To hear many Christian leaders talk, 2020 changed everything. But for many of us, 2020 only revealed what we already knew about Christian ministry in the first half of the twenty-first century. Given what we see now and some trends that have been developing for quite some time now, I’d like to offer my theories on what I anticipate in the next 30 years.
1. In the US, huge and tiny churches struggle; mid-sized churches thrive.
The churches that I see that have been hit hardest by COVID are on the top and bottom tiers. Vast megachurches with huge staffs have been reeling with the need to maintain salaries and address the safety concerns for massive gatherings in the 1,000+ range of attendees. On the other hand, the dwindling churches that have been barely keeping the lights on for a decade have found their aging congregations significantly (in terms of percentage) impacted by COVID, even if numerically the impact has been minimal.
I anticipate that this paring of the large and small will continue in the years to come. In US culture, the church is seen as a parasite on the community, taking valuable land, maintaining special tax breaks, and giving back little in return. And there are plenty of egregious examples of this kind of parasitic behavior in every state in the Union. Further, the church is seen as immoral because it is seen as holding harmful views on matters of sexuality and gender. For both of these reasons, the US church will lose its tax-exempt status and other exemptions. This is an inevitability.
When this happens, the hardest-hit churches will be the large and small. The large churches will be saddled with crippling, multi-million-dollar tax bills on their sprawling campuses. Their pastoral salaries which have been able to include huge untaxed housing allowances for expensive homes will be no more. On the other hand, the tiny churches with a dozen attendees will similarly find themselves unable to pay their modest property taxes or to offset their grossly underpaid pastor with a small housing allowance or parsonage.
Mid-sized churches that have adopted lean business strategies and have a strong missional footing will be able to adapt and thrive over the next 30 years. We’ve seen this dynamic play-out time-and-again through the COVID season, and you’ll continue to see it as the power to tax is laid upon the church.
2. Christian publishing will become unrecognizable.
The current landscape of Christian publishing is a fascinating one:
- Two of the largest Christian publishers (Zondervan and Thomas Nelson) are owned by the non-Christian HarperCollins Publishers.
- Most of the other major Christian publishers exist as for-profit entities. Crossway is one of the exceptions to this norm.
- The largest sellers of books (for example, Amazon) have, of late, demonstrated a freewheeling tendency to remove books with a historic Christian (and even up to the last 10–20 years, a broadly secular) view of topics such as gender.
- Authors and publishers tend to lock-up Christian works under copyrights, that frequently restrict online use or translation of works until well after the death of the author.
- Christians in the majority world are hungry for quality Christian publications but find translations unhelpful, expensive, and hard-to-get. At the same time, pastors and scholars in these areas often lack the resources or access to publishing necessary to produce and distribute in-language resources of similar caliber to what is found through the major Christian publishers in the US and Europe.
In light of those realities, here are the shifts I anticipate:
- Major book sellers will become increasingly unwilling to carry works from a historic Christian perspective. Christian publishers will be forced to use lower-volume and more-expensive means to sell books.
- This market pressure will force the publishers that are owned by non-Christians to either self-censor their works or scale-down/cease publication. For-profit publishers may similarly find themselves unable to make a profit and scaling back their volume.
- Christian publishers that exist without the need for profit and a mission-oriented purpose will thrive.
- In this environment, we will see a shift toward more flexible licenses such as Creative Commons Licensing that will be more generous toward Christians in the majority world, unlocking distribution and translation of these resources for those who need them most.
- Properly done, these resources will allow small publishers in the majority world to flourish, selling their (or others’) translations of free, high-quality resources in their local markets. This proliferation of resources will also open doors for local pastors and scholars to not only access quality content but to produce and distribute their own content.
In short, I expect the breadth of Christian publishing in the US and Europe to shrink but to become more helpful to our brothers and sisters in the majority world. I expect that by 2050, we will begin seeing Christian works translated from Chinese and Spanish into English.
3. Outside the US, pastoral education will scale to meet the demand.
The current German model of seminary that is standard in Europe and the US is already incapable of scaling to meet the demands of the rapidly growing church in the majority world. Further, it frequently fails the needs of pastors in the US and Europe by providing only theological formation and leaving ministerial formation and spiritual formation untouched. And, lastly, seminaries and other Christian schools are likely to bear the early weight of losing non-profit and tax-exempt statuses.
The result will be a shift toward more innovative and leaner models for training pastors:
- Pastor-training will become more church-based than before, with seminaries becoming less physical locations and more local networks of trainers.
- New curriculum and training models will focus less on minutia of doctrine and ancient languages and more on basic doctrine, practical ministry, and spiritual disciplines.
- Training delivered via web, video conferencing, and messaging services will both increase but also, necessarily, hybridize into local cohorts, as future pastors seek more than mere “online degrees.”
- Academic-theologians and pastor-theologians will become an even rarer breed, needing special means to preserve their value and existence in the church, as the shift moves toward pastors as practitioners, disciple-makers, planters, and missionaries. To flesh this out a little more:
- Specialized training such as the MDiv will continue to exist, but not as a wide-gate method for those trying to discover their calling for ministry.
