3 Important Church Trends in the Next 10 Years

Christianity in the United States may look very different in 10 years.

By Ed Stetzer

As someone who both cares about the mission of the church and leads a research organization, I watch the trends in the church and the culture. Occasionally, someone asks me to share some thoughts on the big picture, in the case of the North American context, questions related to “streams” of Protestantism.

Based on research, statistics, extrapolation, and (I hope) some insight, I notice 3 important trends continuing in the next 10 years.

Trend #1: The Hemorrhaging of Mainline Protestantism

This trend is hardly news—mainliners will tell you of this hemorrhaging and of their efforts to reverse it.

Mainline Protestantism is perhaps the best known portion of Protestantism, often represented by what are called the “seven sisters” of the mainline churches. Mainline churches are more than these, but these seven are the best known, perhaps:

  • United Methodist Church
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
  • Episcopal Church
  • Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
  • American Baptist Churches
  • United Church of Christ (UCC)
  • The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

They tend to fall on the progressive side of the theological continuum, but there is diversity of theology as well (Methodists, as a whole, are probably most conservative, for example).

Mainline Protestantism is in trouble and in substantive decline. Some are trying to reverse this, through evangelism and church planting initiatives.

However, this is an uphill battle and, as a whole, mainline Protestantism will continue its slide.

According to the General Social Survey (GSS), about 30 percent of Americans would self-identify (through their denominational selection) as mainline Protestants in 1972. Now they are down to 15 percent. In other words, based on the GSS, they lost half their people over 40 years. 

Now, the GSS is not the same as membership rolls and attendance numbers, but it does reflect people’s connection. And, if that trend continues, the math does not look good.

Trend #2: Continued Growth of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement

The second thing I think you’re going to continue to see is the continued growth of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement. The Charismatics and Pentecostals have already won the worship war—most churches are now comfortable with what would be “Calvary Chapel” worship in 1980. They are in the process of winning the spiritual gifts debate concerning cessationism, a view which seems in decline in the next generation.

Yes, that growth has slowed in North America and the charismatic practices (both inside and outside of the movement) have also been tamed.

In other words, Pentecostals and charismatics are growing and influencing, but they also look a lot less like the Pentecostals and charismatics of a few decades ago.

Many in the movement are shying away from the oddities and excesses of Pentecostalism, while evangelicals are moving towards the theology of Spirit-filled and Spirit-led ministries.

I see both of those trends continuing….

The trends of 1) Pentecostal worship moving away from especially the speaking gifts of the Spirit (tongues, interpretation, and prophecy), and 2) Evangelicals moving toward “Spirit-filled and Spirit-led ministries” represents seismic shifts in both faith traditions. But must Pentecostal worship lose a foundational part of its identity in order to enjoy “Spirit-filled and Spirit-led ministries” in the 21st century?  Is it not possible to enjoy both? – Pastor Frank

Trend #3: Networks will Explode in Number and Influence

Denominations still matter—and they actually, for example, do most of the church planting in North America. However, networks are growing in influence and impact.

Ironically, some networks are going to become denominations (or denomination-like). For example, both the Vineyard and Calvary Chapel, some of the early forerunners of networks, basically function like denominations today.

Networks are predominantly made up of nondenominational evangelical churches. The fastest growing category in North America is nondenominational evangelicalism—so growth here is inevitable.

The future is less mainline denominations or flat evangelical denominations, and more nondenominational evangelical networks.

All of these trends have implications—some good, and some not so good. But, facts are our friends. As we look to the years ahead, we need to do so with discernment and hope about what God is doing in the world through his churches.

    stetzer Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. For five years before that, Stetzer served as Director of Research and Missiologist-In-Residence for the North American Mission Board. He is a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.

     Stetzer currently serves as Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has taught at many other colleges and seminaries.

     Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in national news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. He is also the Executive Editor of The Gospel Project, which is used by over 400,000 individuals each week. Stetzer is Executive Editor of Facts & Trends Magazine, a Christian leadership magazine circulated to over 70,000 individuals each month. He has also been featured speaker at numerous national conferences and churches including the Catalyst Conference, the National Outreach Convention, Saddleback Church, the FiveTwo wikiConference and Mars Hill Church (Seattle). TheResurgence.com has stated that, “He is one of the leading thinkers on the earth in the areas of evangelism, church planting, and movements.” Stetzer has been critical of the Emerging church movement.

     He holds a bachelor’s degree at Shorter University, two master’s degrees (from Liberty Theological Seminary and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), and two earned doctorates (a Doctor of Ministry from Samford University and a Doctor of Philosophy from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).

     He currently resides in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and also serves as Lead Pastor of Grace Church in Hendersonville, a congregation he planted in 2011.

     Cited from Dr. Stetzer’s blog, The Exchange, April 24, 2015. Used by permission.

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