The future of churches: A network of niches

In the on-going debate “will digital replace books?” the conclusion of many media watchers is an unequivocal Yes and No. Amazon’s Kindle has really become a game-changer, delivering books within seconds of purchase via Sprint’s wireless network.  Problems do exist, as Jeff Jarvis points out, because if you do not have good Sprint coverage in your area, books take hours to download, not seconds.  In other words, it’s not perfect.

So, will digital replace books? Yes, ebooks will replace printed books for many, maybe even most.  But, printed books will still survive in print-on-demand processes that print each copy as ordered.  Books will also survive in niche groups like “Save the Real Books” (which I just made up, but you get the idea).  After all, there are groups for vintage cars, vintage wine, vintage clothing, vintage furniture, so why not vintage book printing?  Digital won’t eliminate printed books, but digital will be another means to acquire and read books.  In other words, rather than one model (printed books), we’ll have a network of niche models from which to choose, including print, digital, audio, digital audio (the new Kindle can read your book to you), digital mobile, and so on.

Which brings us to churches, again.

Using the ebook versus printed book model, what does that say about churches?  I have been saying that we’re counting the wrong things in church (attendance) when we should be counting community engagement.  I’ve also said that church attendance will decrease (this is not an original thought), and we’re moving rapidly toward a post-Christendom era like Europe.

That said, I don’t think all existing churches will die.  For instance, the megachurches spawned by baby boomers will not go away.  I think their influence will diminish and some will go downsize.  But churches will always exist, some will always have buildings and property, and most will always be trying to attract people to them.

But, what I think will happen is new forms of church will emerge from the next generation of church leaders.  These forms are not even thought of yet.  Example: A few years ago who would have thought of with an internet campus, and a bunch of satellite sites?

Lyle Schaller came close in the 1980s when he advocated that small churches use video sermons from outstanding preachers, but Schaller did not imagine that video sermons would be simulcast to remote satellite locations where a live band would lead worshippers in person, cutting to the remote video of Craig Groeschel (or Andy Stanley) in time for the message.

To get back to our question, Will churches of today disappear? Yes and no.

We can be certain of this — we live in an age of discontinuous change and unexpected consequences.  Nobody knows exactly what church will look like in the future because we’re not there yet.  But I have  a feeling it will be multiple models, not one predominant model like we had from WWII until about 1985. That’s about the time the church growth movement popularized church planting by anybody, not just denominations.  That shift resulted in hundreds of new churches, led by entrepreneurial church planters who created different models. That is what I think will happen, again, but this time the new models will be even more innovative than those of the last 25 years.

We’ll still have bricks-and-mortar churches, but also house churches, coffee shop churches, outdoor churches, churches that meet once a month, churches that meet online, churches that consists of groups which interact frequently, and churches that we can’t even imagine yet.  We will also see ‘single market’ churches that focus on the homeless or the physically handicapped or the poor or any niche group you can think of.

In other words, the same thing that is happening in the broader culture will happen in churches, too — more options, more models, a network of niches, rather than a predominant church form.

I am also certain that whatever emerges, church will not ever be the same again. By extension, neither will denominations, cross-cultural missions programs, or Christian education programs be the same again.  These will all change radically, because the current models are unsustainable in today’s culture.

Those are my thoughts, what are yours?

9 thoughts on “The future of churches: A network of niches”

  1. I have been thinking about these issues you have raised in this post and other posts. My question is how will this play out in places like here in Edon where trends don’t appear until much later if at all. By the time it appears here, the rest of the world has moved on again.

  2. I think I’m starting to understand more of what you are you saying. I’ve thought of websites and the internet more as a way to advertise an existing community and message rather than facilitating a wider community and sharing that message further. New bold ideas seem to be the way to go in a constantly changing climate. Even hearing Craig Groeschel’s reflections on how he had no idea whether the whole thing was going work is so refreshing.

  3. On Emerging Adults

    Maybe it’s not surprising that the faith convictions of Emerging Adults do not correlate with their childhood religious training. If Emerging Adults are delaying their adulthood, as the author also finds, then might not their Twenties continue to be filled with adolescent episodes of seeking, experimentation, opposition, and rebellion? When it comes to the relevance of lessons learned at home, let’s check back with this crew when they’re Forty.

  4. David, I’m in a similar setting to yours apparently. We are not going to be on the cutting edge of some changes, but can incorporate or at least recognize others. You raise an interesting question for lots of churches in rural, small town settings. Thanks.

  5. Marc, thanks for your comments. With the rise of mobile technology, websites and social media will present new opportunities to form community, even if it’s virtual. The old “billboard” strategy for website use is quickly giving way to a more interactive, communal expression. Should be interesting to watch. Thanks.

  6. Mark, you raise an interesting point. Will emerging adults return to their religious training, or at least be influenced by it, later in life? I don’t know of a study in that area, but I’ll try to find out. That would be similar to what other generations have experienced — separation, re-evaluation, and return. Good question, thanks.

  7. Hello Chuck,

    Thanks for your insight. Yes, I believe you are on the right track.

    I pastor of a turnaround church, moving from traditional ways to the 21st century. Before I yielded to the call, I was in IT. I have been involved in technology all of my adult life. So, I am addressing church-related technology.

    Our church decided to use a CMS, ExpressionEngine, for our website. It allows unlimited blogs and gives the designer/developer freedom in deciding where to place elements of the CMS. It even allows multi-site integration.

    I have a reason for mentioning our choice of CMS. There are three things that I believe which will help us use technology in order to better minister to needs in our local communities.

    1. I believe in the small to medium size neighborhood church. It seems that any church that gets significantly larger than 200 loses its intimacy and community and begins to feel more like a large corporation or mall.

    2. I believe that all churches should go back to Christ’s teachings and drop all the centuries of built up fears and dogma.

    3. I believe technology, if used properly, allows us to help build community and share resources more easily.

    That being said, I propose we develop website integration that allows all churches in a local community to have a common internet platform for communicating. If say, one church only has 5 men interested in participating in men’s ministry, then the larger local community of men can pool resources and gain strength and momentum. This is overcoming technology and denominational barriers. The website infrastructure should support our cultural goals, not inhibit them.

    In other words,

    1. Single Signon. When a member of the Lutheran church signs into their church’s website, they should be able to access content from connected churches in their community.
    2. Participating local churches share calendar items and ministries. Even pool resources to do more than they could in their own backyard.
    3. Each participating local church could also gather content from their own denominational resources also.
    4. The content should be entrusted to leaders and teachers in their respective areas.

    Well, that is at least some my ideas we will be moving toward here at Tree of Life Fellowship. There is so many more ways we could use technology, I know I have just scratched the surface. Our church is not there yet, but believe we will.


Comments are closed.