Thom Rainer wrote an article expressing what he believes are twelve potentially powerful movements that will affect congregations. This blog is my second response to that article.
The number of adopted churches will begin to catch the number of closed churches. The prediction is that many churches will close because they cannot financially sustain their ministry. Permanent changes in how members engage in worship services and other factors will drive this trend. But the good news is there will be a point when this trend will taper off due to healthy churches adopting unhealthy churches.
In the Seventh-day Adventist Church context, this adoption strategy is known as districts. One pastor leads several smaller churches with the assistance of strong local leadership in a district of churches. The strategy is not currently used as much as in years past. But it may be necessary to prioritize this strategy, again. This is familiar in the SDA context. But perhaps there is a better strategy.
In my view, a better strategy is for a financially strong church to permanently adopt smaller churches. Then, there would be one church in several locations. Some advantages of this strategy will be discussed below.
Another aspect of this issue is determining where churches should exist. Both urban and rural communities need healthy churches to serve the needs of the people. I will speak more on this in another blog.
Church fostering will move into the early adoption stage. The prediction is at least 30,000 churches will enter church fostering relationships in 2021. A healthy church will help a less healthy church for a while so it can regroup and become healthy, again.
In the SDA context, the conference takes the lead in determining strategies for working with unhealthy churches. This is because the cash flow system of the denomination typically leaves the average local church less able to share its resources with another, separate congregation. So, if conferences are to remain financially healthy, it must address the district church issue and give careful study regarding where a church presence needs to be added or subtracted. No one wants to close a church. But sometimes that could be the best strategy to deploy the available resources to advance the church mission. Serious consideration must be given to how to deploy resources for the greatest good in a given territory. No doubt, there will be push back on this idea. But it must be considered if conferences are to be good stewards.
The concept of one church in many locations must also be considered. One reason there are so many small, financially unsustainable churches is each church plant is allowed to become a separate entity rather than a separate campus of a single entity.
One church in many locations has its advantages. One advantage is a unified strategy for evangelizing a given geographic area. As it stands today, every church in a geographic location, known as conference “areas,” functions independent of all of the other churches in the area. This model strains the possibility of cooperation in developing a unified strategy to complete the church mission in those areas. There is strong resistance to cooperation because each church wants its own identity and control of resources. Duplication and, in many instances, waste of resources with little to show for it is the outcome. A review of baptismal records is enough to make the point. If there was one church in many locations, there would necessarily be cooperation in doing the work to advance the mission. Churches would have the advantage of aligning personnel to help each church campus be more effective. And budgets and resources could be more effectively deployed to ease the burdens on those smaller churches. This is a strategy worth exploring.
Once the pandemic stabilizes and the number of cases declines, churches’ average worship attendance will be down 20% to 30% from pre-pandemic levels. The research is currently showing smaller churches will recover more quickly. Churches with 250 or more in attendance before the pandemic are the ones that will have the greatest challenge to recover in-building attendance.
In my view, this does not mean churches are doomed. There is a vast harvest field in the digital community. All churches can have a global footprint. If properly pursued, the attending congregation may be small but the ministry and membership may be global.
The SDA denomination has not addressed this phenomenon. Typically, there are “territories” that conferences are responsible to evangelize. With this new global reach, the definition of territory has changed. And the denomination must become comfortable with global ministries in every territory. People want to belong to the fellowship they want to belong to. And no policy will stop this. Rather than fight the future, the SDA church must adapt to current reality.
The new definition of a large church will be 250 and more in average worship attendance. Before the pandemic, a large church was defined as 400 members or more. Now, after the pandemic, the new definition will be 250 and more. Those churches with 250 and more attending members will be in the top 10% of all churches in North America. This has implications for finances, staffing, and property.
In the SDA context, the larger churches get multiple pastoral staff based, in part, upon the tithe generated by the congregation. The research predicts post-pandemic finances will decline across the board. There is evidence of the accuracy of this prediction. But this does not need to continue if a digital-forward ministry is pursued.
Where in-building ministry remains the primary focus, larger churches may lose staff to remain financially viable. If conferences hesitate to make good decisions based upon accurate data, staff positions may be permanently lost due to layoffs when conferences are put in a position to try to financially survive. This can be avoided if leaders are proactive.
Staff need not be lost. Right now, larger churches with multiple staff should launch an online campus led by a staff member (Jackson Doggette can help you successfully do this) AFTER the infrastructure is established to sustain it. With some time to grow that ministry before churches begin to open their doors, again, the finances from the online campus could grow to the point it can sustain all of the staff even when the local attending membership slips. It is not as easy as snapping your fingers. But it is very doable.
Smaller churches should launch an online campus, too, AFTER the infrastructure is established to sustain it. Not every church will do this successfully because not every church will see the potential and do what is necessary for it to succeed. But every church could succeed because there is no secrete sauce. The tools are there and the method is proven.
Our next installment will address the final four trends.