Speaker, podcaster, best-selling author and founding pastor of Connexus Church Carey Nieuwhof took to the stage Tuesday morning at the Future Church 2030 Conference to share about “Why the Old Model of Church No Longer Works,” and what the future of church may look like.
Why the old model of church no longer works
Pre-pandemic, there were already troubling statistics about church attendance. The percentage of plateaued or declining churches was on the rise. A poll by Barna showed that 94% of churches were growing slower than their communities. Now, as the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind the U.S., most churches are at 40-70% of their pre-Covid numbers.
During the pandemic, many churches became innovative, finding new ways to broadcast their messages digitally, doing creative outreach in their communities and rising to face the challenges of COVID-19 head-on. Coming back to the church post-pandemic, many thought that things would return to “normal,” Nieuwhof said. People put too much emphasis on going “back” to a certain way of doing things.
“Getting back to 2019 isn’t a vision. Moving forward is a vision,” he said.
One reason the old model of church has stopped working is because it has not kept up with the modern spirit of technology. Nieuwhof compared that model of church to cable television in the 1980s, where you had to turn to the right channel at the right time or you missed the program. Society today, however, is operating more like Netflix — things are available at all times, to fit peoples’ schedules.
“If coming to Christ means coming to your church at a set location and a set hour, you need a new strategy,” Nieuwhof said.
Nieuwhof explained that to adapt to how society is changing, churches need to embrace that new mindset and continue to find innovative ways to engage people who may be worshiping with them, not in the building but in various times and places. A full room, Nieuwhof said, does not mean a fulfilled mission. There are thousands of people your church can engage with through the Internet and other digital resources.
Nieuwhof clarified that his mission in this talk was not to disillusion people about the power and importance of in-person church services.
“I care about in-person church a lot, but I’m overcorrecting on the digital side because the church is undercorrecting on the digital side,” he explained.
7 trends growing churches will embrace
Nieuwhof spent the second half of his time at the conference talking about trends the churches of the future will need to embrace in order to see growth.
Wise leaders will fulfill the mission, not just fill a room
Leaders of churches will need to see that even though they have a full sanctuary, that does not mean they are reaching the most people. He likened it to a restaurant saying that they would not accept takeout orders because their restaurant had full tables. When churches have this mindset, they are missing out on reaching even more people with the Word of God.
Wise leaders, Nieuwhof explained, will refuse to shrink the size of their ministry’s vision to the size of the room they can fill.
Churches will become digital organizations with physical locations
Should ministry be digital or physical? Nieuwhof argued that future-thinking pastors should realize that the answer to that question should be “yes.” Offering in-person gatherings and ministry on Sundays is important, but Nieuwhof argued that if you are only offering that one hour of discipleship a week, you are missing out on the other 167 hours of ministry. During this time, people are being poured into by outside sources, like celebrities, pop culture and other secular voices, instead of the church.
“We have an opportunity to influence people all week long,” Nieuwhof explained.
He suggested using Instagram to share small biblical messages, or sending out emails throughout the week with Christ-centered messages, as examples of two small and easy ways to enhance your church’s digital ministry.
Hybrid church will simply become church
Nieuwhof explained that much of the world operates on a hybrid format now. If you go to a new city and are looking for a restaurant, you might look it up on Yelp and read the menu online, before going to the restaurant in-person. Similarly, people are experiencing and watching your church online before they ever step through the doors.
Furthermore, many people will continue to split their time between attending church in-person and online to best meet their schedules. The number of people who are participating in the mission of the church that are not in the building on Sunday will surpass the number of people who are inside the building, Nieuwhof explained.
Ministry will shift from centralized to decentralized
When people see that church attendance is declining rapidly, that often just accounts for in-person attendance. There are many who are tuning in on weekdays to listen to your church message. Nieuwhof asked church leaders to reflect on if the people who attend online “count” at their church, or if they are treated as inactive parts of the church.
Ministry and gatherings are still happening, they may just not happen in the same, central location.
On-demand access will surpass live events
“When it’s online, people don’t care if it was put online four years ago, four minutes ago, or goes live next week. If it’s good, they want to listen,” Nieuwhof said.
As people continue to move around more post-pandemic, whether it is for work, vacation or just their lifestyle, an on-demand approach will help people listen to churches’ content when they need it. People do not care if the message is new, they care if the message is great, Nieuwhof explained.
In-person events will become more personal
There is an increasing push for people to want to be known in the spaces they are in. For the church, that means creating a community where people feel valued and connected instead of a number in the pew on a Sunday morning.
“The goal is not to have a church where everybody knows everybody. It’s a church where everyone is known,” Nieuwhof explained.
In-person events will become more transcendent
Lastly, now that more things are available online, people want to get something different out of their in-person experience. Nieuwhof compared it to listening to a live album versus being at the concert; it is the feeling of “you had to be there.” Experiences that can be downloaded and accessed easily are the norm. In a culture of quick, unending content, people are looking for an alternative experience, not an echo of what it already has.
“We’re so saturated these days by all this media, and people come in [to church] and want to feel something,” Nieuwhof said.
Above all, Nieuwhof emphasized that a Christ-centered, authentic church will draw people regardless of how “trendy” they are. Creating an online presence does not have to be about chasing what is cool or “in,” it has to be about offering something that this world does not.
“Churches who deliver hope, not hype, online will have a bright future,” he said.