The Church By 2010: Ten Predictions


I have some level of enjoyment looking at old predictions. Those pundits of the past seemed very informed at the time of their predictions. Years later they often look like some of the most uninformed people in their respective fields. I realize that I take the same risk in projecting trends for the church. Predictions are precarious in any field, and maybe particularly so for the church. The American church has seen more changes in the past two decades than the previous eight decades combined. Who would then be so audacious to foretell for the church? Such is the risk I take in writing this first article for the Rainer Report.

Please understand that I make these predictions with less audacity than it might appear on the surface. My research team and I have studied more than 4,000 churches, and interviewed tens of thousands of church leaders, church members, and unchurched persons.

In this first issue, I will highlight the first five trends, and save the final five for the next issue. Their order is random, and does not reflect some type of priority of certainty of expectation. So buckle your seatbelt and let us delve into the next eight years of church life.

Now, the Trends

Trend #1: The increasing interest in spiritual warfare. The wildly popular Left Behind book series is only symptomatic of the increasing interest in the world of spiritual warfare. And after the many pronouncements of the reality and presence of evil after Sept. 11, people across America are seeking answers in a world where evil is a real and present reality.

How will church leaders respond? There will naturally be the extremes present in any movement. On the one hand, some churches will continue to ignore the reality of the demonic world as if Ephesians 6 has little to do with their day-by-day existence. On the other hand, there will be churches that see demonic activity in every phase of the church life. Church members must be taught the biblical balance of the supernatural world. Church leaders must also be taught the biblical percepts of spiritual warfare. In a survey we did of 23 seminaries, only seven taught any courses related to spiritual warfare, but of those seven, leaders in those seminaries indicated that the courses were among the most popular.

Trend #2: The closing of 50,000 churches by 2010. Thousands of churches are on the precipice of closing. The conventional wisdom was that churches were tenaciously stubborn, and could keep going for years. But those churches were led by the builder generation, those born before 1946. The churchgoing builders attended churches out of loyalty and tradition. They would often remain loyal to a church despite deteriorating quality and attendance.

But boomers, busters/Gen Xers, and bridgers those born between 1977 and 1994-have no such loyalties. They see no need to remain with a church that exists out of tradition and with little care for the quality of the ministries. Though I am not happy to report this trend, the fading of the builder generation indicates the death of one out of eight churches in America today.

Trend #3: A surge in the number of churches whose attendance is below 300. A trend that may somewhat offset the loss of 50,000 churches will be the starting of new churches with a planned attendance cap. In other words, from the point of birth of these churches, the members will not let attendance move above a predetermined cap, most commonly in the 200 to 300 range. When the attendance approaches the cap, the members will plan to start another church. Of course, the daughter church will have the same philosophy of size and ministry, so the number of these smaller churches will continue to grow.

Why will these churches proliferate? Both Gen X and the bridger generation include millions of young adults who desire the small church intimacy of 300 or less. But they have been unable to find many small churches that offer quality preaching, childcare, youth programs, and the like. Therefore, they will start their own churches with a focus on quality while remaining relatively small.

Trend #4: The incredible influence of the bridger generation. The impact of those born between 1977 and 1994 will be more than just the starting of new churches mentioned in the previous trend. The paradoxical implication of this generation is that there are fewer Christians in this age range than previous generations, but their impact will be more profoundly felt than the larger numbers of Christians in the older age groups,

According to our research, as few as 4 percent of the 72 million bridger generation may have a born-again experience. Yet, that 4 percent will practice a radical Christianity. They will take their faith more seriously than previous generations. And many will go into dangerous mission fields, willing to give their lives for the sake of the gospel. The bridger generation will not be satisfied with business as usual in the churches. And those churches that desire to reach the second largest generation in America’s history better be prepared to give more than lip service to the cause of Christ. These young people are shaking life up in many churches.

Trend #5: The increasing demand for clarity and conviction in doctrine. Led by the bridger generation and Gen X, those who come to the churches of the 21st century are increasingly seeking to learn the tenets of the Christian faith. They are not satisfied with coming to church for the sake of coming to church. They desire to know more of what they believe, and they insist that the church and her leaders express conviction about these beliefs. The churches that survive and grow in the years ahead will provide numerous opportunities for members and seekers to learn more about the faith to which they adhere.

The Implications

Few would argue that the Christian faith in America is slowly but perceptibly being moved to the margins of society. The churches that make a difference will not do church the way we’ve always done it. Since the church will no longer be a part of the mainstream culture, it cannot expect to survive or thrive with the loyal churchgoer base of old. In the next issue, we will look at five more trends that will impact the 21st century church.

As you will see, these times are either the most exciting or the most disturbing for church leaders. I hope you will join me through this newsletter that we may work together to see some of the most challenging days in the church in recent history. We serve a God through whom all things are possible. Let us go forward in the confidence of His strength and not our own.

Surprise #6: Many of the unchurched have a church background. From the most recalcitrant unchurched person to the most receptive, many have some type of church background. Some were members of churches. Others visited for a season. Still others were taken to church as children.

The point is simple. Do not assume that all unchurched persons are clueless about the church. A majority can recall many years of church in their past.

The reasons the unchurched left are numerous. Some had negative experiences. Others who went as children dropped out when their parents dropped out. And a number of unchurched tried church but left unimpressed and uninspired.

Conventional wisdom about the unchurched suggests that these men and women are total strangers to the church. Such is not the case with the majority of the unchurched.

Surprise #7: Some types of “cold calls” are effective; many are not. A debate persists in the Christian community about the effectiveness of cold-call evangelism. The definition of “cold call” is simply “uninvited.” The type of cold-call evangelism most often resisted by the unchurched is an uninvited visit to their homes.

