A look at what the church could be
No one could have predicted the cataclysmic changes brought on by the events of the past two years. As such, it may seem foolish to try to anticipate with too much specificity the future of the church. Yet, some things that were clearly revealed over the past 24 months can help us chart a path forward.
Let’s look at what the data revealed, but instead of simply reflecting on what the church will be in the years to come, let’s consider what the church could be—a faithful and fruitful body of believers that grows stronger and more resilient in the season ahead.
Challenges and Opportunities
The last few years—sparked by, but not limited to the pandemic—have peeled back the layers on many aspects of life that previously had rested under a cover of normalcy. We learned a lot as our collective pretenses were stripped away and a new kind of life began. Here are a few of the lessons we learned and what they can mean for the future.
1. The Christian community has a significant discipleship problem.
From the initial dramatic drop in church engagement to today’s continued lower attendance levels, church leaders have realized that many churchgoers “just aren’t that into them.” Barna research shows that the least-devoted Christians were the most likely to lapse in their churchgoing over the last two years, and even some of the most ardent Christians saw the pandemic alter their spiritual habits, and not always in a good way.
But we don’t just have an attendance problem; we have a discipleship problem. The gaps in disciple making and discipleship are evident throughout the church and have been festering long before the pandemic. A good example of this stubborn problem: Only 10% percent of 18- to 29-year-olds who grow up as Christians qualify as resilient disciples.
“We need better resources to equip and support pastors, and more robust pathways to pastoring.”
And during the pandemic, issues related to politics, race, Christian nationalism and more showed just how much American Christians across the sociopolitical spectrum were guided less by the convictions of their faith and more by their Facebook feeds.
Even as the problems of disciple making are long in the tooth, new research shows few pastors feel they are better off now when it comes to discipleship. In March 2022, surveys among pastors showed that only 8% said their church is “very strong” at discipleship, a result that is on par with how leaders have ranked this in the past.
What could the church’s hopeful future be when it comes to life transformation? Growing deep by placing a sustained and prioritized effort to provide holistic, measured and resilient disciple making.
2. Exhausted pastors are facing a crisis of calling.
Pastors were never meant to do ministry alone in any season much less during a period of prolonged upheaval. We see in our most recent studies that 42% of pastors have given real, serious consideration to quitting full-time ministry—up significantly from prior to the pandemic and much higher than one year into the crisis.
Let’s not gloss over the fact that pastors deserve heaps of credit and gratitude. They have been both innovative and courageous these past few years. They have been spiritual frontline workers, shouldering up to tremendous challenges.
But the intensity of the load on pastors is building, not abating. In March 2022, pastors told us that stress, isolation and political division weigh heavily on their minds. Many of them are simply exhausted, and far too many—including pastors under the age of 45, women leaders and leaders of color—are considering moving to another line of work. Leading people spiritually has never been easy, but this season has been positively debilitating.
While there are some positive signs that church attendance is edging up again, red warning lights are flashing brightly for leaders. Better resources are needed to equip and support pastors, and more robust pathways to pastoring. For Barna’s part, we’ve been working on what we call the Resilient Pastor Initiative. This includes The Resilient Pastor by Glenn Packiam (Baker Books), pastor roundtables in select cities to hear from and encourage pastors, The Resilient Pastor podcast and a learning cohort of leaders. Pastors also need to support other pastors in prayer, friendship and accountability for the sake of sustained mission.
The church also needs to expand its vision for and practice of the role of pastoring. Of course, there are ministerial functions to perform and the right gatekeeping ought to be considered for certain aspects of the role.
Here’s a practical example of expanding the role of pastoring: In addition to our full-time models, we need more pathways and on-ramps for bivocational and lay-ordained pastors, which would open the position to more people, moderate the financial burden on congregations and, I believe, provide a helpful corrective to the misguided idea of some givers that they “pay” the salaries of their pastors. For the church to be a prophetic community and the body of Christ to be a discipled people, we need to acknowledge and promote more forms of spiritual authority.
The good news is that in doing this, pastors can share the immense load. We can do the work of the body better together in the future. After all, the burden is meant to be light.
3. People are recalibrating their lives.
The pandemic has altered our social, vocational, spiritual and economic circulatory systems, and the toll is going to come due in many forms over the coming years. What could a faithful witness from the Christian community look like in response to these changes?
One immediate and obvious example is the Great Resignation—the widespread trend of changing jobs or regrooving a career. Churches can provide all sorts of assistance in the realm of job training, career and purpose coaching, gift assessments, prayer and discernment, community, financial resources, faith and work integration, and more. We’ve described this whole space as vocational discipleship, and I continue to believe in its massive potential. The pandemic has only underscored its importance. We serve an incredible, creative God who has made each human being to accomplish wonderful things here on earth; the church then should be the most gift-nurturing environment on earth, helping people to uncover the masterpiece they are and live into all that God has for them.
“People want things of substance that matter. And for that growing hunger, nothing can match the name and purposes of Jesus.”
