While escaping 2020 has been a stated goal for many people, there will still be challenges in front of us as we move into 2021. Churches will be among the organizations to confront clear and present challenges.
Of course, the topic of COVID is unavoidable as congregations move forward to a new year. The devastation the pandemic has wreaked among people and organizations has also been acutely felt by churches and their leaders.
While predicting future trends is never a precise effort, we do see enough data points to suggest these 12 trends are potentially powerful movements that will affect congregations, some for better and some for worse. They are not listed in any particular order.
1. Massive growth of co-vocational ministry. It will be increasingly common for churches to have fewer full-time staff. Some will hold other jobs because churches cannot afford full-time pay and benefits. Some of the staff will choose to be co-vocational so they can have a marketplace ministry. Both of these factors will result in a massive number of staff moving from full-time to co-vocational.
2. Baby boomers will be greater in number than children in the majority of churches. This demographic shift has three causes. First, the birthrate is declining. Second, the boomer generation is large in number, second only to millennials. Third, increasing longevity means boomers will be around for a while. If a church is not considering what senior adult involvement looks like, it’s already behind the curve
3. The micro-church movement begins in about 5,000 North American churches. A new manifestation of the multisite movement will be multi-site campuses with 50 or fewer congregants. The early adopter churches, estimated to be around 5,000, will define this movement and become the models for future micro-churches.
4. Digital church strategies will complement in-person strategies. We’ve seen some leaders advocate a “digital first” strategy while some insist on an “in-person first” approach. As we have followed thousands of churches, we are seeing more strategies where neither approach is a priority over the other. Church leaders are moving toward blending these two important areas in a complementary fashion. We will be looking at this reality in future articles.
5. The number of adopted churches will begin to catch the number of closed churches. This trend is very positive. While we are not seeing a decline in the numbers of churches on the precipice of closing, we are seeing a major trend develop as more of these very sick churches get adopted by healthier churches. This development means more neighborhoods will have a gospel witness.
6. Church fostering will move into the early adoption stage. Church fostering takes place when a healthier church helps a less healthy church for a defined period, usually less than a year. We anticipate 30,000 churches (meaning 15,000 foster churches and 15,000 fostering churches) will enter into this relationship in 2021. Again, this trend portends well for the overall gospel witness of local congregations.
7. Once the pandemic stabilizes and the number of cases decline, churches’ average worship attendance will be down 20 to 30% from pre-pandemic levels. As of today, we are seeing quicker recovery among smaller churches. If this pattern continues, churches over 250 in attendance (before the pandemic) will have the greatest challenge to recover.
8. The new definition of a large church will be 250 and more in average worship attendance. These “new” large churches will be in the top 10% of all churches in North America. Before the pandemic, a church would need an average worship attendance of 400 to be in the top 10%.
9. Denominations will begin their steepest decline in 2021. In terms of membership and average worship attendance, denominations overall will begin a greater rate of decline. This negative trend can be attributed to three factors. First, the churches in the denominations will decline more rapidly. That factor is the single greatest contributor. Second, there will be fewer new churches in the denominations. Third, the combination of church closures and church withdrawals from denominations will be slightly greater than previous years.
10. Giving in churches will decline 20 to 30% from pre-pandemic levels. For the most part, the decline in congregational giving will mirror the decline in attendance in churches.
11. Overall conversion growth in local churches will improve. This indicator is mostly positive. We define conversion growth as the average worship attendance of the church divided by the number of people who became followers of Christ and active in the church in one year. For example, if a church has 20 conversions and an average worship attendance of 200, its conversion rate is 10:1 (200 divided by 10). Lower is better with conversion rates. We say “mostly positive” for this trend, because some of the improvement in the conversion rate is due to lower worship attendance.
12. Nearly nine out of 10 North American congregations will self-define as needing revitalization. Though this trend is troubling, it does indicate at least one silver lining in the cloud. Congregational leaders, particularly pastors, are more open and willing to admit they need help.
We will be following these trends and others closely. Follow us at ChurchAnswers.com as we continue to share this vital information.
This article originally appeared on ChurchAnswers.com and was reposted by Outreach Magazine and is reposted here by permission.
Thom S. Rainer serves as president and CEO of Church Answers and executive director of Revitalize Network. He served for 12 years as dean at Southern Seminary and for 13 years as the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Also a respected researcher and former pastor, he has written more than 25 books, including many best sellers, such as I Am a Church Member. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons, several grandchildren and live in Nashville, Tennessee.