a church problem. It’s a human problem.

Step out of the church world for ten minutes and jump into any corporate (or not-for-profit) culture and it won’t take you too long to find similar problems replicated there. We human beings are desperately in need of redemption, and we all lead from a place of sin and wounding. There are really no exceptions to that.

But that doesn’t mean our culture has to stink. Our God is a God of redemption, and ultimately our churches and organizations should reflect our collective strengths more than they reflect our weaknesses.

The necessity for healthier workplaces was voiced over a decade ago as millennials left college and stepped into the workplace. They let us know quickly and loudly that they weren’t going to put up with the misery that previous generations put up with.

Whether they’re on your payroll, volunteering or working as independent contractors, millennials have made it known that ultimately they work for themselves, not you. And—heads up bosses—they want to work for a cause that’s bigger than you or the bottom line.

Finally, the way you treat them may be more important than what you pay them. These days, no salary is big enough to compensate for making you feel miserable. (Here are 7 keys to leading and working with millennials.)

None of this is bad at all. Actually, it’s refreshing.

It’s a whole new day out there when it comes to workplace and team culture, and that’s a good thing.

Cultural values will become more important than ever in 2019. And living by the values you espouse will become even more important than having values. What’s on the wall has to live down the hall.

Integrity and authenticity are two of the most important characteristics any leader can possess, especially in the current culture. These are two things Christians should have been modeling all along.

Your culture is quickly becoming the main way you attract and keep the best people—staff or volunteers.

Great cultures will keep great people. Toxic cultures will expel them.

Read more from Carey Nieuwhof »

This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com.