Five trends will greatly impact U.S. congregations in the next three years and beyond.
None of these is a big surprise. However, it’s important to be aware of these and face them courageously.
Trend 1: Church turnarounds are hard.
A major part of the work of judicatories these days is helping churches stop their decline, turn around and start growing again.
No one expects overnight change, nor are we trying to grow large churches. We simply desire that churches be healthy enough to make an impact in their communities for Christ.
Nonetheless, turning around a church that has been in decline for 10, 20 or more years is difficult. The longer the decline, the harder the turnaround.
Successful church turnarounds are leadership driven. I would hazard a guess that roughly 70 percent of turnaround success depends on the leadership skill of the pastor coupled with a deep devotion to Christ and his mission.
The remaining 30 percent are split between two primary factors: (1) A guiding coalition who supports the pastor in the quest for renewal and change and (2) The ability to overcome controllers or turf owners who resist change for the purpose of mission alignment.
Trend 2: Pastors are aging, and many will be retiring within the next five years.
The average age of pastors in America is at an all-time high. The mounting wave of pastors approaching retirement is growing and will soon crest.
The implications for denominations and churches are staggering. There are fewer younger pastors entering the ministry to take the place of retiring pastors. And those who are answering the call prefer to plant a new church or join the staff of a large church.
Our regional pipeline for recruiting new pastors has shrunk to a slow flow, and we are scrambling to develop new pipelines. One thing is certain: The former days of sending 30 to 45 profiles to a search committee are long gone.
We would be wise to return to the former practice of identifying young adults with gifts for ministry and encourage them to consider vocational ministry (bivocational, too) as a call.
Trend 3: The northwest U.S. is a difficult place to plant churches.
Church planting is hard and frustrating, but we still need to plant churches. Our record at church planting is less than stellar, but this is no surprise.
Two reasons come to mind. First, the northwest is notorious for being hard spiritual soil. Second, church planting is by nature a risky business.
In the future, the more successful church plants will be started out of healthy churches with disciple-making reproduction in their DNA.
Churches that start multi-sites will hive off their sites, and those sites will become new healthy churches.
Experimental forms of church will blossom as more churches embrace approaches rising out of the Fresh Expressions movement.
There will be an increase in church restarts and church mergers in the next 10 years.
The key will be new churches being birthed with healthy DNA led by a coalition of leaders with strong gifting in leadership, evangelism and discipleship.
Trend 4: Transitional pastors will replace interim ministers.
In the past, interim ministers served as placeholders until the congregation called its next settled pastor.
In the future, transitional pastors will guide the church between pastors through an extended period of assessment, adjustment, course correction and renewed vigor in preparation for the church’s next life cycle.
In many cases, the transitional pastor will need to stay longer for necessary changes to be fully embraced.
Churches in transition will need to exercise patience, increase their commitment to corporate prayer, double down on communication and work closely with the transitional pastor until the time is right to call the settled pastor.
Trend 5: An increasing number of churches will learn to be light on their feet.
As traditional churches continue to decline and die, prevailing churches will be those who have thrown caution to the wind by becoming more aggressive in experimentation and learning.
They will press into spiritual renewal and exercise radical faith. They will be marked by joy, laughter, spiritual fervor and visionary leadership.
They will have learned to change in order to not die. They will not be held back by naysayers and traditionalists.
Pouring new wine into new wineskins will be their stock and trade. Coaching churches who want to pick up the pace will be a welcome challenge for judicatories across the U.S.