Seven Trends Impacting the Church
The future is now
It’s difficult to predict the future. But we can see trends if we know where to look. In my position and through my work, I have the benefit of a national vantage point.
As I travel throughout the country meeting ministers in various contexts, I’ve come to see several trends that have major implications for ministry.
These trends aren’t just the result of empirical data or scholarly research. Much of this information comes from my own observations and conversations with pastors. These are the recurring themes I’m seeing in the Church.
I want to share some insights on where I believe we are heading. I have great reason to be optimistic about the Church. But I am also realistic about what is happening around us. If we want to be ready to meet challenges head-on, we must be willing to make some changes.
Change for the sake of change is never advisable. But as we track trends, we should be flexible and ready to adapt. We never compromise the centrality of our gospel message, but we are always on the lookout for ways to preach it to more people.
Being aware of shifting trends better prepares us to meet the needs of a broken world. Here are seven trends that I think all pastors, preachers and church leaders should track:
1. The Parent Church Model
In the past, the prevailing model for starting new churches was a parachute church plant: A pastor moves into a community he or she has never lived in before and tries to carve out a ministry. Today, there’s a trend toward parenting new churches instead of pioneering alone.
Ed Stetzer wrote in Planting New Churches in a Post-modern Age, “The best church planting occurs when a sponsor/mother church is actively involved in the planting of new churches.”
In the last few years, 60 percent of all new Assemblies of God churches were parent affiliated churches. I believe the reasons for that are varied, but one of the most important is that it provides a safety net for new ministers seeking to start their own work.
Many existing churches realize their legacy is in raising up leaders rather than building something for themselves. That has meant a shift to a parenting model — not only in planting churches but also in how they lead their own staff members. Churches are finding that raising up sons and daughters is more effective than hiring employees or sending out followers.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen an increase in staff positions that focus solely on sending instead of retaining.
That means leaders consider several of the positions on a church team transitional. The expectation is that the individuals filling these roles will someday leave for either a parent-affiliated launch or a new work elsewhere, whatever that looks like.
To make this happen, pastors are adopting a new mind-set of viewing themselves as spiritual fathers or mothers. Instead of training and leading, they are nurturing and mentoring. This depth of relationship happens not just in the church building during staff meetings but also in the field as they work together, as well as in their downtime as they experience life together. To maximize their impact, pastors are finding personal ways to invest.
The parent church model presents an opportunity for every church, no matter its size or location, to be involved in church multiplication through a parenting-type relationship. It also offers church planters a lifeline to a healthy church by becoming a parent affiliated church. (For more information on the Parent Affiliated Church Model, visit churchmultiplication.net.)
2. Evolving Consumer Patterns
Today’s marketplace is not what it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. This relates not just to what people are buying but how they’re buying. What types of products are young people investing their hard-earned money in, how often are they making purchases, and how are they shopping? At one time, consumers rarely made purchases online. Today, most people prefer it. And much of that shopping happens on mobile devices.
Declining brand loyalty reflects another changing attitude. Your dad may have always driven a Ford. Or maybe you’ve stayed true to your Dell computer over the years. But the trend among young people today is that the performance of a product is more important than its label.
Millennials have a limited amount of buying potential, so they prioritize the quality of a product over any past positive experiences with a brand. There is a whole new group of people who buy groceries online rather than in stores, switch cellular carriers every year, and would rather eat local than patronize big-chain restaurants.
These trends are making their way into the church as well. People now want multiple ways to give, such as in person, online through a mobile app or with an automatic debit. They’re more interested in the quality of discipleship material than who produces it. They want a higher return on their investment than they’ve often received from the church in the past.
They want to feel that their dollars are being well spent. They’re also looking for the underlying storyline. That’s why they are willing to spend a bit more for single-origin coffee beans or handmade wares from overseas if they know there’s a good cause behind it.
The evolving patterns and habits of 21st-century consumers challenge ministry leaders to consider both quality and story as they design ministry to reach the emerging generations.
3. Dave Ramsey Effect
The church’s attitude toward debt has gone through a monumental shift over the last decade or so. That’s a result of what I call the Dave Ramsey Effect. Church members are learning to save more, spend less and get out of debt. And many pastors have led the charge on that.
The results of this trend are showing up in several ways. Over the last few years, the number of churches applying for Matching Funds (a form of funding that involves the planter raising money to be matched by the sending organization) in the Assemblies of God has not grown at the same rate as the number of churches planted.
As well, fewer young people are applying for seminary. Why is that? Part of the reason is that those things often involve debt. A debt-averse culture has led to less investment in education, partnerships and building projects.
This more cautious view of debt has created a generation of young people who are more cost conscious and money minded. Creating and keeping to a personal budget is more than just good advice; it’s how you sustain yourself and your family over the long haul. This has been critical in helping young ministers get a handle on their finances, so they can serve better wherever they are.
But it has also created a fear around debt that may lead to unintended consequences. Fewer young people are entering Christian colleges and seminaries for fear of racking up large student debt. This has led to a gap in highly trained young leaders in the Church.
The Church’s vision should remain on training leaders and multiplying ministry impact and effectiveness. How we do that in a debt-conscious culture is a challenge we all must face.
4. Changing Cities and Suburbs
More than a century ago, there was a push toward manufacturing that resulted in populations migrating from the farms to the cities. Then, just after World War II, many people left the cities for the suburbs. What we’re seeing now is a new migration — especially among millennials — back into urban areas. Young professionals and immigrants are flooding into cities.
Cross-cultural ministry is no longer an option for our churches but a coming certainty.
Author Tim Keller, who founded a church in New York City, writes, “I believe that immigration and broader cultural factors still make cities highly desirable destinations for the most ambitious and innovative people.”
That makes cities a hotbed for cultural diversity. It also makes them ground zero for a gospel-centered movement.
