the shape of leadership

Four Trends That Will Impact the Church in 2020

Responding with realism and resilient hope

One of the most challenging aspects of my job as a social researcher is finding the Spirit-inspired balance between realism and hope. Real freedom comes when we tell the truth about where we are as a culture and as a Church. And when we hope in our risen Lord and in the power of His Spirit, we win the victory over fear.

The data and insights that follow are heavy on the realism side of the scale, but I pray you will join me in responding to these trends with resilient hope in God’s now-and-not-yet, here-and-coming Kingdom.

The Reach of Digital Babylon Expands

Many Christians — especially older believers — feel culturally displaced. A profound transition is happening in North America, moving faith from the center of society to the margins. Barna data show widespread, top-to-bottom changes from a Christianized to a post-Christian culture.

Pervasive internet connectivity, ubiquitous digital tools and hyper-social media have created a new culture we at Barna refer to as “digital Babylon.” As strangers in a strange land, Christians must learn to live as exiles who are nonetheless called to be people of God under His rule and reign. (My new book, Faith for Exiles, explores this idea in depth, along with data on young Christians whose faith is thriving in exile.)

Like the prophet Daniel and his friends, we can become fluent in the language and literature of the new world in which we find ourselves, while remaining laser-focused on God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation (Daniel 1:4,17).

Many of us today turn to our devices to help us make sense of the world. Young people, especially, use the screens in their pockets as counselors, entertainers, instructors, even sex educators.

And of course, Google searches can be wonderful benefits of life in the modern world. Who hasn’t found their life improved by access to the right information at the right time? Watch a step-by-step tutorial on repairing your dishwasher. Listen to your favorite song. Discover a new recipe. Shop for your friend’s birthday gift right now, before you forget.

Screens are magical portals to more rabbit holes than Alice could visit in thousands of lifetimes — and a few even lead somewhere helpful.

That’s the hard part. Instant access to information is not wisdom. In a 1965 sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. could have been talking about our present moment when he asked, “How much of our modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau, ‘Improved means to an unimproved end’? ... We have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology and for this reason we find ourselves caught up with many problems.”

One such problem is growing skepticism when it comes to the authority of Scripture. Six in 10 U.S. adults born before 1946 strongly agree that “the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life (61%), compared to just 32% of millennials who say this. And about 1 in 8 young adults characterize the Bible as “a dangerous book of religious dogma used for centuries to oppress people” (13%).

Similarly, Americans are increasingly disenchanted with institutions that historically have been the glue holding society together. This is especially true of millennials, who have little trust that the country’s institutions “have my best interests at heart.” Just one-third of millennials strongly agree that universities are trustworthy in this regard (32%); 3 in 10 say so about churches (30%); 1 in 5 trusts for-profit companies (20%); or the U.S. president (19%); and even fewer agree congressional representatives (13%) or the government (10%) have their best interests at heart.

This lack of trust has led to a disintermediation of institutions in our society, meaning that people no longer put their faith in institutions to be trustworthy mediators of our communal life.

In response, Christians in 2020 must be relational. People may not trust institutions, but they do trust other people, especially those who love unconditionally and keep showing up — and these relationships make a measurable difference. For example, millennials who continue in their Christian faith into adulthood are twice as likely (59%) as those who don’t (31%) to say that, as a young person, they had a close personal friendship with an adult in their church. Meaningful relationships can make the difference for faith that thrives in exile.

Tribalism Deposes Truth

The phrase “post-truth” has caught on among political observers as a tidy encapsulation of our time, a time when it’s hard for many people to tell the difference between facts and “alternative facts” or between truth and “my truth.” It’s glib, but post-truth is also a fair summary of broader cultural realities that have massive implications now and in the coming years for how Christians live, work and serve. If there are no facts that everyone accepts as fact, is it possible to change anyone’s mind — including our own?

Barna’s mission is to help spiritual influencers understand the times and know what to do. We believe that understanding the reality of this post-truth society and knowing how to wisely respond is more urgent than ever for Christian leaders — not just for ourselves but also as we raise up the next generation of Jesus followers.

The alternative is tribalism, where us versus them is the only truth that matters.

When people around us believe something, we’re more likely to believe it — even if it is untrue. And in so believing, we increase the likelihood that those close to us will start believing it, too. A recent example comes from Barna research conducted in partnership with Impact 360, which found a majority of teens agrees that morality changes over time based on society (58%). Tribalism is one big reason our society can legitimately be called “post-truth”: As more and more people believe those around them, actual truth becomes irrelevant. “Truth” is what people close to me feel is true at any given moment. Tribe trumps all.

The echo chamber effect, which plays out on social media 24 hours a day, contributes to tribalism. We prefer people like us, making it hard to listen to and understand anyone who is different. In research for my book Good Faith, our team found that American evangelicals are more likely than other U.S. adults to say they would find it difficult to have a natural, normal conversation with someone not like themselves. Nearly 9 in 10 evangelicals would have a hard time chatting with a Muslim (87% vs. 73% of all adults) or a person who identifies as LGBT (87% vs. 52% of all adults).

Can you see the danger? The more we become like the people who are already close to us, the crazier everybody else seems to get. At some point, we lose the ability to speak truth in a way others can understand, because our tribes live in conversational echo chambers full of people who only speak our language and exert enormous pressure on one another — whether we know it or not — to keep it that way.

Few Americans have a basic grasp on biblical themes, share a foundational Christian worldview, or retain even a rudimentary mental sketch of the gospel.

In stark contrast, Christ’s incarnation demonstrates the antidote to tribalism: “The Word became human and made his home among us” (John 1:14, NLT).

