2026 Preparing for 7 Seismic Shifts Transforming the North American Church
2026: Preparing for 7 Seismic Shifts Transforming the Church
Setting aside all of the negativity out there, the future of the Church is a bright one. It’s one that is more in the southern hemisphere of the globe but one that is about to undergo significant change. On the eve of our annual Presbytery meeting, I thought I would compose a few thoughts for what’s ahead for the church in the next 10 years – This post is not related the business of that meeting and is certainly not a complete list of what’s going to happen but rather a quick collection of my thoughts on what lies ahead or what likely needs to happen….
A little anthropology is a good place to start in a conversation like this. Chaos Theory is a field of math that often is used to study behavior dynamics. This includes the trajectory of cause and effect, that idea that complex systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Sometimes called the tempest in the tea pot or the butterfly and the hurricane, it’s now popularly called the Butterfly Effect.
The butterfly effect is the concept that small causes can have large effects, which was popularized by a scientist who predicted accurately that with a small effect you could move an entire weather system. The butterfly effect presents a challenge to prediction, since small initial conditions for a system can never be known with complete accuracy. As it relates to organizations and organizational behavior including churches, there are several shifts taking shape on the horizon but with the right nudge especially at the beginning of an organization, trajectory can quickly change.
There are also new churches being launched. Clayton M. Christensen (CC) often considered the #1 organizational thinker in the world, wrote the book “The Innovators Dilemma,” long considered a standard across the business world. He notes that dominant companies prosper by making a good product and keeping their customer base by using technology to continue to improve it.
In July 2011, CC met with educators and noted that “higher education” is the last major sector of the economy to be disrupted. (I disagree, I think it’s the ministry.) That was a year before MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) became a household term and the NYTimes declares 2012, the year of the MOOC. Today we are in the middle of 2016. I love our movement. It’s got its blemishes but it’s a good organization of churches and ministers. It’s worth fighting for but its undergoing significant change, a virtual conversatio morum.
What do you need to know about the future of the church? It will start first with kid’s ministry, then youth, college and so forth.
#1 The number of high school students in the US reached its peak in 2010-2011. The story up to this point has been boom and bust for the past four decades. The next peak remains to be seen.
#2 There is a major supply and demand mismatch in the fields of kids, youth, and young adults. While most strong regional economies in major cities continue to sustain the ability to hire/recruit staff leaders, this is increasingly the exception not the norm. Because of the impact of how our society is modifying the raising of children there is a lack of a collective consciousness happening particularly between generations, compounding the ability of older leaders being able to relate or attract younger leaders. Many of these millennials and generation z: (generation we, founders, digital natives or whatever we will call them) simply have less in common with Christians of prior generations. This means that while we have a common story of redemption and a common gospel story to share, the application of “what scripture means for me” has never had a larger gap between generations. You can share the same Bible message and the application of its truth is so different because the context is a cross-cultural experience. In part and as a result, the pace at which kids, youth, and staff pastors are transitioning to planting or pastoring something “new” is quickening. Established churches are often held captive by their current congregants who function like “customers” – (with their own expectations, preferences and a relationship base) and can miss the opportunities that emerging generations are offering in engagement. Churches that are younger are disproportionally attracting more young Christians than those congregations that don’t” think young.” What does it mean? The gap between large “young thinking” churches and small churches is going to widen, with less midsize, multi-generational churches, unfortunately. There’s so much more we could say here. And I am not passing judgement it just noting the trends. You will need to work as a church to attract, minister, and disciple at a rate 1.3 times harder to get the same effect when it comes to younger people. As always, it will be about getting relatable, approachable leadership.
#3 The U.S. population is aging. The U.S. census in 2010 noted that for every 100 18 year olds nationally, there are only 95 4-year olds. In 2016, the percentage of white non-Hispanics enrolled in public school decreases a whole percentage point for every grade level from sixth to first grade nationally. Not all racial or ethnic groups are aging. Fewer young children are white or black. The number of Hispanic students all types of churches will likely increase 5%-8%, while the number of white students will decline by 5%. If they weren’t born, they aren’t going to go to kids, youth or an adult ministry. There is also the costs strain on cities pushing out those more diverse populations into the suburbs. What does it mean? This means if your church isn’t welcoming a more racially and ethnically diverse population particular to its community, it is likely going to see decline. On the other hand, multiethnic churches could see a strong increase and historically Pentecostal, charismatic churches have a liturgical style that lends toward diverse engagement. I note that up to 1850, the two primary ways American churches grew was through birth and immigration. It was after 1850, that US churches truly became evangelical. Say what you will, children, increased birthrates, and adoption are vital to the future North American Church.
#4 The hollowing out of the middle class. Median per capita income in the US, has basically remained flat since 2000, when adjusted for inflation. With the average American family making slightly less than it did 15 years ago. Based on my own very cursory estimate, the AG has roughly $2.6 billion dollars go through its churches annual budgets or roughly $200,000 per AG church. And this is where age usually hits home… Of the 450 counties in the US that have significant more younger than older children, all but 100 counties have median incomes below the national average. In 2000, the states where family income of $20,000-$40,000 exceed 50 percent of the total student population included: Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico (4 states). In 2013, it was 21 states according to the Southern Education foundation. The middle class is migrating. It’s being moved into two directions, both into the upper class and lower income with typically the winners being older. What does it mean? This may mean more churches that have a congregation specific to an economic segment of the population, with some churches that are made up of low-income populations and other ones that have high income populations and less that have an income continuum.
