SUMMARY OF THE NEW CHARACTERISTICS OF CHURCHES THAT WILL BE IN DECLINE FIVE YEARS FROM NOW
Here are 7 new characteristics of churches that will I suggest lead them into decline in the future.
1. The Leaders Bet Everything On A Physical Return To Church
Is physical church coming back? You bet it is. As long as there are people, people are going to want to connect in person. On the other hand, churches that embrace the reality that everyone they want to reach is online, and who invest in their online presence heavily stand a better chance of seeing future growth.
2. Success Is Still Measured By The Number Of People Who Attend Physical Locations
What you measure as a leader influences what you value. If people engage with church differently via digital, home-based or community-based gatherings, the leader who defines success by worship attendance alone in a church building or campus will grow more and more frustrated.
3. Online Ministry Is Seen As An Afterthought Or Lesser Form
It’s just that in the future, declining churches will see it either an afterthought or a lesser form of ministry. You can see online church as an obstacle or an opportunity. Since everyone you want to reach is online, though, that makes it a pretty big opportunity. Again, physical gathering will always plan a role in the future of the church, but wise churches will realize there is much opportunity beyond that.
4. All Feedback Comes From Their Echo Chamber
Wise leaders expose themselves to different voices: voices: outside voices, younger voices, varying opinions and voices beyond their field of discipline. Different opinions lead to better decisions. Leaders of declining churches surround themselves with like-minded voices and influences, convinced they’re right and everyone else is wrong.
5. They Quickly Went Back To 3 Songs And A Message As Their Service Formats
But the COVID disruption and mass move to online has meant most churches quickly discovered that what ‘worked’ in terms of in-person weekend services didn’t translate online, and many pivoted to shorter services, less music and more engaging, interactive formats to engage people.
It’s still uncertain what the future design of church services online or in-person will reveal, but if this crisis is the accelerator and disruptor many think it is, then a return to a format that had stopped resonating deeply before is likely not the best move. The key is to keep faithfully experimenting and exploring what helps people best connect with God.
What’s happened so far in the crisis isn’t innovation, it’s adaptation. Most of the innovation lies ahead.
6. The Church Building, Not The Home Or Community, Was Re-Established As The Sole Locus Of Ministry
One trend developing before our eyes is the home as the new center of life. In the last six months, work, food preparation, entertainment, school, and shopping are now more home-based than ever. And for 6 months, that’s been true of church.
A few churches have already pivoted toward moving from a church with 5 locations to a church with hundreds or thousands of locations—those being peoples’ homes. Wise church leaders will cooperate with this trend rather than compete with it. They’ll get over their building addiction and the ego boost of full rooms and work on reaching people, which is kind of the point anyway.
7. The Leaders Excluded Gen Z From The Inner Leadership Circle
Keeping young leaders around your leadership table is one of the best ways to keep the next generation in your church. Whether you think generational difference are overblown or not, just because you have a 30-year-old on your staff doesn’t mean you’re ready for the next generation.
The average senior pastor is 57 these days. Surrounding yourself with leaders two or three generations below you and giving them actual influence, authority and responsibility is one of the best ways to keep you and your church young.
SUMMARY OF WHEN YOUR CHURCH REOPENS, WHAT WILL BE LEFT AND WHO WILL STILL COME? SOME THOUGHTS.
As churches slowly reopen their physical doors, church leaders are all asking the same question: who will still be around?
And not an easy one to answer. A lot of church leaders are nervous, uncertain and longing to get things back to something certain. With several months of online-only church, it can be hard to know how many new people have come on board, who’s still engaged, who’s left, and who may be drifting. And even as buildings re-open, it’s hard to get a gauge because of social distancing, limited capacity and, in almost all cases, no kids ministry (leaving families for the most part still at home).
But the following results also speak volumes:
- 15% said they would only return when all the conditions are met (low cases, business open, restrictions lifted, vaccine available).
- 10% admitted they just weren’t sure.
Essentially, 25% either aren’t sure or aren’t coming back for a long time. An additional 30% of respondents said they’d rather worship at home and only return when they can be mask-free at church.