On a more sobering note, mental health and trauma healing are additional opportunities for ministry highlighted by the last 24-plus months. Early on, Barna predicted that the pandemic would have a habit-forming character to it; that’s proved true when it comes to addiction, drinking, domestic violence and the collective psychological impact. The silver lining is that the conversations about mental and emotional health are commonplace, and people are open to real solutions. Church leaders (rightly trained and appropriately deployed) can stand in the gap with the message of Jesus, the truths of Scripture and the wisdom of mental health and trauma response professionals.
Zooming out to an even bigger perspective, our population surveys show that people are open and responsive to local churches who offer preaching and programming that address a wide range of real-life issues, from financial health to vocational well-being, from physical, mental and emotional health to spiritual flourishing. The good news—and it comes full circle here—is that people actually desire the things that count as discipleship. They want things of substance that matter, that last, that transform lives, that make a real difference. And for that growing hunger, nothing can match the name and purposes of Jesus.
A Faithful Remnant
The pandemic reminded us that the church, despite its faults has a bright future, if we allow the Lord to help us be faithful in light of these opportunities.
How can we do that? One answer seems to be taking shape in the form of a renewal-minded remnant of Christians. Mark Sayers, a pastor in Melbourne, Australia, recently shared about the droves of people he encounters each month who are eager for what God is doing and are seeking him in earnest ways. We are at the early stages of studying this, but we believe that a small, focused group of resilient disciples in the U.S. and around the world are hungry for God to act in new ways. This remnant is focused on getting back to the basics, and at the same time, like Nehemiah, they want to rebuild things, such as the institutions that propel the mission of Jesus in our society.
“Leaders need a new way to measure the church’s influence on people’s whole lives, not just the Sunday morning context.”
The seeds of a renewed church are sprouting up, including new models for ministry, new leaders for a revitalized mission, and new ideas for accomplishing Spirit-driven initiatives. I believe we can have hope in the future of the church because God is working in and through these faithful few.
The Church Going Forward
I firmly believe that this moment provides an opportunity to pioneer new ways of leading God’s people, and new, deeper pathways to discipling people. What is required of church leaders to renew the church in these confusing and complex times? Here are five shifts explored in the Barna report The State of the Church that we need to consider:
1. A renewed church demands that we rely more on the Lord’s power and presence than on our strategy or smarts.
I am convinced that more than ever a revived church is going to require a commitment to making way for people to experience God’s power and presence. We cannot convince a skeptical generation simply with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of a real God who actually speaks and acts.
2. A renewed church requires Christian leaders who honestly and objectively evaluate the impact they are making.
The most effective leaders are consistently seeking input and evaluation of their ministry models in order to be more faithful. It’s essentially a matter of stewardship. And the stakes are extremely high: Jesus warns that it would be better for us to be weighted to the bottom of the sea than to cause a child to stumble; similarly, misleading those to whom we minister carries a heavy price. What a responsibility to get this right. Ministry impact and ministry models should be subjected to the same kinds of rigor. A renewed church is going to demand more thoughtful, intentional effort to make the kind of difference we really intend to make through the power of the gospel.
3. A renewed church needs leaders who are in tune with the flourishing of the people they serve and disciple.
Even with the luxury of full sanctuaries and active attendance patterns, we can’t be sure how people are faring and how much they are growing in the Lord. While limitations always exist to research, I believe that we have a responsibility to better understand the flourishing of our people.
If assessment capabilities and insights allow you to be more faithful in your ministry, it’s worth considering these tools. It’s so easy to rely on assumptions or on muscle memory or on a few anecdotes; effective leadership will require even better ways of hearing from people. Leaders need a new way to measure the church’s influence on people’s whole lives, not just the Sunday morning context.
4. A renewed church requires contributors and participants in gospel mission, not just consumers of gospel content.
The church must become better at developing people and releasing them in their giftedness. Recent Barna studies show that 92% of pastors said they prefer lay-driven initiatives to new church programs, and 96% said that for their church to be healthier, lay people must take more responsibility. Yet, only 9% of pastors said their church was very effective at developing new leaders, and only a small minority of churchgoers says their church has helped them to identify and use their giftedness. What’s wrong with this picture?
“Effective ministry will require a shift to significantly upgrade the equipping and releasing of the priesthood of all believers.”
Effective ministry will require a shift to significantly upgrade the equipping and releasing of the priesthood of all believers. Part of this will come as we renew Christian education in all its forms; we must reform our efforts to shape hearts and minds with the way people actually learn today. This means being creative and intentional about the way we teach people—a new catechesis for a new generation.
5. A renewed church needs leaders who are self-aware about the condition of their hearts before the Lord.
A consistent theme of the Scriptures is heart health. They describe a God who cares much more about the human heart than about mere behavior. As leaders, we have perhaps an even greater responsibility than do others to tend to our hearts, because our leadership has the power to enhance or cloud people’s ability to see the light of Jesus.
Faithfulness in Suffering
It is a sacred honor to lead the church, especially when things don’t go to plan—and these last few years haven’t turned out like any of us would have expected. Yet, I am reminded of the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9: “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead.”
Something happens to Paul, and we don’t exactly know what it is. Yet, he is a changed man as he looks past his own inner reserves of strength and strategy.
One of the most important hallmarks of the future church will be how much its leaders have been faithful in suffering. And in what we have endured and will face in the days to come, did we stop relying on ourselves and trust God? If we answer yes, the church will be faithful and fruitful.