I was inspired to write this blog post after reading latest yearly list of Church trends. In this post, I am going to reflect on a few of his trends while adding one of my own.
To state the obvious, COVID has made some changes to Church.
...I probably didn't need to reiterate that. HOWEVER, to add nuance, it seems that COVID hasn't created a paradigm shift... it has only accelerated the changes which have been bubbling over for years.
Cinema attendance was already declining... now megaplexes might be on their death bed as 4K TVs become affordably mainstream.
Remote work was transiting from tolerable to near preferable... now mega-companies like Twitter, Google and Microsoft are promoting a 'distributed workforce'. The fancy term for 'work-from-home'. It could be the new norm.
Brick and mortar retail stores struggled to counter online commerce... and now that people have had to shop online for the better half of a year? The story writes itself.
The Technology behind these trends existed before COVID. The pandemic is an accelerator of change, not a paradigm shifter.
The Church is not immune.
The market for streaming technology has rapidly evolved over the past few years. It rode off the back of professional gamers and content creators pushing the limits of the personal broadcast revolution on websites like Twitch and Youtube...
Many early-adopting Churches have been pushing into the digital realm. Church website, Church social media, weekly podcast... maybe some lucky few had a livestream. This is our accelerated trend.
It's clear. God has used COVID to push Churches through a one-way door into the digital realm. There's no better, cheaper or easier time than to get online. But what are the trends that will last post-pandemic?
Carey Nieuwhof, best selling author and founding pastor of Connexus Church, has 8 Disruptive Church Trends he sees occurring. I am breaking down three and add my own. I don't necessarily agree or disagree, but regardless, these trends are worth listening to.
1. The Majority of Attendees may no Longer be in the Room
Bold statement! And one that's likely geared more towards the large/mega Churches, and not the small-to-medium church. Even though the latter group is at the heart of Digital Ministry Masterclass, this trend is still worth understanding.
In Canada, Nieuwhof points out that the decline of physical Church attendance has been occurring for years. We can see this is true of Australia as well. From the ABS Census Data and research of Effective Ministries, the graph speaks for itself, decline despite population growth:
"For years, most pastors didn’t know how to handle anyone who engaged the message or mission outside of their facility.
Moving forward, many church leaders will realize that people who are engaging from home or other places will count just as much as those who are attending in a facility." - Nieuwhof
With the power of livestreaming and the 'hybrid' service - a service catering to those in the church building and at home - this isn't actually a scary thought. Some Churches have come out of the pandemic with a new, completely digital service in addition to their in-person services.
Andy Barras, a member of the Church Livestream Level Up and Digital Minister of St John's Diamond Creek, runs their completely online service from a studio. You can check it out here.
2. Growing Churches will Shift their Focus from Gathering to Connecting
"In 2021, if coming to Christ means coming to your church in a set location and a set hour, you need a new strategy."
Again... Bold. But perhaps true.
Matt. 18:20 - "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Note that Jesus doesn't tell us to gather physically and all in the same place. Digital connection beyond the bounds of physical walls IS possible.
Gathering people on a Sunday will always be important, it just might not happen all in one building. However, there is a trap to avoid. And that is confusing 'connection' with 'content'.
From our survey of over 200 Churches during the pandemic, one of the major tension points of the online church was the feeling that they were creating content but not community. Which segues perfectly into the next trend...
3. Content Alone won’t Cut it. Community and Connection will.
I must admit, reading this point from Nieuwhof was validating for our research.
Content is free and it's everywhere. In fact, it's perhaps the most competitive and saturated market that exists today. And Churches were never meant to be content production houses. The beauty of Church is that it's a gathering of Christians. Not a building. Not a service. Not a TV studio.
In my comparison of Pre-recorded vs. Live services, I talked about this tension of content/connection. In short, true interactive live DOES create connection and community alongside in-person gatherings.
Too many churches view 'live' as it was in the past. A one-way street. Live news or sport to be consumed. However, as we level up our 'live' skills, I believe more churches will come up with interactive services that promote connection between viewers and other viewers, as well as viewers and those participating in the service. Interactivity is a staple teaching point in our 'Church Livestream Level Up' course.
4. There will be a Greater Divergence of Church Offerings
I thought I'd add my own observation to the list. After being interviewed by Eternity News in the article 'Online Church Is Here To Stay', I read the Facebook comments.
Pro-tip: don't read the comments if you have thin-skin. I took this as an opportunity to listen and learn.
What could be a vocal minority, strongly disagreed with the idea that online Church would remain post-COVID. Did they read the article beyond the headline? I can't say. What I can say is that there is a resistance to change from some.
I think this will result in a greater divergence in Church strategies over the coming years. Those who embrace change, and those who deny it.
God's word is timeless. But His approach - to partner with his followers to be all things to all people within different cultures - is not. Generational differences will be the main wedge of this divide.
In a COVID-centric survey to Churches by The Unstuck group, they found that 71% of Boomers preferred physical worship as opposed to digital or hybrid church, and only 41% of Gen Z preferred physical worship. Everyone other than Boomers had a preference for hybrid (a combination of in-person and digital gathering) or digital gatherings.
Are digital offerings essential to Church growth? Not necessarily. But there are alarming demographic trends that we should pay attention to.
In the graph below you can see that the Anglican Church is turning grey. This data is not meant to pick on a specific denomination, know that Anglicans are not unique in this generational distribution. Effective Ministry calls this graph 'the anaconda'. As the anaconda swallows the goat, slowly it moves down further into the snake until it is consumed and the lump is no more.
Graphic I know, but no more disturbing than the trend itself if nothing is done.
There will be churches that adapt to trends and changing preferences and those that choose to do things how they have always been done, despite changing times.
A great inspiration to me is St John’s Uniting Cowes, Phillip Island. Glen Davidson, a member of our online community, is the self-proclaimed "Youth Group" as a retiree at 60 years old.
The thorn in the side of every church tech consultant is dealing with Churches who STILL PRINT DVDS FOR OLDER MEMBERS. But for Glen's church, they took the time to upskill all of their elderly members so they could watch a livestream service and engage on zoom during lockdown. Amazingly, they were able to grow beyond their small congregation by streaming to rural communities, nursing homes and even international guests. Right now, they are equipping themselves to be able to run a high quality 'hybrid service'
Back to that Eternity article, it wasn't the headline that caused the issue. It was black and white thinking and a lack of imagination of what hybrid Church service could be.
As for what God will do across the body of Christ in the coming years, only he knows. But in the meantime, we will be watching, listening and seeing how Church strategy evolves in a post-COVID world.
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