1. BECOME A LOT MORE AGILE: NORMAL ISN’T COMING BACK ANY TIME SOON
Church leaders who are waiting for things to get back to normal will be waiting a long time. Instead, pivot into a new normal. To do that, you’ll have to become far more agile in the future than you have been in the past. In a culture of constant change and uncertainty, agility is ability, and flexibility is a superpower. The bottom line is this: the more agile you are heading into the future, the better you’ll be able to realize (and even advance) your mission.
2. REMEMBER THAT YOU’VE ALREADY REACHED NEW PEOPLE
The last few months haven’t been all loss. In fact, for many churches, that’s hardly the case. You’ve likely reached new people online, including many you haven’t yet met. The challenge with ministry online is a little like the challenge with new people who attend your church. It can be hard to get to know them.
The key is to move toward engagement, encouraging online attenders to:
- Fill out an online welcome card or text their info in
- Like, comment or follow so you can connect more personally
- Take a step into an orientation group, small group or some kind of movement beyond attending service
- Join your email list
Engagement is a sign of openness and a desire to connect. Just because you can’t see an online attender doesn’t mean they aren’t real. So don’t give up on the progress you’ve made.
3. REALIZE SOME ONLINE ATTENDERS WILL STAY ONLINE FOR A LONG TIME (AND THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH COVID)
As we’ve already seen, even as your buildings reopen, not everyone will rush into church. Some of that is COVID related, but it’s actually much deeper than that. For years now, the trend has been for new people to watch online for weeks, months or even a year before they venture into a church’s physical building. That trend will not only continue, it will accelerate. Digital is the new default for our culture, and the current crisis only accelerated that.
4. RESIST THE URGE TO MAKE ONLINE ATTENDERS OR NON-ATTENDERS SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS
This is a very critical moment for the church moving forward. Church leaders who embrace infrequent attenders, online attenders and non-attenders will eventually have more attenders.
5. BE LESS CONTROLLING: BEING CONTROLLING AND BEING EFFECTIVE ARE USUALLY MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
Every leader is struggling with a loss of control. I am.
The truth is you can’t control:
- The economy
- Whether people return to church
- When people return to church
- Your numbers
- Human behaviour
- The future
And that’s massively frightening for a lot of leaders. You had a system that worked…and now, it’s gone. But that’s okay. God is still in control. You aren’t. You never were.
Here’s a principle I’m reminding myself of these days: Being highly controlling and highly effective are mutually exclusive. In your desire to control things and get back to ‘normal,’ are you squeezing out new things God may want to do in you and through you?
SUMMARY OF IN-PERSON ATTENDANCE V. ONLINE ATTENDANCE AND THE EMERGING TRAP OF DOING NOTHING WELL
As you know, these are some of the most complex times in church leadership in decades. As churches reopen their in-person gatherings, there’s one particular trap to watch out for. The early indications are that in-person church attendance is lower than anyone expected. Most leaders I connect with who have reopened public worship say they are seeing between 10-40% of their former in-person attendance.
Which leads into very real trap that’s emerging for church leaders. Most churches are now doing both in-person and online services as they reopen. The trap: what if you end up doing neither well?
1. COVID PROBABLY ACCELERATED TRENDS THAT HAVE BEEN HAPPENING FOR DECADES
First, declining church attendance has been intensifying for decades. Second, even Christians who attend church are attending less often. So what does that mean? Maybe the low numbers of in-person worship attendance isn’t just COVID related. Perhaps it’s an acceleration of the non-attendance trends the church has seen for decades.
2. YOU’RE CURRENTLY STAFFED FOR WHERE YOU’RE SEEING LOW RETURNS
If it’s actually the case that in-person attendance numbers will continue to be lower even after COVID is completely a non-issue (which could be months or years from now), then that creates a challenge. Namely, that many churches have the highest level of staff and budgets invested where they’re seeing the lowest returns.
In the same way almost every CEO is rethinking how much office space they really need in light of how well their teams are working from home, church leaders may want to rethink why they’re spending the vast majority of their time, budget and human resources at in-person services that very few people attend. If your mission is to fill buildings, then keep going with your current strategy. But if your mission is to reach people, it might be time to rethink things.
