The 2020s are upon us. While I am not interested in speculation, I believe it is important to assess what Protestant faith communities in the United States will be dealing with in the next decade.
Here are some of the challenges we know are coming:
A stunning number of congregations will close, sell their property and/or radically transform themselves. Some experts on church trends suggest that by 2030 up to one-third of today’s congregations will no longer exist. Currently, most churches’ primary financial and attendance support comes from members older than 75. As this generation passes on, the void that is left will be difficult for many congregations to fill and nearly impossible to overcome.
Most denominational groups in the U.S. are in the midst of a tsunami of retirements of clergy and other key leaders. Boomers born in the 1950s are exiting the congregational and denominational stage in record numbers. As the “bulge in the snake” of those born from 1946 to 1964 departs the leadership scene, the ensuing opportunities and crises will become clearer. By the end of the decade, the last of the Boomers will be retiring (those born in 1964 will turn 66), and the leadership transitions of most denominations, churches and religious institutions will have taken place.
Theological education is in the beginning stages of a massive downsizing and resulting shifts in methodologies. Enrollments in traditional M.Div. degree programs are plummeting, and efforts to stem that by offering two-year M.Div. programs have had only modest success. There simply are fewer and fewer college graduates interested in spending three to four years in a full-time graduate school setting. Online alternatives and a shrinking student population will continue to force traditional institutions to adapt. This will have profound effects upon church staffing models.
As most congregations continue to contract, and as our culture continues its relentless descent into incivility, more and more congregations will be visited by significant conflict. Scapegoating is a common response to loss; as losses mount for a church, there will nearly always be a group that sees clergy leadership as the issue. Sadly, forced terminations will continue to rise, and the resulting loss in momentum and trust will accelerate the demise of many congregations.
Add to this the likelihood that the next decade will bring into focus a litany of knotty issues many churches have tried to avoid: sexual orientation, justifiable war, sexual exploitation, pervasive violence, political polarization, immigration, civil religion and others. Most congregations simply do not have the ability to manage these issues. Our patterns of conflict avoidance and/or our emulation of the toxic political culture have weakened the ability to disagree without demonizing those with whom we disagree. Fragmentation and polarization will continue their ugly impact on churches.
“The new metric for thriving churches will be faithfulness to the gospel mission rather than cultural or corporate metrics that violate gospel tenants.”
So, what are some signs of hope for the coming decade?
Gift of clarity
As their metrics continue to slide, some congregations will accept the invitation to re-examine why they exist, rather than simply assume they have a right to exist. This will return them to the primary call of the church in Acts and to re-engage with their original reason for being. The resulting clarity will energize and invigorate those who have survived the great contraction, and give them a message that resonates with a culture in search of real meaning.
As simple as this sounds, it will be very challenging for traditional churches that have become encrusted with decades of local traditions and 20th-century consumeristic expectations. The adage that “every Sunday is Reformation Sunday” will ring increasingly true.
Realignment with Jesus’ mission
As congregations are faced with their demise, some will recognize that they have inadvertently wandered far from being shaped by the Jesus of scripture. Rediscovering his core message and mission will enable them to differentiate from institutional culture and traditions and refocus themselves around his radical and challenging core message. Realigning and recalibrating every aspect of their corporate life around that message will revitalize these churches.
Growth of diversity
As America’s demographics continue to diversify, so will those churches that survive the next decade. Expanding diversity in every arena – gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, economics, worship style, methodology, missiology, etc. – will probably characterize churches that thrive in the coming decade.
Surge of the new
One trend that will continue is growth in multisite locations and church planting. As facilities become available due to closures, larger churches that are well differentiated and relentlessly focused on a clear mission will continue to step in and expand their growth through multisite methodology. The unfolding culture in American congregational life in this decade will become increasingly hostile to 20th-century expressions of faith but more engaged by church starts that begin as cell groups or church plants focused on community, discipleship and service rather than facilities and staff. Innovation and entrepreneurial thinking will continue to guide these expressions of faith.
With the overwhelming majority of churches in America in decline (including nearly all those started prior to 1980 and with attendance less than 1,000), a new skillset among lay and clergy leaders will emerge. Rather than thinking of turnaround as simply a reversal of numerical decline, the real turnaround for most congregations will be to move from irrelevance to relevance in the lives of their constituents and their communities.
“The next decade will bring into focus a litany of knotty issues many churches have tried to avoid.”
These leadership skills will be birthed and honed in the midst of intense and tense seasons of spiritual discernment within congregations that proactively seek a new way forward. For some, it will be a smaller but more authentic expression of the faith they will come to embrace and celebrate. For others, it will result in substantial growth. The new metric for thriving churches, however, will be faithfulness to the gospel mission rather than cultural or corporate metrics that violate gospel tenants.
The 2020s are here. Churches and church leaders should buckle up; it’s going to be quite a ride.