Question: What are some of the emerging trends that you see in congregations as they adapt to a changing environment?

Answer: This is a question I’m asked frequently, either by curious participants at a workshop or by members of a struggling congregation who want to know if other congregations are struggling with the same thing. As a result, I’ve started compiling a list of what seem to me to be changes that are adding up to a significant re-imagining of what it means to be “church.”

1. A congregation’s identity does not equal its building. For centuries, the church has acted as if the building “makes” the congregation in the same sense that clothes makes the person, leading to ever bigger and more grandiose statements of our worth. Now, however, some congregations are beginning to see this dependence on buildings as not necessary to the definition of “church.” In my work with congregations, I’ve encountered:

  • congregations who move to a different site every few years and are known by their work rather than their street address or their location atop the tallest hill
  • congregations who shed their historic, on-the-town-square, public-meeting-space buildings in order to conduct their own worship in much more modest facilities
  • congregations who merge and divest themselves of both buildings in order to worship in rented commercial space that calls forth their best liturgical creativity while freeing their financial resources for mission


2. Pastor does not equal a full-time position. This is nothing new.The church has recognized tent-making ministry literally since its beginnings, and most congregations in this country are too small to support a full-time pastor (although not all are ready to admit it). What’s new is the emergence of pastors who train with the intention of conducting their lives in this way, which frees up congregational dollars for mission and provides these pastors with the opportunity to earn something closer to a living wage.

3. Resourcing happens via drop-down menus rather than denominational staff. I can remember the day, early in my ministry, when I brought in the Christian educator from the Presbytery staff to give a workshop for Sunday School teachers on creating effective bulletin boards. Today, bulletin boards are arguably a thing of the past, but programmatic specialists on judicatory staff are pretty much gone. Even small congregations in remote communities know how to use search engines for everything from conflict management to curriculum choices.

4. “Group” participation does not equal my congregation’s group. Hearkening back once again to my early days in ministry (the 1990’s, so not that long ago!), members of our youth group were precisely that—ours—and were expected to be “loyal” to our group. Today, young people routinely migrate from group to group, participating in the activities of a number youth groups a week while still identifying one of the congregations as “theirs.” Adults also exhibit this behavior, belonging to Bible Study or other groups across congregational lines while still identifying one congregation as “theirs.”

5. Worship does not equal Sunday morning. Again, this is nothing new, but other-than-Sunday worship opportunities are increasingly being adopted by congregations for a variety of reasons. Some church buildings, for example, house multiple separate congregations that must schedule their activities so as not to conflict with one another. Many congregations are realizing, however, that Sunday morning is simply not the best time to try to get everybody together. Organized sports are one explanation, but even more importantly, families view Sunday morning as prime time to relax together, with church not always being viewed as the best way to relax. Furthermore, this behavior is not limited to families with small children—even adults increasingly view Sunday morning as a time to settle back and relax or golf or spend time with grandchildren.

6. Small groups and faith formation does not equal Sunday School in church buildings. Increasingly, small groups off-site are taking the place of Sunday School on Sunday morning. These groups are much more likely to happen in people’s homes or in coffee shops and at the beginning or end of the work day rather than on Sunday.

7. “Active” membership does not equal weekly attendance. When I was a child, being an “active” church member meant attending church every Sunday, with the possible exception of the one Sunday that we vacationed with a relative. When my children were small, “active” would probably have meant attendance three out of four Sundays a month. Now, people consider themselves “active” who may attend as infrequently as once every 6-8 weeks. They still feel loyal to their particular congregation, but the combination of Sunday as a time to relax and as a time to travel means that “active” looks very different. In addition, adult ability to volunteer weekly in the way that former attendance patterns supported is also a thing of the past, even though many congregations persist in believing that their inability to recruit teachers is a failure of discipleship rather than the inevitable result of a shifting cultural norm.

None of these shifts represents a single decision reached by a particular group at a specific denominational gathering on an identifiable date. All are the result of shifting patterns of behavior across all age groups in all parts of the country over a long period of time. As such, they are not problems that can be “fixed” by a congregation that wants its people to behave the way they used to. Instead, congregations must adapt, and, to their credit, many congregations do.

It is also important to say that congregations who experience these shifts have not betrayed their ancestors in the faith by allowing new patterns of behavior to emerge. They have adapted in the same way that their ancestors always adapted, creating new traditions and finding new meaning as generations change and grow. The worst mistake a congregation can make is to try to hold on to the delivery systems of the past—e.g., particular styles of building, classrooms, schedules—thinking that yesterday’s logistics are the heart and soul of tomorrow’s faith.

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