Is the American church fading away? Will the losses
in membership and attendance lead to a marginalized church presence
such as that in present-day Europe? What will the American church
look like in ten years?
Church leaders, denominational executives, and religion
researchers gathered in Colorado recently to examine the church’s
health and prognosis. The Future of the Church Summit was sponsored
by Group Publishing.
After evaluating current trends, Summit members predicted a
number of likely scenarios for the American church in the next ten
- Emphasis on relationships. Whereas the church and
congregational worship today are largely spectator-oriented, the
new coming trend will prioritize spiritual growth through personal
- Return to Jesus. The current church is preoccupied with
the “ABCs”-attendance, buildings and cash. A Summit pastor said,
“We need to deal with the idols of the church.” The coming church
will highly focus its mission, goals, measurements and message on
- Community focus. The church of tomorrow will be much more
engaged in addressing the needs in the community. The church will
be known more for its members’ relational acts of compassion
outside of church walls, taking ministry out rather than waiting
for outsiders to come in and sit.
- Conversationally oriented. The current church relies
primarily on one-way messaging-from the preacher/teacher at the
microphone. The new church will rely more on person-to-person
conversation, sharing messages of God’s love with one another.
Churches will begin to trade pews for conversation tables.
- Rise of the laity. Shrinking resources will trigger fewer
paid ministry positions-and more reliance on unpaid ministry work.
The concept of “the priesthood of all believers” will
Scott Thumma from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research
shared data showing
waning church attendance, the aging of congregational membership
and the exodus of young people. The churches that are bucking the
downward trends tend to be either small (fewer than 200 members),
or very large (more than 2,000 members).
Thumma also cited that congregations’ financial health has
declined significantly over the past decade. In 2000 31 percent of
congregations exhibited excellent financial health. By 2010 only 14
percent showed excellent financial health.
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Congregations with high spiritual vitality dropped from about 43
percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2010, according to Thumma.
To transition to the future, Thumma suggested congregations take
a number of actions: create a listening team; get rid of the
concept of church committees; learn how to be the church outside of
Neil Howe, author of “Millennials Rising” and
“The Fourth Turning,” told Summit attendees that aging Boomers are
shaping churches in a direction that young adults in the Millennial
generation reject. He said Millennials are looking for environments
that emphasize a sense of authentic community, variety of
experiences, doing good deeds together, and student-centered
learning (not teacher-focused).
Summit participants heard author Reggie
McNeal predict that no one model of ministry
will characterize the church of tomorrow. Rather, several different
models will emerge to connect with the diverse American
And British church leader and consultant
Mike Breen doubted that the American
church would go the way of Europe, where the church has withered.
He indicated that America’s entrepreneurial spirit will provide the
drive and the flexibility for the church to survive and thrive in