Cities are undergoing gentrification, or the renewal of urban areas in favor of more high-end housing and commercial space. This has both positive and negative effects on the communities. Higher demands are leading to more housing options, but the costs are also skyrocketing. Because of those increasing costs, some urban dwellers are relocating to the suburbs, taking their diverse world-views with them.
The changing landscape means shifting political and religious points of view. The cultural traditions of large metropolitan areas may become the norm in suburbs and bedroom communities.
According to Keller, the metropolitan areas have several things in common, especially in regard to the Church. One is open hostility to religion in general and Christianity in particular. Another trait is economic inequality. People are lonelier and more detached, but they are also more divided. All of this represents unique challenges and opportunities for the Church.
Keller sees these shifting trends as a good thing: “Not only can we be confident of a good future for American cities, but also of good opportunity for urban ministry.”
The Church then has the opportunity to become a unifying force in America’s communities, bridging the divide across multiple fronts, much as Jesus did with the woman at the well (John 4).
5. Apologetics as a Critical Ministry Skill
The internet has made the world a lot smaller and brought more information to our fingertips. With this comes some unintended consequences. Today, anyone can log on to YouTube and watch videos from scholars, skeptics and critics. That means the people we are trying to reach are more informed about major objections to Christianity and arguments in favor of atheism.
In the meantime, few Christians are sharing their faith. In 2013, Barna Group reported that while most born-again Christians polled said they had a personal responsibility to evangelize, only about half of all respondents had shared the gospel with an unbeliever in the previous year. Why is that? I believe many Christians are afraid someone will ask a question they can’t answer. What if the conversation leads to an argument about evolution? What if those unsaved friends bring up a topic they’ve never even thought about?
Apologetics is one tool every church minister must add to his or her toolbox, even more so than marketing or leadership. This doesn’t require every pastor to have a doctorate in philosophy. But it does require us to recognize a new era of sharing our faith in a different way.
According to LifeWay Research, only 45 percent of adult churchgoers in the U.S. read their Bible more than once a week — and 1 in 5 never read the Scriptures outside of church. That’s a disappointing trend, but we can help correct it through intentional discipleship. Our church members may not feel prepared to answer tough questions from their unsaved friends. But when our people have a strong base of biblical knowledge, they’ll be more willing to engage on those issues.
Building a bridge is the first step in any effective evangelism effort. Those seeking answers to difficult questions are also searching for social capital. Skeptics and cynics are people just like you and me. They’re wondering whether they fit in the church and where. They want to know whether there is room for their point of view and their doubts. Strong biblical literacy among believers, combined with relentless love, may be the key.
6. The Over-Politicization of Everything
It’s trendy to be political these days. It seems everyone has an opinion and is more than willing to share it. No matter what you say, someone feels the need to vocalize a contrary viewpoint. It’s also clear that we’re more sensitive than ever, ready to express offense at every turn.
I believe this is the result of the over-politicization of America. Politics pervade every area of our lives. What you eat, what kind of car you drive and even what type of sporting event you attend can have political implications, whether you know it or not.
Controversy is not new for the Church. In the first century, Jesus told His followers that some leaders would face persecution for the stand they took (Matthew 5:11-12). He said His ministry would cause divisions in communities, friendships and even families (Luke 12:51-53).
Of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about peripheral political issues. Christianity’s cause is the gospel, not a political party’s platform.
As pastors and church leaders, we must be ready to face the political climate of our day. Taking a stand on certain issues may alienate some members of our audience. But bending to the opinions of everyone in our pews is not the answer. Those who are looking for an answer to society’s ills are searching for something they can find only in the truths of Scripture and the power of the Cross.
7. Diversity Awareness
American culture is more diverse than ever. Though it’s most apparent in large cities, it’s true in many nonurban communities as well. Cross-cultural ministry is no longer an option for our churches but a coming certainty.
For many young people, diversity is the default position. From their online communities to their university classrooms, they live in a global environment. While older people may notice the presence of different individuals in any setting, younger people notice the absence of differences.
Race, as a topic, makes most people feel extraordinarily uncomfortable. People have different experiences in life. And while some of us may not realize it, race plays a big role in that. Even today, people of color face stereotypes, biases and unfair treatment. Whether we admit it or not, there’s a problem.
As our country grows increasingly diverse, we must face this issue unflinchingly. Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, is challenging people to be color brave instead of color blind. In a recent TED Talk, she describes societal colorblindness as “a learned behavior where we pretend that we don’t notice race.”
Being color blind, Hobson says, does not guarantee fairness or an end to prejudice. In fact, it may actually increase it. As she puts it, “In my view, color blindness is very dangerous because it means we’re ignoring the problem.” Instead, she says we must become “color brave,” being open and honest about our differences rather than shying away from the difficult or uncomfortable conversations.
As our neighborhoods, cities and country become more diverse, people will be looking for ways to fit in. They may be searching for churches where they see familiar-looking faces and hear familiar-sounding songs and sermon styles. But in case they don’t find them, they’ll be looking for congregations who are bold enough to recognize the diversity in their midst and embrace it.
It’s difficult to say how many of these trends will truly impact the Church, or how deeply we will feel the impacts. Our role as leaders is simply to remain culturally aware and mindful of the winds of change as we develop ministries to reach more people for Christ.
We can’t respond to every whim and change in society, but we can be cognizant of what’s happening. Are you ready to make the necessary changes to be effective for years to come? It won’t be easy, but I believe it will be rewarding.
The best way to respond to any trend in the world is by focusing on what the Spirit is saying. He is the One who guides us into all truth (John 16:13), and God’s truth is never a trend. While we walk in Him, He will lead us to make the necessary changes to share that truth with more and more people.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 edition of Influence magazine.