What is the future of the Church?

After a year of so many unexpected and ongoing changes, it’s hard to even think about what the Church will look like in the future. But insight from new research tells us that, while the mission of the Church will not change, the way that mission is carried out will.

In January of this year, Barna asked a nationally representative group of senior and executive pastors if their churches were planning to alter programming or explore new programming options. The answer was a resounding “yes,” with 70 percent making plans for future changes.

Some churches are more likely to make substantial changes than others. The pandemic led to often necessary and immediate adjustments, and church leaders have been forced to become innovators. Many of these leaders are rising to the task. During 2020, pastors who were new to their churches and younger pastors were more likely to have changed their ministry priorities already.

And size of a congregation also played a role in whether or not a church was likely to make adjustments to programming. Large churches (with 250-plus members) were more likely to say they were modifying their plans than smaller congregations (84 percent compared with 64-72 percent of smaller churches).

2026 vision

Even more pastors responded optimistically about what they think their churches will look like over the next five years. Almost three-fourths of those polled said they agreed that they had a clear vision of where their churches will be in the future.

The opportunity for innovation

How do you abandon old strategies and make innovative changes to programming without losing sight of your church’s mission? Leaders at Soul City Church in downtown Chicago have been thinking critically about this question.

When congregations are able to regather in person, churches will have gone through a pandemic that shaped their communities in deep, irreversible ways, says Jeanne Stevens, one of Soul City’s lead pastors. “My hope and my prayer is that church leaders will not stop casting vision for people to find Jesus, but that they let go of some of the old methods that they used to use.”

In a Church Pulse Weekly podcast with Carey Nieuwhof, Stevens, who pastors Soul City with her husband, Jarrett, described reformatting their online services around the needs of the people who were regularly participating. This includes a shorter (30-minute) main service and various options to continue the service.

They realized that regular viewers of their online services had very different needs. Some were experiencing a need for more worship. Some had never attended the church in person and needed to learn the basics. Other core members of their church were longing for deeper teaching on various subjects. Stevens says they chose the shorter services and arranged “add-on” sessions to fight screen fatigue and to meet these needs. They even provide a resource that families can take away from the computer and do together.

Partnering with other organizations

For those in organizations that serve the church, the research uncovered an emerging opportunity. Some pandemic pivots will require partnerships to help churches better serve their congregations in robust and strategic ways.

Churches are more open to partnering to get things done. A segment of 66 percent of church leaders polled said that they would be open to partnerships with parachurch organizations. Younger pastors were more likely to say they would like to partner than older pastors (26 percent agree strongly compared with 18 percent of the entire group).

The strongest churches, Stevens says, will be the ones that recognize that “seven is more than one.” Those who use the resources they have to serve their members and their communities every day – and don’t center everything around Sunday services – will be the ones who thrive. “Churches need to be houses of hope,” she said. “They need to be ministry centers.”

About the Research
This data was collected from January 22-27, 2021 with 421 protestant, senior or executive pastors invited to participate in this research study from Barna’s ChurchPanel. Minimal weighting is used to ensure the data set is nationally representative based on region, church size, and denomination.

Top photo: Nico Smit on Unsplash

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