Presuming we get on the other side of COVID by the end of this year, the picture for churches in America is mostly clear. Of course, none of us can know the future with certainty, and another COVID spike could change the conversation dramatically.
Still, we see nine realities your church will face in 2022. This research is based on our conversations and data from hundreds of churches with whom we work. In no particular order, here are the nine realities:
1. There is a lot of reason for hope. Biblically, there is always hope in Christ. Additionally, we see many churches reaching more people than they ever have. Close to a majority of churches have not experienced declining finances. Attendance is close or even better than 2019 numbers in one of six churches. Simply stated, if God is not done with these churches, there is reason to believe your church can be one of those breakout churches.
2. Churches that grow will move evangelism to a priority ministry. Most church leaders attest to this reality, but few practice it. Evangelism can’t be just another activity or ministry of the church. Breakout churches will focus on evangelism more than any point in their history. That will be the only way they will grow in post-Christian culture. As an anecdotal comment, our most popular resource is called “Pray and Go.” Its popularity is a good sign that more churches are taking prayer and evangelism seriously.
3. Denominational support will wane significantly. Most denominations, like the churches they serve, are struggling. They don’t have the resources they once had to help churches. New networks will form, and new affinity groups will be established among churches so they may help one another.
4. Attitudes toward Christians and churches are not monolithic. Don’t assume that every non-Christian you meet is anti-Christian. For certain, there are some that have antipathy toward our faith, but many do not. Regardless, the Holy Spirit can work in any culture. The first-century culture did not begin with a favorable cultural view of Christianity, but the early churches did okay anyway.
5. Part-time vocational ministry will become the norm. We estimate there are currently one million part-time pastors and staff in North America. That number will continue to grow. This trend is not completely due to financial limitations. Many bi-vocational pastors and staff choose to go this path. We call that reality “co-vocational ministry.”
6. Horizontal growth will become a key strategy for growing churches. Horizontal growth takes place when a church establishes a new site, a new service other than Sunday morning, a new venue, or adopts an existing church. Vertical growth has been the key strategy of the past. Churches attempted to grow as much as possible in the Sunday morning timeframe at one site. In growing churches, horizontal and vertical growth will complement each other.
7. We estimate that as many as 15,000 churches will be confronted with the choice of closing or being adopted. This number is higher than the closings of past years. COVID has certainly accelerated and exacerbated this trend. While the issue of closure is a sad reality, the option to be adopted (sometimes called replanted or acquired) is a growing and healthy trend.
8. Churches that resist change will decline more rapidly. It is hard to effect change in many churches. That sad mantra of “We’ve never done it that way before” is the verbiage of decline and death. Change resistance will result in faster decline than ever before. In the past, these churches could count on modest growth from cultural Christians to offset some of their losses. Cultural Christianity, however, is all but gone. So will be the churches who hold to non-essential traditions of the past.
9. More churches will struggle to find pastors. We hear from pastorless churches every week. The refrain is common. The churches simply cannot find a pastor they deem to be a fit for their congregations. From the perspective of the pastors, they are being very careful, if not selective, before moving to another church. If they hear the church has fired or run off pastors, there has been a staff coup, or if the church has a reputation for negativity and fighting, they will not allow themselves to be considered by the church.
As you read these nine realities for churches in 2022, please read again the first point. Amid all these challenges, there is an abundance of hope. What is no longer an option is a middle road of “doing church” as usual.
Churches will either focus on God-given priorities, or they will decline and die. It’s that basic.