“1 really don’t mind talking to people from churches,” Roger S. of Wisconsin told us. “But please don’t show up at my home without an invitation. It reminds me of a telephone solicitation, only worse!”

The formerly unchurched agreed. These new Christians said that unexpected visitors in the home were rarely welcomed. Sarah F. of a small town in Alabama noted, “1 was most positively impacted by Christians who asked for permission to meet me or talk with me. The cold-call visitor to my home was a pain. I ended up accepting Christ through the witness of a church member who took me to lunch on three different occasions. I knew what her agenda was. but at least she invited me to lunch.”

But not all cold calls are ineffective, the unchurched told us. We heard numerous stories about Christians who always seemed to be able to share their faith in casual conversations. They were not invited by the unchurched to talk to them, but these churchgoers often seemed to find a way to move a conversation to eternal issues.

“Eric is a trip.” Peter W. of San Diego told us. Peter is an unchurched man who works with Eric. “We will be talking about the Chargers or the Padres and, before I know it, he’s telling me something about his
church or God. I really respect him, you know. He doesn’t beat me over the head with his beliefs, but he sure isn’t shy to talk to me about it. Most of the church people I know act like they are ashamed of what they believe.”

The bottom line of cold-call evangelism seems to be to make the most of every opportunity God gives you. Pray for such opportunities. But showing up at someone’s home without an invitation was one of the biggest turnoffs articulated by the unchurched.

“I would be glad for church people to come talk to me in my home,” said Millie B. of Odessa. Texas. “I just want to know when they’re coming.”

Surprise #8: The unchurched would like to develop a real and sincere relationship with a Christian. Our study of the unchurched continued during 2001 and 2002 with a noticeable intermediate point of Sept. 11, 2001. The attack on our nation that day engendered many questions from American citizens, and many of the questions were about, God. Though the door was open for Christians to develop relationships with non-believers before Sept. 1 1, the opportunities increased after that infamous day.

The leader of our research team. Twyla Fagan, stated this issue clearly to me in a memo she wrote about the progress of our research project: “Most of the unchurched that the team is interviewing would respond positively to a `genuine’ Christian who would spend time with them in a gentle, non-judgmental relationship.”

Twyla continued, “Most of the unchurched can easily tell the difference between ‘drive-by’ evangelism and a person who really cares.

I learned how to share my faith by reading Evangelism Explosion by D. James Kennedy.’ The manner in which Dr. Kennedy taught me how to start a conversation with a nonbeliever, and the way he taught me how to share a biblical plan of salvation are infinitely invaluable to me. Evangelism Explosion (EE) is one of the more popular training tools in personal witnessing. It belongs to a category of tools sometimes called”canned evangelism.” The label “canned evangelism” is unfortunate because it implies an uncaring. notch-belt approach to evangelism.

But EE originated from the heart of a man who is passionate about the lost and deeply concerned for the unchurched. When Christians used a canned evangelism tool to witness to the unchurched with no obvious concern for the person. the unchurched immediately detected this impersonal approach.

“I had some people come to see me from the Baptist church just three blocks from here.” Monte G. of Baltimore told us. “I felt like they were meeting a soul quota with me. They just wanted to spill their presentation and move on. But I would’ve been happy to talk with them for a long time if I thought they really cared.”

The “soul quota” use of canned evangelism tools is neither the intent nor the desire of those who created these programs. But many of the unchurched quickly recognized the abuse of these good tools.

If we who call ourselves Christians really believe that a person is lost outside of salvation through Christ, we would make the lost and the unchurched one of our highest priorities. And if we really had broken hearts for these unchurched persons, we would take whatever time is necessary to get to know them and to share the love of Christ in word and deed. Winning the lost and reaching the unchurched is really no big mystery. There are millions of these men and women waiting for one of us Christians to spend time with them and to show them we really care. Jesus desired that none would perish. In this midst of His packed schedule, He took time to show His love to sinners. Are we willing to do likewise?

Surprise #9: The attitudes of the unchurched are not correlated to where they live, their ethnic or racial background, or their gender. The unchurched are not a monolithic group. That reality came through with the wide variety of responses we received. One cannot therefore expect a certain attitude from an unchurched person from Georgia just because he or she lives in a Bible Belt state. And we could not describe to you the common characteristics of an Asian-American unchurched person. The variety of responses within each ethnic group was significant.

The only pattern where we saw any correlation was related to income. The higher an individual’s income level, the more resistant to the gospel he or she is likely to be. Jesus Himself warned us of the power of money to be like a god to us: “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:24, NASB).

Surprise #10: Many of the unchurched are far more concerned about the spiritual well-being of their children than themselves. A few years ago my research team and I studied the Bridger generation, those born between the years 1977 and 1994.” We discovered a large unchurched population among these young people, but we also discovered a generation highly receptive to the gospel. In my consultation ministry with the Rainer Group. I have found that churches that are highly intentional about reaching youth and children tend to be among the most evangelistic churches in America.

And now, in this research project, we found that the unchurched with children at home are deeply concerned about the spiritual welfare of their children, even if they articulate little concern for themselves. Perhaps in our encounters with these unchurched persons, we need to mention their children. Perhaps churches in America need to be more intentional in reaching children and youth. And perhaps we need to heed more closely the words of the Savior, who exhorted us to let the children come to Him.

i See D. James Kennedy, Evangelism Explosion, Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishing, 1999 (4th Edition).

ii See Thom S. Rainer, The Bridger Generation, Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1997.