“So, if we are planning for the future of ministry, what are the trends we ought to be aware of?” It is a good question, but in a way a trick question. Any claim that something is a trend is an observation about the difference between how things were and how they are, often combined with a claim—more or less well-founded—that the direction of change will continue into the future. This is always debatable.

Discussion of trends is infected with a sloppy movement from description to prescription. Organizations are rather like teenagers, in that they find it exceptionally easy to move from the observation that their peers are doing something to the conclusion that they should also. These caveats aside, it is essential for organizations to follow Ronald Heifetz’s prescription to regularly “get up on the balcony” and discern the larger patterns in their work and environment.

In any congregation wanting to look at larger patterns, leaders should work with the whole congregation and identify their own unique “balcony” issues. Yet, the following topics will serve as a starting place for those who wish to a start the work:

Multiculturalism: Leaders of faith will need to better understand the dynamics and ability to lead and build multicultural faith communities and to use the power of creativity that resides in cultural boundaries. In leadership both within and beyond the congregation this capacity will become increasingly important with demographic shifts.

The new US Census reveals more people identifying themselves with multiple racial groups, a rise and diversification in Latino and other ethnic populations. The coming importance of this can be seen well in the report of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture on religion in Los Angeles. A relevant leadership reflection on these that is being much read in business circles is The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures by Frans Johansson.

Clear Sense of Identity: Leaders of faith will need to have a new level of excellence at helping congregations to clarify and act out of a clear sense of identity. Increasingly, leaders will do this by working with their congregations to shape a narrative of who they have been, who they are, and who they are becoming.

Until the Second World War a strong Christian presumption existed in North America and Europe, revealing itself in details from political rhetoric to the closing of stores on Sunday. This Christian presumption is ending and along with it the religious presumption. This means that congregations cannot rely on the culture to know who they are, and less and less does adherence to a common creed or common cultural traditions assure unity. Leaders will increasingly need to help their communities in building and rebuilding identities.

Contemporary Worship: Movement beyond “contemporary worship” in the model of megachurches like Willow Creek Community Church or Saddleback Church. Given the continued powerful growth of megachurches and the sometimes mesmerizing power of their worship, it may be foolhardiness or wishful thinking to predict movement beyond this model.

However, the megachurch model is now more than a generation old. In The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World, Robert Webber has recently written about a shift in evangelicals that I predict is likely to foreshadow a larger trend. The story he tells is of the younger evangelicals moving away from the strong focus on worship presentation to a more interactive style that reclaims more symbols and more ritual (e.g., Taize). This may also be a case of evangelical learning from the mainline. I have seen this new style on display in a variety of places such as St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. A larger number of young leaders emerge in mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and also Judaism and Unitarian Universalism, we are likely to see this same shift in emphasis there.

Membership Towards Affiliation: Movement away from membership and towards affiliation. Robert Putman (Bowling Alone) observed the shift away from membership in civic groups. Studies of the Episcopal Church and others churches have seen this change reflected in the shift in the balance between members and affiliated people, with affiliated non-members becoming increasingly important. This is likely to require rethinking of many aspects of congregational life, beginning with fundraising.

Shifts in Leadership Roles: Loss of roles of denominations and theological schools and increase in roles of large congregations. Although this movement is different in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, the general tendency is the same. Denominations and theological schools have less capacity and exercise less overall leadership than they did twenty years ago. Ability to build consensus and develop networks is likely to become increasingly important.

Economic Realities: Loss of viability of the 100-member professionally-led congregation. The clash between rising costs and expectations for compensation make the small clergy-led congregation less and less viable. New forms of small congregations are emerging while some clergy are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a semblance of as middle-class lifestyle. (Male clergy in economic crisis: Fear of Falling, by Matthew J. Price.)

Belief vs. Practice: Decreasing importance of belief and increasing importance of embodied practices or ways of living, often discussed as spirituality or lifestyle in religion. George Barna, Directing Leader of The Barna Group, has noted that, even among born again evangelicals, the importance the importance of beliefs has receded greatly in favor of “lifestyle” or “spirituality.”


Featured Resources

AL129_SMThe Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier by Loren Mead

Mead takes a broad look at past and present changes in the church, and postulates a future to which those changes are calling us. Denominations, once structured to deliver resources to far-off lands of foreign mission, now encounter the mission field in the layperson’s workplace and the community surrounding the local congregation. Thus, the church is called to reinvention for this new miss
ion frontier. Study guide information follows.

AL295_SM The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass

The conventional wisdom about mainline Protestantism maintains that it is a dying tradition, irrelevant to a postmodern society, unresponsive to change, and increasingly disconnected from its core faith tenets. In her provocative new book, historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues that there are signs that mainline Protestant churches are indeed changing, finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices and laying the groundwork for a new type of congregation.

AL270_SM The Postmodern Parish: New Ministry for a New Era by Jim Kitchens

“Many of us who are pastors of local mainline churches have long felt that something is amiss in the life of our congregations. It’s hard for us to name exactly what is wrong, but occasionally we are aware of a nagging sense that something is just not working any more. . . . Our best efforts at ministry feel like they’re about a half beat behind some new pulse beginning to course through the culture,” writes author Jim Kitchens.