- Specialized training will be expensive and will be best suited to those who have received church-based training and have perhaps served in the church for some time before pursuing a degree.
- Specialized training will shift more from forming theological “specialists” and more toward theological “generalists” who can serve a wider range of training capacities in less formal training venues.
4. Bi-vocational missions, church planting, and pastoring will become more normal.
Since the onset of COVID, many businesses have realized that they do not need all their employees to be physically present in expensive offices in order to accomplish their mission. Employees work just as well, if not better, when allowed to work from home or wherever is most convenient to them. Commute times are reduced. Families are better-connected. Facility costs are reduced/eliminated. There are losses and challenges, but many businesses are realizing that the gains are far greater than the losses.
As a result, we will see an increasingly mobile workforce over the next 30 years. People will be able to chose not only the part of town they wish to live-in, but the state or country in which they wish to reside. Here are some largely positive trends I expect for the church:
- Christians moving to areas of poverty and crime, not in an effort to gentrify, but in order to serve underserved communities and see churches built or established that truly serve those communities.
- Christians moving to post-Christian US cities or unreached parts of the world with a desire to share Christ and see churches planted.
- Churches finding creative ways to build community and provide resources for remote workers, including the development of co-work spaces in largely unused (and eventually taxed) facilities.
- Churches that were already having to underpay their pastors (even with the present benefits of housing allowance and tax exempt facilities) will need to rely on bi-vocational pastors who have strong resumes for remote work. The pastor of the future is unlikely to have multiple Bible college and seminary degrees, but is more likely to have a solid resume in a “secular” field alongside a form of less-formal church-based training certificate (see above).
- Christians from the majority world gaining the ability to gain a higher wage and move to post-Christian locales, bringing a more vibrant and healthier Christianity with them.
Negative trends are likely to exist as well, such as those who move away from healthy churches and toward “destination” locales. We may see greater challenges with marriages and abuse patterns with families working and living together in near-constant close proximity. We may find “flight” patterns of poorly discipled, mobile white-collar workers away from less-desirable cities and areas (once necessary for their jobs), paralleling the “white flight” from urban communities in the 1950s and -60s.
Churches will need to actively pursue the best outcomes in these scenarios, and as the committed Christians over the next 30 years are likely to be more strongly grounded in their beliefs (as convenient Christianity becomes non-existent), I suspect that the ideal aspects of remote work will become a massive mission-sending powerhouse for the church in the coming generation.
5. Churches in post-Christian locales will need to choose their political battles carefully.
Throughout the COVID season, churches have had to decide what governmental regulations to accept or to fight. Some have fought only when treated with a greater degree of severity than similar “secular” meetings. Others have fought for what appears to be a desire for a greater degree of flexibility than their “secular” counterparts.
Although there will continue to be Christians who approach these matters differently, the healthiest churches will be those who use both backbone and brain. They will need backbone to stand up to the forthcoming political pressures of the day. They will need brains to know whether to save their capital and comply on lesser matters.
I anticipate that churches in post-Christian countries will develop along the following paradigm for the remainder of the 21st century:
- Fighting Culture: Their posture will be constantly battling for and lamenting the loss of Christian culture. Those fights will tend to turn inward, resulting in the fragmentation of denominational cooperation and a greater tendency toward church splits. These churches will experience a period of sharp growth as a populist Christian spasm against the anti-Christian culture occurs, but a decline will be noticeable within 20–30 years of their spike. If this group is loud and goes unaddressed, it will likely assist in polarizing Christians and retard the ability of “group 2” to address “group 3” (below). Historical parallel: Separatist Fundamentalism in the 1950s.
- Engaging Culture: Their posture will be that of exiles and missionaries who are passionate to share Christ within their culture—fighting only the necessary battles. They will be frequently mistaken as “fighters” by “group 3” and mistaken as “syncretists” by “group 1.” Their numbers may shrink somewhat or for a time, but these churches will be characterized by creativity, passion, gently deep theology, and health. They will likely endure a time of slow growth but are most likely to be positioned well for growth in the event of a major movement of the Spirit within the culture. Historical parallel: New Evangelicalism in the 1950s.
- Syncretizing Culture: Their posture will be that of acclimatizing to the post-Christian culture. They will likely retain more of the formalist aspects of Christian tradition (Christian liturgical elements are some of the easiest to maintain, in this respect) while rejecting historic Christian practices and doctrines. For many, syncretist churches will be the gateway of second-generation “group 1” toward total deconstruction of their faith. Historical parallel: Evangelical liberalism in the 1950s.
Summary and Hope
In conclusion, I anticipate that the churches which my daughters will see in their parenting years (perhaps here in the US) will be:
- Predominantly characterized by small-to-midsized churches that are lean and vibrant.
- Providing resources to and receiving great benefit from Christians in the majority world.
- Pastored by those who have never attended a physical “seminary” and who likely work another job to sustain their salary.
- Positioning members to relocate to locations where missionary and church planting work are ongoing.
- Picking battles with care and engaging the culture winsomely and with wisdom.
I have great confidence that Christ will build his Church in the 21st century, and I look forward to seeing what that Church will look like when I pass the torch to the next generation.