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A rural church. Photo: Pexels.

Seven church trends to watch for

Church leaders will have their hands full keeping their congregations on track while navigating unexpected twists and turns in the coming year. The Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., identified seven trends that it expects to affect church congregations and their leaders.

  • The first, mainline malaise, acknowledges the considerable decline among mainline Protestant denominations, stating that the “typical mainline congregation is facing the need to adjust its expectations and ministry models.” It states mainline denominations face a need to realign their institutional infrastructure, including everything from governing bodies and systems for accountability and “church agencies to education and parachurch organizations, to conform to current realities.”
  • Second is stable finances, as researchers said that although there is decline among congregations, “a mounting body of evidence suggests the financial condition of most congregations remains surprisingly strong.” The report cited research from the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, which found that in 2023, the median income churches in the United States was up nearly 42 percent from three years ago.”
  • The third trend is small is beautiful, with the center saying that although most Americans go to fairly large congregations, “small, nimble, highly personalized expressions of church seem to increasingly be the “green-growing edge” of growth and development. “Many traditional churches focus the energy of their participants on sustaining the church’s institutional structures,” the report said. “But smaller communities can place more attention on nurturing relationships and individual spiritual growth.”
  • Fourth is expanding roles for lay leaders, with many congregations increasingly relying on laity for leadership. “In some sectors of the church, there are more laypersons serving as pastors,” according to the report. “In 2019, for example, 12 percent of United Methodist churches were served by a lay pastor who is neither enrolled in nor a graduate of an accredited seminary in a degree or non-degree bearing program.”
  • The fifth trend is focusing on the rise of an unchurched generation, with attention given to the much-documented rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans and their offspring. “It is often said that the Christian faith is always just one generation away from extinction,” the report aid. “The children of today’s nones, unlike their parents, are being raised with little to no connection to church.”
  • The sixth trend focuses on Sunday School and the belief among researchers that the classic model of Christian education might have run its course. “In our internet age, both children and adults are accustomed to more interactive and engaging ways of learning,” according to the report. “Many churches no longer have the critical mass of young families required to support a range of grade- or age-level classrooms.”
  • Finally, the report cited the need for new models of faith formation, noting that there is a challenge to the longstanding belief that “those in the pews on Sunday will be formed in faith through the elements of worship, particularly preaching.”

The report has an optimistic note saying the winds of change bring opportunity.

“Many of these trends are daunting,” it states, “reflecting the long-term decline in worship attendance and the increasing percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.”

But it says there saying “the emergence of new, more nimble, often smaller, models of ministry, and in the expanding opportunities for laypersons to minister in meaningful ways.”

–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice


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