Now that we’re well into 2021, we’ve discovered that all the problems of 2020 didn’t just magically go away, alas. We can expect 2021 to maintain continuity with 2020, and in fact, carry forward the trends that have led us to where we are today.
Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Faith, vision, creativity, and perseverance will be the qualities most needed by our churches going forward. Are you ready? Here are seven trends we expect in 2021.
1. In-person church attendance will stay below pre-pandemic levels
This should not be a surprise. Church attendance has been in decline for decades, and that long-term trend is not likely to reverse any time soon. COVID-19 has exacerbated this in every way.
The retail sector offers a view into a meaningful trend affecting churches. Online retailers have the edge over brick-and-mortar stores at this time because: 1) gathering in buildings is limited and risky; and, 2) online stores in which items can be quickly searched for and shipped save time and energy.
Now that ministry can be accessed from home and, to a certain extent, on-demand, persons searching for meaningful content will prefer to access it from the comfort of home.
As theaters are mostly closed, movie studios have had to abandon traditional distribution models and re-invent the industry. Warner Brothers Studios announced in December that films will be released simultaneously in theaters and to its streaming platform, HBO Max, acknowledging that the viewing experience has moved from the mode of its early-20th century origin to the large-screen home theater.
We can expect to see people come back to church once coronavirus vaccines are widely distributed and society begins to open up. But trends in other sectors suggest that attendance figures will not reach levels common prior to the pandemic.
Church leaders will have to recognize these and other broad cultural shifts and provide ministry that effectively takes place in the home.
2. People will take sides, and it will get worse before it gets better
There’s really no getting around the fact that Christian faith is essentially political. Whether one reads the Magnificat, the Sermon on the Mount, the letters to the Corinthians, or just about any portion of the Hebrew Scriptures, ramifications for the life of the community are manifold. To deny this in preaching and witness is to deny the very essence of biblical faith. Balancing the pastoral and prophetic remains the key challenge of the day.
The work of racial justice will remain at the forefront. As 2020 saw the protests over the death of George Floyd and the marking of the 400th year since enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of Virginia, the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” will require concrete actions in, and by, our communities of faith.
At the same time, churches are full of people who interpret this commandment in other ways, or, are unconcerned with it entirely. Pastors will need to contend with the necessity of loving, and not “othering,” those with whom they disagree. As Jesus handed bread to his betrayer, so must church leaders be in deep relationship with those who count themselves part of different tribes.
Love is, and always has been, challenging. Love requires wisdom, insight, and courage. Remembering the words of Jeremiah:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 8:11).
Church leaders who try to do this alone will be swallowed by it; vital communities of clergy and church professionals who support and challenge each other will be essential.
3. Millennials will still be attracted by authenticity
Because of the access social media has provided fans to the thoughts and actions of celebrities, young people who were raised in the internet age have a different set of expectations about the people they pay attention to.
In the early 1990s, Michael Jackson elevated his image by being aloof and unrelatable. MC Hammer took a different strategy: he put himself out in every way possible, even with a Saturday morning cartoon. In those years, this strategy did not work. But now this strategy is the norm.
Let’s face it—for many of us, there’s a certain “character” we become when we enter the pulpit. Our tone of voice, cadence, body language and stance all change when we preach. (Shockingly, I’ve heard people even roll their “R”s during sermons). Others impersonate their seminary professors. In 2021, this will be instantly dismissed by younger people who see through these insecurities.
Those who exude confidence about their experience of the divine, sharing even their doubts and struggles, will communicate better with millennials than those who hide behind role-play and facades.
4. Those who produce content daily will move ahead of those who do not
The number of delivery trucks that drive by outside our windows is way up from a year ago. We’ve been able to purchase items online for years, but the pandemic has made the convenience of shopping online preferable. In many parts of the country, Amazon is delivering an increasing number of items on the same day the order is placed, further disincentivizing one from partaking in the big-box retail experience. From the number of packages being delivered, it’s easy to assume that people are getting used to it.
Want to see a movie? Stream it. Want to order from a restaurant? Uber Eats delivers. Want to visit your sister? FaceTime her. Want to sit on a beach in Tahiti, or sit at a campfire in the Canadian Rockies? YouTube will transport you there.
Because we are becoming increasingly used to getting what we want when we want it, church leaders will have to get used to producing more and more content, delivering it the way people want it delivered. Creating on-demand media for platforms like YouTube, podcasts, and even TikTok will need to become part of the work of ministry.
USPS, FedEx, and UPS have returned to daily deliveries, even on weekends and holidays. We must do the same.
5. COVID-19 will diminish, but will not be forgotten
Most likely the pandemic will come to an end sometime in 2021 or 2022. As it has affected nearly every part of life worldwide, its effects will be felt for years to come, and every institution, including the church, will live with those effects.
Commercial real estate vacancies are increasing rapidly as commuting into an office has been largely replaced by telework and Zoom meetings. This will begin to rebound, but now that we have discovered that efficiency is not always reduced when working at home, and the benefits of the recovered time that comes when there’s no commute, it will be hard to go back to the old work-day slog.
Movie theaters are being replaced by home theaters. Workout facilities are being replaced by Peloton. As work and recreation moves away from those places and into the home, so will all other aspects of life. The church sanctuary will increasingly become the living room, bedroom, and smartphone.
6. Vital churches will focus on engagement over attendance
When YouTube measures engagement, it not only looks at the number of people viewing a particular video, but how long those viewers are watching. They have set the algorithm to measure both in order to evaluate which videos people see, and which they do not.
When we preach in a traditional worship setting, we have worshipers’ attention for the full hour. When creating online ministry content, we must learn from those tricks that keep people from changing the channel. We will have to find our own version of, “But, wait! Order now and get TWO…”
While it means that finding the new normal will take time and struggle, this shift finally allows the church to leave behind many of the restrictions at the heart of the last 50 years of declining attendance and participation. As with all transitions, some cherished aspects of church life will have to be set aside in order to bring about a new, but yet unrevealed, future.
7. The possibilities for sharing faith are unparalleled in history
In his book, “The World is Flat,” Thomas Friedman made the distinction between the 20th century as “the age of the superpower” and the 21st as “the age of the super-powered individual.” Communications technology has revolutionized life in this century, and for better or worse, we’re living in a different world than the one we had just a few years ago.
This has positive ramifications for church leaders. As many have seen online services reach more people than would normally attend an in-person service, the church has been released from the confines of time and space. Ministry can be available 24/7 (without the pastor being available as well!) and reach into corners previously unreachable.
This means that leaders who creatively approach this age with the message of the Gospel have a greater opportunity to do Kingdom-building that at any other time in history.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20).
The work of building disciples will, of course, continue to be the work of the church in the years to come. To do this work effectively, we will need to continue to adapt to our rapidly changing communications environment.