Looking ahead: 12 lessons for churches in 2018

Predictions are a dime a dozen, and predictions about the church in the western world can be awfully generalised. Nevertheless, I found some predictions and warnings by Carey Nieuwhof were worth considering.

The predictions clearly relate to the North American church (Carey is Canadian), so a few probably won’t apply to countries like Australia and Great Britain where the church has long been a minority culture, but I’m sure you’ll find a few that are relevant to you. Carey has presented some of his observations as negatives (i.e. things NOT to believe), but I have re-worded them as positive truths to make them all consistent.

1. A Move Beyond Church In A Box

People’s lives are less structured and less predictable than they used to be. Time was (and I can still remember it), only the husband worked while mum stayed home to look after the kids, he worked 9 to 5, five days a week, and Sunday was free of shopping, sport or almost anything else organised – except church, for those who went. So churches could count on members ordering their lives to be there on Sunday morning, 11 am, and then back home in time for Sunday dinner.

But these days we may work odd hours, including weekends and many don’t have a permanent job, we can shop online anytime we want, download movies and music when we want them, maybe play sport Sundays. Or maybe we are too tired or too busy to make it to Sunday church every week.

So, Carey says, we need to think way beyond the services. “Churches who only think Sunday and who only think building will continue to shrink. In 2018, if coming to Christ means coming to your church in a set location and a set hour, you need a new strategy.”

Continuing a Sunday and building focus, he says is like saying: “We’d love for you to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and to do it you need to join us at a set hour every Sunday in a particular space we meet in. Beyond that, we’re not sure what to do.”

This is not, of course, new. Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch and Pete Ward, among others, were saying this more than a decade ago, but maybe now the church is ready to listen.

2. The Digital Will Become Real

Here Carey is talking about streaming the physical church to those who prefer to watch online – as apparently many do before they decide to attend in person. He thinks it’s an important part of twenty-first century church.

But I think we need to think even more radically. Is attending, or watching, a church service really a necessary part of being a christian? Simple Church and Organic Church have proven to be viable and helpful, and Pete Ward suggests that many will choose to follow Jesus outside of any structure.

Many christians and organisations conduct various forms of “ministry” online, sharing with unbelievers and struggling believers who are apparently unable to receive the encouragement and input they need where they live.

3. Location Independence Will Rise

Again, Carey sees this as a pointer to churches running more activities away from their buildings, often in other suburbs or cities, sometimes online. And again, I see it as something a little more – people no longer committed to their local church, their denomination, or any structured church at all.

4. Pop-Up Churches Will Become More Common

This ties with the previous two points – churches don’t have to be permanent. Yet again, Carey sees this as a strategy for a denominational church thinking of expanding – “find a city where you have some traction online. Then just do one or two events there really well and see what happens.”

And yet again, I wonder whether more of this will happen as mission-minded christians, within and outside the denominational churches, take opportunities to meet in suitable locations and see what God does.

5. The Rise Of Preaching (More Than Teaching)

You would hope by now that pastors, church planters and Bible colleges would know that Sunday sermons are a very poor way of teaching or discipling. But it seems some habits die even harder than most, and pastors are so trained to deliver sermons, whether they are useful or not.

But at least Carey is recognising here that teaching via a monologue is not as useful as it used to be, while exhortation and encouragement (preaching) are equally important as teaching for christian growth. We can at least hope that preaching sermons are shorter!

6. A Desire For Non-Downloadable Experiences

Even though people can listen to worship music via Spotify and hear sermons on podcasts, these things don’t fully satisfy. People are still “hungering for greater community, greater experience and greater transcendence.”

Churches need to meet these genuine needs. It is not coincidence that many progressive christians are exploring Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and liturgical services that provide mystery and transcendence, while others are exploring community and simple church.

7. The Team Is Eclipsing The Solo Leader

I think this is a particularly American thing – senior pastors who behave as presidents, and run a tight ship. It’s not the way the New Testament sees it – the New Testament talks about elders plural (Acts 14:23, 20:17) and different gifts (1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12) with different roles in the church (Ephesians 4:11-13) – and if it’s starting to change, then we can be thankful. Let’s hope it extends beyond staff to lay people. Better still, let’s hope the clergy-laity distinction dies.

8. What Used To Work Doesn’t Necessarily Still Work

This is a big trap. What worked when the senior pastor was training, or worked in this church some time back, may not work today. Culture is changing, rapidly, as I’ve outlined in #1. We need to keep up to date, not because we are pandering to the culture around us, but because we want to communicate to the culture around us in terms that are meaningful.

The Holy Spirit adapts, and church history shows us many examples of how the Spirit has led the church into new directions. Do we really think that the Spirit stopped with the Reformation or the charismatic renewal?

9. Flex Workers And Remote Workers Are Not Lazy

I guess this one’s important for someone, but I can just agree and move on.

10. Online Engagement Isn’t Just Lazy People In Their PJs

More or less the same as #2.

11. “I’m The Leader Here, So Listen Up” Isn’t Good

This follows from #7, but goes further Not only should ministry be conducted by many people with a variety of gifts, but leaders must be humble. We are supposed to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit works through the consensus of believers or leaders (Acts 13:1-3, 15:22 & 28), not just one man. Leaders, following Jesus, are supposed to be servants (John 13:12-17).

As Carey says: “True authority comes from respect, and respect has nothing to do with a title. It has a lot to do with humility, with a willingness to serve your team, and honestly, with results.

12. The Business World Can Teach The Church

This is an interesting one. Carey says that while the church is not a business and has different values and aims to most businesses, nevertheless we can learn from business how to organise and plan some things better.

The last word

So that’s his list. I wonder what you think of it. I guess it is obvious from my comments which ones I found most useful or interesting

But I think he missed a few things too, mostly because I think he is seeing things too much from a corporate church viewpoint. I’ll look at a few suggestions of my own next post.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

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