Here’s what the local church will look like in 20 years

Here’s what the local church will look like in 20 years

Some years ago a convention of fortune tellers gathered in Dublin, Ireland. While the group was meeting in a large plenary session, thieves broke into a number of rooms and displays, stealing crystal balls, tarot cards, and other divination equipment.

When the police came to investigate, they asked the witches, warlocks and fortune-tellers, “Why didn’t you protect your stuff from the thieves? Didn’t you know that they were going to break in? Can’t you tell the future?!”

Telling the future is rather difficult, isn’t it?

Even the divinely inspired prophets of Old Testament Israel used more words to describe the present and warn about current sins than they did to predict of things beyond the horizon.

Still, thinking about the future, particularly in the context of Christianity, is a necessary part of leadership, for at least two reasons:

  • Jesus gave us clear indications about the future: his return, the resurrection of our bodies, judgment day, and the coming new world of perfection.
  • Leaders need to inspire a shared vision for a ministry’s preferred future.

But these are only broad outlines of future orientation, not specifics. How do we gain greater forward traction?

Knowing the past and understanding the trajectory of motion are hugely important starting points. With that in mind, here are my predictions. In 20 years, the typical local church will

  • Have 45% of its membership gather for worship on Sunday mornings
  • Seek authenticity in worship leaders, but put up with a lot of mediocre music and trite preaching
  • Experience continued difficulty finding leaders for congregational oversight and specific ministry initiatives
  • Be slowly paying down a 30-year mortgage on a building that no longer seems ministry-friendly
  • Feel increasingly isolated from its immediate neighborhood and the current culture
  • Find its membership numbers plateaued or declining

Pretty bleak, right? Don’t you hope that I’m not a good prophet?

Unfortunately, the statistics and trajectory of church life don’t bode well. This is not the whole story, of course. Congregations that actively evangelize, continually seek to plant new churches, and focus on transformational ministry have a much different likely prognosis.

The future is not found in technology or building size (notice that 10% of enclosed shopping malls are torn down or repurposed every year!). Ministry always involves personal interaction, caring communities, and stories of transformation. We do not worship Christ because we have found the perfect church or fantastic ministry center facility; we worship Christ because the people around us and important to us have experienced changed lives through the call of the gospel. We worship Christ because we cannot make sense out of our futures or instill true meaning in our lives by our own initiatives. We worship Christ because the Body brings us into a significance that transcends the rest of what we do, and provides purpose that infuses purpose in our daily activities.

One more thing. The best of church life has always been found in small groups of Christians who pray together and serve together. The history of church life is not played out in cathedrals or institutional organizations. It is marked by renewal and service and mission groups like the Desert Fathers (3rd century), the early monastics (4th-5th century), the Arnoldists (12th century), the Waldenses (12th century), the Franciscans (13th century), the Lollards (14th century), the Brethren of Common Life (14th century), the Hussites (15th century), the early Jesuits (16th century), the Oratory of Divine Love (16th century), the Reformers of the Low Countries (17th century), the Amish (17th century), the Moravians (18th century), the Methodists (18th century), the Swiss Reveil (19th century), the Welsh Revival (20th century), and many others.

If you would like your congregation to have a good future, you might want to start by forming a prayer group that studies the revivals of the past, serves others in your neighborhood, learns to speak easily about faith, invites friends to your group meetings, and nurtures the expression of spiritual gifts among your group members as they interact with co-workers.

You won’t even think about what your church will be like in 20 years.

It will simply happen.