7 Crucial Game-Changers for Churches in the Next Decade
Why You Need to Adapt What You're Currently Doing for a New Context
by Daniel D. Maurer, RCL Worship Resources
Changes? Well . . . Duh.
Simply google "new church trends" and you'll get well over 170 million results. Congregational leaders get that the church needs to change, as author John O'Keefe's so plainly attests in this scathing review.
How that change is implemented and what changes need addressing of course requires that we look deeper into the issue.
Christianity has always been a religion that exists both in stark tension with its culture, but also in a process of adapting and translating the message to meet the needs of those who seek a new relationship with God. At the center of this message stands a unique philosophy: proclaiming Christ crucified. No other religion centers its adoration around defeat, death, and loss in such a shameless way. I don't at all mean to denigrate it either—part of relevance in following Jesus vs. any-other-old way is that the reality of eventual loss and defeat of us all (no one's getting out alive!) confronts that harsh truth, head on. Nor do I wish to somehow downgrade the victory of the resurrection.
The point is that Christians living in any era have always needed to translate the message, whether it's for a new culture or a new generation.
The tension between secular culture and the church waxes and wanes through history. Now, that tension seems to be at a breaking point. The world is just changing so quickly. Just go online in any liturgical or evangelism discussion forum—you'll see leaders can't seem to agree on anything!
Still, are there trends congregational leaders and pastors should pay attention to? What game-changing societal shifts will affect the effectiveness of your outreach? Most importantly, how can people best express the millenia-old Good News for a new generation?
Read on for the seven big shifts that leaders simply cannot ignore!
1. The Eighth Day Is No Longer Sunday and the Church Is No Longer A Building
The local church matters. Whether you're reading this as a layperson or a rostered leader, know that I believe you matter too. But unless the church starts seeing the major shift that's happened in the past fifty years in how modern human beings perceive time and place, we're all in for more decline in participation, at least in the way we define "active membership."
First, a quick primer how people have calculated the week and perceived time throughout history . . .
We can thank the ancient Babylonians, most likely, for the seven-day week. In all likelihood, Judaism borrowed this practice from them. Not every culture used a seven-day week, by the way—the Romans used the “nundinal cycle,” a system they inherited from the Etruscans and one that 8 days instead of 7, all the way up to the first century BCE.
By the time Christians came around, many early communities decided to worship on Sunday, rather than Saturday, which was the traditional Jewish sabbath day.
Did you ever wonder why most Christians today call Sunday the Sabbath? (Excepting Seventh Day Adventists, of course.)
It was because, at first, early Jewish Christians not only worshiped in the synagogue on Saturday, but they also met on Sunday, the day Jesus was raised.
It's also why the number "8" has significance—early Christians believed they were living an "eighth-day, resurrection existence" and one that went beyond normal, or chronos, time and into eternal, or kairos, time.
Especially since the advent of the internet, people find real, substantive community online. Virtually everyone (hi, Mom) live both a digital life and an analog one.
And it's nonsense to say that one is superior over the other one. They're simply different.
I've personally witnessed how an online Twitter recovery community has flourished and offered people suffering from addiction a new resource they previously didn't have. This is especially important for people living in rural areas who might not otherwise find a support group.
A healthy spiritual community in the next decade will take shrewd leaders who know a paradox exists, and choose to walk a fine line balancing the two extremes.
Another association I've participated in as a writer is an online world-building group for fiction.
There are groups for gardeners, prairie-resoration forums, muscle-car enthusiasts, virtual-spirituality meetings, or scheduled parenting chats. Just about anything you can dream up is online—both good, and unfortunately bad.
The point I'm making is that the perception of time and place have significantly shifted in the past thirty years.
Why, then, are most churches stating the following?
"Worship is on Sunday at 9AM and Sunday School is at 10:15." (With the implication that this is the way a person develops an authentic relationship with God and God's people.)
I think this goes beyond a simple acknowledgement of the change, too. You gotta make changes that reflect the world in which we live to begin to translate the Good News into a language people understand.
If we stick to the Sunday-at-our-building formula, we're only going to see further decline in participation.