3. YOU’RE DEEPLY UNDERSTAFFED FOR WHERE YOU’RE SEEING THE HIGHEST REACH
Again, I think in-person worship is here to stay. I think it’s necessary both theologically and practically. And yes, your physical gatherings may still grow once all the dust settles. All that being true, in-person services will still likely be your smaller footprint moving forward.
So…why invest the vast majority of your time, energy and money into the platform that has the lowest return and the lowest potential? You can invest for the past or invest for the future, but personally, I’d be investing for the future.
SUMMARY OF AVOID THIS BIG MISTAKE: STEPPING BACK INTO THE PAST WHEN YOU STEP BACK INTO YOUR BUILDING
Here’s the biggest mistake many church leaders will make: they’ll step right back into the past the moment they step back in their building. But the biggest mistake most leaders will make is the emotional rush to get back into a facility, to see everyone again, to assemble their teams and get back to ‘normal’, they’ll re-embrace a model of ministry designed to reach a world that no longer exists.
Irrelevance is the gap between how quickly things change and how quickly you change.
And even as the world slowly reopens, you’re not re-opening to normal, but to a new normal.
Here are 5 things that you’ll miss if you step back into the past when you step back into your building:
1. YOUR INNOVATION CURVE WILL COME TO AN ABRUPT STOP
The coronavirus disruption forced you to change. I realize that kind of change and the damage the virus has caused has been deeply painful. It has been for every leader in 100 different ways. But the crisis has shown us that while some churches struggled deeply, others started thriving. In fact, the disruption has shown us three basic of leadership approaches: frozen leaders, hesitant leaders, and agile leaders.
Crisis is also the cradle for innovation. Most leaders pivoted. Most set up online services, got a Zoom account, figured out how to live stream on YouTube, started shooting more personal videos and got way more active online.
But walking back into your building can kill your innovation curve if you let it. It will feel great to see some people again (even if people have to wear masks and sit six feet apart), and to get back on the familiar platform, and see the team, and connect. And before you know it, you’ll stop innovating.
Change is hard. I’m tired too. But don’t waste this season. Don’t waste the progress you’ve made. Don’t let a sudden lack of creativity around methods limit your mission. Crisis is a cradle for innovation. And the future belongs to the innovators.
2. YOU’LL STOP PIVOTING
Closely related to innovation is pivoting. Almost everyone pivoted since the crisis, and those who didn’t have already disappeared or are on their way out. But pivoting is probably here to stay for a while (see point 4). If you study the history of change and progress, you quickly realize the future almost always belongs to agile leaders who adapt and change.
The moment you walk back into the past and into comfort, you lose all that. So if that’s all the growing you want to do for a while, stop pivoting.
3. YOU’LL SEE ONLINE AS AN ADD-ON, NOT THE FUTURE
As you settle into old patterns, all your energy will go back into in-person ministry.And don’t get me wrong, a lot of energy, passion, prayer and effort belong in in-person ministry. The gathered church is here to stay.
Eventually you’ll look up and realize you haven’t posted much to Instagram or Facebook recently, and that your teams is so busy they haven’t really followed up on comments online or checked out who’s new. Online church will become an add-on again, something you tag onto the most tech-savvy person’s job description hoping he or she will get to if they have the time (which they seldom do). And you’ll completely miss the future.
And in the same way remote work will become the new normal for many people in the wider economy, online church might become a default option for many people. Hating that doesn’t make it go away. Leaders, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Everyone you want to reach is online. It’s time for the church to finally act like it. If you see online as an add on, not the future, you’ll miss most of the very people you’re trying to reach.
So what should you do?
Move more actual staff/volunteer effort into your online ministry when you move back into your building, not less.
4. YOU’LL GET CRUSHED BY UNPREDICTABILITY
By almost every account, the world we’re stepping into is a new world. A new normal. And a highly unpredictable one at that. Shopping and restaurants won’t be the same again. Work won’t be. Neither will international travel. It’s not that they’re not coming back, it just won’t be the same, for perhaps a long while. Or ever.
That kind of unpredictability will crush those looking for stability. But if you keep your agility and are willing and able to pivot, you can thrive.