What can we expect to happen in churches in 2019?
The changes we see around us make that a hard question to answer. For example, national surveys like the Pew Foundation’s Religious Landscape Study reveal an alarming trend of Americans growing less interested in religion with each passing year. The same surveys show that younger adults raised in churches are dropping out in large numbers as soon as they leave home.
Reports are just as bad on the congregational level. According the Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm, between 6,000 and 10,000 churches will close their doors this year.
But there’s good news, too. Many churches—especially the larger, more contemporary ones—are thriving. Seminary enrollment is growing in more evangelical institutions. New missionaries are stepping up to serve in some of the most challenging places on earth like Iraq and Afghanistan. And real spiritual revival is reported in unlikely places like Los Angeles, rural South Carolina and even Harvard.
The best way to describe 2019 is that it could turn out to be the best of times and the worst of times. So what might happen? Pastors don’t have a great track record in predicting the future in our own congregations, much less in churches across the country, but here are a few the things I believe will take place.
One or two celebrity pastors will step down.
Highly respected and visible church leaders like Charles Stanley or Ed Young are well past retirement age and could step down with honor at any time. But if recent history is any guide, that’s not the case with other celebrity pastors.
Last year, for example, Willow Creek Church’s Bill Hybels was forced out because of personal failings. Two years before that, Pete Wilson, Senior Pastor of Nashville’s Cross Point Church, and Perry Noble, Senior Pastor of Newspring Church in South Carolina, departed under clouds. It’s a safe bet that sometime in the next twelve months news will come out about another high-profile pastor who’s leaving his church. The unique privileges as well as pressures that celebrity pastors deal with make them susceptible to failure, to the point where you have to wonder if celebrity pastors are good for the church.
Churches will mistakenly believe their religious liberty is guaranteed.
Because of the Trump administration’s robust protection of religious liberty, many Christian leaders feel that the church’s future is in much better shape today than it was just a few years ago. But the long-term trajectory of our culture is so much opposed to biblical values that whatever reprieve we might enjoy now will certainly change with the next administration. We need to be serious about preparing our people and our institutions for what I believe to be the coming persecution.
Discipleship will grow in importance in local church ministries.
Many of us in leadership are aware of what a poor job our churches often do in discipling our people. We’re much better at managing the programs, organizations and facilities of our congregations than in training them to be disciples of Jesus. That’s the main reason for the decline of churches across the country. In 2019 I believe more churches will take Jesus’ words seriously, when he says our mission is to “make disciples of all nations.”
Church worship will continue to change.
Music causes more conflict in most churches than any other issue. Hymns or choruses? Organs or guitars? Loud or soft? Fast or slow? Choirs or praise teams? The list of divisive questions goes on and on. Each church has to decide for itself which style best suits its circumstances. But many of us are seeing a growing common ground that includes elements of many different styles and makes an honest attempt at multi-generational worship. I believe that holds great promise for the future.
Larger churches will continue to grow and smaller churches will continue to decline.
The statistical evidence is clear that mega-churches today are experiencing growth, especially through their satellite campuses. Smaller churches aren’t. While there are several reasons for the trend, the most obvious is that mega-churches have the resources to provide the kinds and variety of ministries that many people look for in choosing a church.
Some smaller churches will begin to gain traction.
I don’t have hard numbers to back this up, but I’m beginning to hear a fatigue with the mega-church environment and an interest in a smaller, more relational church experience. Smaller congregations have a brighter future than many realize and the coming year will show more and more of that.
Churches will learn more of the importance of personal ministry.
One of the most important trends I see in pastoral ministry today is a hunger for personal ministry. People are fatigued by the programs, organizations and institutional issues that the traditional church has focused on for so long. Instead, they want authentic connections with one another, with church leadership and with God. In the coming year many congregations will move more deeply into relational ministries like prayer, personal evangelism and mission trips that put their people on the front line of spiritual need.