#5 Social media is a “mainstay” and will continue to be a blessing and a curse. Social media has in many ways sped up and increased the ability of those congregations savvy and disciplined enough to harness its power to promote their causes. It’s made our culture more connected but it’s also further entrenched and solidified strong opinions, thereby alienated a number of people. (I hope your catching a theme of the middle disappearing.) It’s reinforced and uncovered widespread injustice of our world. And this is a good thing. It’s also exposed the tendency of our world to use token acts of justice and law observance to conceal the injustice in which common culture is complicit. Should we be surprised by any of this?
Negatively, social media –in which the quickness of a post does not have tone, emotion, or the physicality of real conversation, regularly sacrifices our neighbors and others for token causes, for token justice and likes. We live in a culture that’s afraid of the stranger and social media has magnified this in our culture. One of the American mythologies is that idea of rugged individual; one who can make it on our own. The book of James tells us that solo spirituality is dead. Human sacredness is at sake on the internet. What it means? It seems counter intuitive but it seems that those groups with the strongest voices are more united in their individual posts. We must become more collectivist and disciplined in our social media strategies and narratives if we are to rise above the noise.
#6 Church online is a “mainstay” and online learning communities are essential for the future. We of course never want to lose a live assembly. The challenge of geography and space is no longer as discriminating as it once was. While we still have a long way to go in understanding the best ways to use online tools, there critical to our future. In the world of education, augmented reality tools and flipping the class room are no longer fads, they a requirement. See MOOCs, or Pokemon Go. In many cases today the talking head is unfamiliar culturally to those under 20 in a live setting. Your church must become more participatory and this is as much about engagement not just about attendance. In some of the education realm, the software now learns how the user learns and modifies its approach. The benefit of online learning programs are too many to explain…branches, video conferencing, mass training, takes the bottle-neck out of a network, and it allows churches to co-collaborate on developing leadership and discipleship training material, duplicating (with proper citation) and then modifying material to fit their unique need. These types of programs allow a church to maintain their own brand, and manage each user’s outcomes making individual growth plans possible. Again, more that we could say.
#7 The Church will reassert her economic role in society. The church must reassure her role as pro-business, and an incubator of entrepreneurship in society. Some of this is happening out of necessity. Our movement needs to get more involved here in real kingdom work. It needs a third rail. We currently have the minister and the missionary. We also need a third meaningful rail perhaps called the marketplace. This is related to the priesthood of the believers. I think in the right context they even need a credential. We are calling too many things missions that are not missions but are rather good non-profits and we are not celebrating the work of the for profit business people. Missions as a model for everything creates some incredible waste and duplication. Commerce is real and aid is just a stop gap. Commerce is more compassionate than aid. Entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid. The Brookings Institution released a study in 2010 to join the chorus of research to valid this. In 1981, 52 percent of the world’s population was unable to provide for their basic needs, like housing and food, but by the end of 2011, 30 years later that number was 15%. That was not due to the United Nations but to the spread of capitalism. In North America capitalism has received a negative connotation. The reality is with everything I have thus described, we are entering a period where meaningful work will be hard and harder to find. What is meaningful work? According to Gladwell, autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward are the three qualities work has to have if it is to be satisfying. A solid robust ministry of the laity and pastoral ministry includes giving people a chance to escape the constraints of their cultural legacy, regardless of gender or ethnicity. The lesson here is simple. It’s a lesson of hard work, practice and access. Jobs will be a central reality for church in the future both here in North America and around the world. When we misunderstand or ignore the work of the marketplace, we miss the real lessons of success, and we squander talent of our people doing real ministry in their everyday. Multiply that lost across every field and profession and the kingdom could be that much larger and richer, flourishing than the one we have settled for. When we look back across human history, the strength of a Protestant work ethic helped fuel many of the advances of our society. We are entering a period where that sense of duty is not correlated to what one does. Less vocation and more occupation means less integrity in society’s work as a whole. Apply this to your church, our organization, and church plants. Today we plant churches. Tomorrow we need to plant churches and business alongside one another. We likely won’t economically have a choice. The missionary call is never been louder but our model must include enterprise.
Conclusion: The church in North America has to become much more aggressive and sophisticated with its initiatives. Wise as serpents, innocent as doves… We must also relearn how to be in relationship with one another. Relationships and life giving networks are now the greatest resource.
Here are the footnotes: Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates, December 2012. http://www.wiche.edu/knocking-8th
Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education
Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz. “With Little Notice, Globalization Reduced Poverty,” YaleGlobal, July 5th 2001.
You say that it will start first with kid’s ministry but then don’t really say anything about kid’s ministry in any of your shifts? Do you think older leaders in kids ministry are going to start losing effectiveness? As a youth pastor I can’t get enough of this stuff and would like your take on how ministry will change in kid’s and youth specifically.