Get out of the box! Meet in many places, and at weird times. Let the kairos seep into the chronos and see what happens.
2. Proclamation & Teaching Need to Go Hand-in-Hand
This one's a tough one for me personally. As a non-fiction writer and a former pastor, I naturally gravitate toward the intellectual side of things. When I still served in a parish, I sometimes got bogged down looking at history and word studies in the pulpit too much.
What can I say? I'm a geek.
But teaching without moving the heart turns very quickly into dry intellectualism. The latest neuroscience tells us that human beings actually tend to make decisions more on an emotional level than we're even aware of. (Which, when you think about it, is sort of ironic that I'm sharing this information in a logical, rational way!)
In the same stroke, preaching without substantive teaching can swiftly stray into emotionalism. You only need to look at the result of the last US Presidential election to confirm this.
Teaching without moving the heart turns very quickly into dry intellectualism. Preaching without without substantive teaching can swiftly stray into emotionalism. (Tweet this. Share this on Facebook.)
For many mainstream, progressive denominations, leaders more often fall on the side of rationalism. It's high time we start moving people's hearts!
After all, just look at the parables of Jesus—did Jesus cite recent studies or lay out the facts to convince people? Or did he share strange, disturbing-but-surprising stories that have managed to stay firmly embedded across multiple cultures throughout centuries?
I believe you know the answer. Now it's your turn to strike the right balance.
In the next decade a balanced approach to proclamation will become more and more important in a world where the confusion of what's fake and what's real becomes increasingly blurred.
3. An Increased Need for Face-to-Face, Offscreen Experiences & Relationships
Wait. What? Didn't you just say up in item #1 that online communities are valuable and irreplaceable?
Yes. I did.
I'm also saying now that real, face-to-face relationships in the coming decade will become even more valuable and precious than they have been in the past fifty years.
People still want social support that's "real."
In fact, face-to-face social support is a strong predictor of mental health. Perceived emotional support has been shown to protect against stressful life events linked to depression, while social isolation has been associated with the risk of depression in later life.
Children and adolescents who spend an increasingly inequitable time devoted to screens experience reduced brain development, social skills, and develop other risky behaviors when compared to their peers who spend less plugged-in time.
What's more, people need face-to-face relationships to expose them to people who think differently than them.
In an online world dominated by echo chambers, we need to move outside of the comfort zone and hear other voices. Diversity is a good thing—especially when spirituality is concerned. The "gathering of the like-minded" has always especially plagued the church in first-world countries. Unfortunately, the media and online activities have only exacerbated this issue.
It's surprisingly, really. People thought the internet would become the great equalizer where all voices held value. Instead, in many ways it's driven many further into their own shells.
Once again, creating a healthy spiritual community in the next decade will take shrewd leaders who know a paradox exists, and choose to walk a fine line balancing the two extremes.
4. Self-Directed Spirituality
Be honest now, parents . . . think of the last time your kid got sick. Did you type her symptoms into a search engine before you decided to go to a clinic?
In the next decade, people will use this same approach when they look at spirituality. And it will not just be online, either.
Amazon currently has about 28.5 million titles of books (in English) for sale. Of those, over 90,000 specifically deal with religion, spirituality, psychology or self-help.
Naturally, some people aren't readers. That doesn't mean they aren't looking for other ways to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
The next decade will see an increase in people finding their own way, spiritually-speaking.
And again, an opportunity springs open for faith communities, but only if you, as a leader, choose to take it.
One example is this pastor's podcast he began because he saw the need for people to share their stories. He said, "Pastors aren't listening as much as they should. I first started the podcast because I wanted to listen to other people and thought it would help me minister better. What I soon found is that a whole load of people started to listen to the podcast and it's just taken off in ways I never expected."
[Full disclosure, RCL Worship Resources sponsors the Ordinary People podcast.]
The more ways you, as a spiritual leader, can find to interact with people and address the questions they continue to have for themselves, the more you will find common ground to encourage not just self-directed spirituality, but also a spirituality for the community of believers.
