Church leaders, denominational executives, and social scientists gathered in Colorado recently to consider the future of the American church.
At the Future of the Church Summit, sponsored by Group Publishing, summit members grappled with the implications of a just-released study concerning the “Dones,” people who have left the church.
Sociologist Josh Packard presented fresh research detailing how many people have already walked away from the church, how many are poised to leave—and why.
“To be clear, the church will survive,” said Packard. “Our country remains as spiritually interested as ever. But what form will the church take? That’s the question.”
Data from the study confirm that 31 percent of American adults are former churchgoers who have opted out of organized religion—some 65 million people. Another 7 million people are “Almost Dones.” They’re still sitting in the pews, but are inching toward the exits—never to return.
Supporting Packard’s findings that more than half of those who become Dones were actively involved in church leadership or volunteer roles, several summit participants quietly confirmed they, too, will soon be done with church.
Given the implications of Packard’s research, summit members identified a number of shifts likely to soon occur in the American church:
- A shift away from the congregational model of church
Sunday morning services are increasingly irrelevant to American Christians. As the church moves forward, it’s likely Sunday church attendance will continue declining as other expressions of “church” arise.
While Sunday morning services won’t disappear, they’ll increasingly become just one of several ways local congregations live out their faith together.
Summit members heard from presenters who described their experiences with house churches, dinner churches, surfer churches, and outreach programs that repurpose aging and empty church buildings.
In the future, successful churches will make room for innovative forms of gatherings.
- Worship will no longer be a spectator sport
Impressive bands and well-rehearsed sermons will no longer satisfy Sunday morning attendees. Successful churches will find more and better ways to build relationships and involve church members in a wide range of experiences and interactive activities.
Led by Jesus-Centered Life author Rick Lawrence, and accompanied by musicians Michael and Lisa Gungor, summit members experienced a sampling of participatory worship in an extended session. Included were taste, touch, movement, and personal reflection.
- Churches will focus more intentionally on Jesus
Packard’s research confirms that many Dones report they don’t experience God at church, but do desire to have a growing, personal relationship with Jesus.
Lawrence, editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, warned summit members that, “As the church, we naturally say that everything is about Jesus—but that’s not functionally the case.”
Lawrence argued that the trend of churches tightening their focus on Jesus not only fulfills the Biblical role of the church, but satisfies the hunger many have to “taste Jesus and know that he’s good.”
Telling people they should love Jesus or should behave in certain ways has little positive impact, said Lawrence.
The annual Future of the Church Summit was held in Loveland, Colorado, on October 21-23, 2015.