This is the calling for churches in 2020: “We” get close to “them” — not the other way around. Incarnation is how we earn a chance to speak the truth.

The Shape of Salvation Shifts

In your outreach efforts, you may have noticed that people frequently ask different questions than we Christians are prepared to answer. No longer is it safe to assume that there are just a few loose informational threads to tie up before people trust Jesus. Few Americans have a basic grasp on biblical themes, share a foundational Christian worldview, or retain even a rudimentary mental sketch of the gospel. On top of that, in these post-truth, fake-news times, they have no idea who is trustworthy.

The gospel of Christ still is and always will be “the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16, NLT). But the specific ways sin, death and the devil work together to destroy lives change with time and culture. To understand the deep and particular need for salvation among the people around us, we first need a clear understanding of our cultural moment.

Do people today even know they need saving? Perhaps not in the way previous generations recognized spiritual needs. Yet many are missing a sense of God’s purpose and of their life’s meaning. The good news of Jesus is the power of God to save all who believe from demonic nihilism and a soul-killing sense of emptiness — if only we can find fresh and effective ways to convey the power of God to save.

We must learn to connect Jesus to the reality of life today. This isn’t just being trend wise. It’s about being sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, who forms our efforts to know the times and gives us ears to hear what the Lord is saying. Becoming more relational, culturally discerning learners will equip us to share Jesus in ways people in need of salvation can hear.

Faith-sharing takes place within a specific social and spiritual ecosystem. Like it or not, Christianity’s overall reputation in our wider culture intersects with our local and personal efforts to live and share the gospel. We know Christianity is true; we must show that it is good.

Many Christians already take this effort seriously. Against the grain of popular sentiment, our team at Barna keeps uncovering evidence that many Christ followers are a force for good in the world. In just the past two years, we’ve found signs in the realms of work, relationships, and caring for marginalized and underserved people. For example, three-quarters of practicing Christians strongly agree that “I want to use my gifts and talents for the good of others” (73%); about 9 in 10 say it’s important to them that their work “contributes to the greater good of society/the world” (87%).

In a study of poverty activists, we found that self-identified Christians are more likely to report donating money to charity (75% vs. 64% of non-Christians), taking personal responsibility to end poverty (59% vs. 45%) and making significant consumer lifestyle changes (43% vs. 38%) to fight poverty. Among those who regularly attend church, the percentages are even higher.

And in research among 18- to 29-year-olds for Faith for Exiles, we discovered that the most committed believers, whom we call resilient disciples, consistently report greater relational connectedness and satisfaction than non-Christians, and express greater interest in talking with and getting to know people who are different from them. That is the power of God at work, saving those who believe!

Leadership Moves to the Front Burner

I was recently sharing a meal with a friend who said, “David, I would not want to be a young leader starting out today. Things are just so much more complex, especially trying to lead in the era of technology and social media.”

He’s an older, successful leader, and his sentiment echoes something we see in our research and in our interactions with leaders across the age spectrum. People recognize that younger generations face some major headwinds on the road to effective leadership.

One reason leading is different is the fact that so much is up for grabs — and even those things that may actually be settled feel open to reinvention. Interconnectedness, powered by technology, is transforming how leaders mobilize followers toward a shared goal and how followers perceive their place in the world (disintermediation again).

Young Christians deal with high levels of peer skepticism toward the Church — especially, but not exclusively, in post-Christian climates. In secularizing contexts, as my friend Gabe Lyons and I document in Good Faith, Christianity isn’t just something to be ignored; it’s often perceived as dangerous, harmful and extreme. Many of the older Christian leaders with whom I interact don’t seem to appreciate just how toxic these perceptions are and how difficult they make it to lead mistrustful teens and adults toward faith.

The context for emerging young leaders is a chaotic, reactive, disruptive, anxiety-inducing, rules-are-changing environment characterized by rampant mistrust and deep skepticism.

My older friend was onto something: Would you want to lead?

While their reluctance to step up is understandable, it doesn’t change the fact that we need young leaders. Leadership development must become a front-burner issue.

There are now more full-time senior pastors aged 65 and older than under 40. While our data does not reveal exactly why this shift has occurred, possible contributors include increased life expectancy; the rise of bivocational and second-career pastors; financial pressure facing pastors, some of which goes back to the economic downturn of 2008; the allure of entrepreneurship among young adults; the lack of leadership development among millennials and Gen-Xers; and a lack of succession planning among boomers. All these factors and more contribute to the “graying” of America’s clergy.

The bare facts of the matter are that even the wisest of older pastors is not here indefinitely, and his or her wisdom will be lost to the community of faith unless it is invested with the next generation. Even more urgent is the prospect of a massive leadership shortage in the coming decades. In the best-case scenario, Bible-literate, Spirit-filled, missional lay leaders will rise up in the place of a shrinking professional clergy, filling roles on a scale rarely seen before. This is certainly a possibility, but is it the most likely outcome?

It is critical that denominations, networks and independent churches determine how best to motivate, mobilize, resource and deploy more young church leaders. Some solutions to the crisis include creating and demonstrating better cross-generational and cross-functional teams; developing and implementing better succession efforts; challenging more young leaders to sign on to be spiritual leaders and more established pastors to make space for younger leaders; creating a broader vision for pastoring that includes a renewed vision of the priesthood of all believers; and improving the educational and developmental process to unleash more pastors.

The Church of 2020 needs intergenerational leaders to shepherd God’s people into the future.

Our near-term challenges are real, but they are not the final word. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10).

With our hope secure in the living God, we can meet the challenges together.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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