5. Buh Bye, Guilt
"Oh, I'm a good [Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, Etc, Etc]; I'd feel so guilty if I didn't go to service." You're not likely to hear someone say this today, and you'll be even less likely to hear it in the coming decade.
Maybe that's a good thing. Jesus, after all, did not use guilt to motivate people to change. He simply stated the truth and people reacted. Eventually, enough people disliked what he said enough to execute him.
But whether we think guilt's demise is good or bad is ultimately moot. It's going, and it may be gone already.
While some may bemoan the loss of a moral guideline, I do not . . . at least in the way that I believe they perceive it. People, as well as whole societies still hold values and engender morality—these aren't going away any time soon. I believe what some see as a loss of values is simply a shift of those values away from guilt- or shame-based foundations.
I want to be clear that I'm not talking about all guilt. I still acutely perceive guilt when, say, like last week when I neglected to vacuum our house before guests came to our house (and my wife reminds me of it, frequently).
I'm talking about guilt and its connection to church participation. For that, we need to move on to the next point, a biggie.
6. It's About Engagement, Stupid
I'm really not trying to insult you. Really, I'm not. (The "stupid" comment really is for me, because I so often forget this point.)
However, if I had to point my finger at just one cultural shift that the church needs to develop as a trend for itself, it would be this.
If churches and larger denominational bodies continue to measure success or failure on the basis of attendance versus real, significant spiritual relationships through meaningful relationships, then we'd all be better giving up now, because the numbers don't lie—we're going down in flames.
If we instead look to the quality of engagement we actively participate in others' lives, then perhaps the story is more optimistic.
A robust ministry engages people where they are at. Again—and I feel like a stuck record saying it over and over—followers of Jesus must continually translate the message so that it's even comprehensible for another generation.
Yes, there's tradition. Tradition and the rich heritage of liturgy can remain without clouding the reason why we're doing them together in the first place—engagement in people's lives and offering meaning and purpose through service.
The most engaged people—people who serve, give, invite and who are in a community group—are the people for whom their faith actually means something beyond simply "going to heaven" or trying not to feel guilty, which I mentioned above is dead in the water, anyway.
In the next decade, the most engaged churches will continue to thrive and serve as an outlet for people to create community.
7. The Continued Importance of Meaning & Purpose
One of my seminary professors once told my class that of all the different theories of atonement that exist in the historical record, the one most people today will cite, no matter what tradition they most affiliate with goes something like this:
"Jesus died for my sins."
Strangely, this so-called substitutionary atonement is the least likely to sway the unchurched of today!
"Well," some might comment, "that's because they don't realize how much they need it."
I beg to differ.
People today are profoundly aware of the disconnects they experience in life . . .
- they're lonely
- they want connection
- they fear of death or of non-existence
- they sense deep despair over violence
- they recognize how racism should just. be. gone. But it's not...
- they know that biological diversity and human-induced climate change are real
- they want to leave a better world for their children
I can go on. The point I'm making is that our theology matters only insofar as it speaks to address a cultural concern.
And saying that Jesus died for our sins—no matter the truth and substance behind the claim—just ain't gonna cut it.
A robust ministry engages people where they are at. Followers of Jesus today must continually translate the message of the Good News, so that it's even comprehensible for another generation.
Over the next decade, faith communities who seek to communicate and engender different, historically-verifiable and viably-and-contextually relevant theories of atonement will thrive.
The most promising one, I believe, is that Jesus gives purpose and meaning to our existence, where once lack of purpose reigned.
- Love is valued for its own sake.
- Life may ultimately be meaningless, but still, today I plant a tree.
- To serve others is to find yourself.
Those three statements are actually rephrasings of Jesus' own words.
Now, go find your community's purpose and give the gift of meaning to both old and new generations.
The next decade may prove to be far more challenging than any of us realize. But with the challenges will bring a new glory for the Infinite One, that we might serve in new and wondrous ways.
About the Author
Daniel D. Maurer is a multi-published author, a writer, editor and curator of creative content for RCL Worship Resources by Clergy Stuff. A former ELCA (progressive Lutheran) minister in western North Dakota, he now lives with his family in St. Paul, Minnesota.