Predictions About How the Future Church Will Look

by Carey Nieuwhof

By now you’ve realized that the Coronavirus pandemic is not an interruption nearly as much as it’s a disruption.

And as you move more deeply through this crisis, the question of what kind of world will emerge beyond the crisis is probably also starting to occupy your mind. Mine too.

It’s pretty clear by now that the shuttering of business, churches and restrictions on movement and gatherings will be measured in months rather than weeks. It’s also becoming far more likely that when things do re-open, it won’t be an overnight return to wide-open gatherings and travel. To make things more challenging, the return to travel and gatherings the way they were might be measured in years, not months. Perhaps it will never be quite the same again.

As upsetting and frustrating as that may be (and I hope I’m wrong), your job is a leader isn’t to fight reality, it’s to cooperate with it and leverage it.  Fools deny reality, kicking against it to make it do what they hope it will do. The wise co-operate with it, leveraging it for new opportunities.

So let’s start here: the new world will be a different place. In some ways deeply recognizable, but in some profound ways, different as well.

And, as a result, the church will be a different place—same mission, just some very new methods.

As much as you may want everything to go back to normal, you can’t go back to normal when normal changed forever. The future isn’t kind to the unprepared, so prepare.

Please hear the promise in change though: leaders who have the energy, passion and agility to change now will end up advancing their mission in the future.

And of course, leaders who don’t, won’t. They may not even survive.


So, with all that said. What does the future look like?

While it’s impossible to know where this will all land, how it will land or what things will look like, and while two months from now this might be an entirely different post,  you can begin to see the trends.

Here are some trends I’m watching very closely and would put time and energy into resourcing in the midst of the crisis.


As much as many churches went online for the first time and everyone made digital their default, the long debate about whether online church is ‘real’ or not is settled.

And even if it’s not settled theologically (a few still have questions and objections and always will), it is settled practically.

Of course physical gatherings will return with joy as restrictions lift (don’t ignore the probability that the restrictions will lift partially and gradually), but to think that the world will suddenly go back to 100% physical when people have experienced digital is highly unlikely for a number of reasons.

First, because digital church is the only option now, churches have poured a ton of time and energy into making it better, experimenting with different formats and opportunities and really connecting with people. Many are doing a great job and it’s only likely to get better in the upcoming months as smaller churches come online and all churches keep innovating.

Second, sometimes the digital connections have been as or more meaningful than the in-person connections. I realize there will be many who push back against this, but it’s foolish to ignore the fact that people connect more easily online and often admit the truth more readily online than they do in person (That might not be right, but it is true).

Third, most of the churches who are online now are experiencing growth.

Again, the critics will question how to count the online numbers for real and raise 100 other objections, but it’s unmistakable that people who were unaware or disengaged with church a month ago are leaning in now. I have people in my own life who have attended a service now who never came to a building before. Our church has seen a 500% Sunday ‘attendance’ spike since the pandemic grew. And yes, people are texting in their decision to follow Jesus and we’re opening up digital discipleship pathways and groups for more people than we’ve ever connected before.

What about the argument that some of this won’t stick? Let me take you back to the analog days for a minute: everyone who attended your church in person didn’t ‘stick’ either.

Unprecedented challenges provide unprecedented opportunities. And what we’re seeing in these early days of digital church is a huge spike in engagement and interest.

To put digital church back on the shelf in the new normal is to ignore the greatest opportunity the church today has to reach people. And it also ignores the fact that many will want digital to be at least an option, if not a preferred method of engagement where geography and other barriers prevent access.

Will we go back to in-person and physical gatherings and services? Absolutely. But digital isn’t going away. It will continue to grow and advance.

In the future church, if you care about people, you’ll care about digital church.


In the same way church went digital overnight, staff teams for churches and corporations did too.

I talked to a number of CEOs over the last week (who tend to be far more bottom-line driven than church leaders) who said as hard as the adjustment was for their teams to become virtual overnight, they’re not going back to the way it was before.

Some may close their offices and become entirely remote. Others will simply scale back things like square footage and travel along with the instance that everyone come in every day.

One CEO working from his home told me that what would have been a four day trip to the East Coast turned into a 5-hour virtual factory tour. When you calculate the dollars saved, the staff time and the opportunity cost involved (3 additional days to try new things), even when travel becomes an option again, it makes no sense to fly there anymore.

Another CEO who works in staffing said that prior to the disruption, even Fortune 100 companies looked at flexible and virtual work options as options. He believes that when things re-open, remote work and flexible work (some days in the office, some days out) will become a requirement for any company serious about attracting and keeping the best talent.

Translate that for church leaders.

As inefficient as working from home might seem now (kids hanging off you, everyone signing into Slack for the first time and not quite sure how Asana works), one day the kids will be back in school and novel tools will be normal tools, and then the real efficiency of flexible and remote work will start to kick in.

Prior to the disruption, there was already an emerging trend that saw your most talented young employees asking for the most flexibility: to work from home, coffee shops or to flex their hours. That will only accelerate.

The future workplace for churches and businesses will flexible workplaces: with an array of in-person and remote teams.

Again, move ahead five months and begin to think about hiring the ideal Exec Pastor you’ve been wanting to hire for a long time who doesn’t want to move. Bringing him or her on board as staff and flying them in a few times a year suddenly looks far more feasible than it did even a month ago. And with Zoom and video calls normalized now, you won’t feel nearly as distant as you would have earlier in having team members join meetings remotely.

On future teams, insisting that everyone show up in person will become a competitive disadvantage.

8-4 stopped working years ago. Now it’s broken beyond repair. The future workplace is the flexible workplace.


One of the most exciting trends to emerge so far is to see churches focus on everyday ministry, not just Sunday ministry.

For years, the fun part of social media, online live events and even email marketing is that it allows you to show up in people’s lives every day, not just on Sundays.

But most church leaders were so Sunday-focused that they were totally absent in people’s lives by Monday, not to mention the other five days of the week.

That’s changing, and that can only be a good thing.

When it comes to discipleship and evangelism, every day is more important than Sunday.

Tens of thousands of church leaders are showing up online on every imaginable social media platform almost daily.

Not all that digital spaghetti will stick to the wall.

Some leaders are already tiring of daily messaging.

Others realize daily content is proving to be challenging (you have to have a lot to say).

And the initial enthusiasm of viewers will wane as the internet settles down into some new rhythm.

BUT…and this is big…the idea that we can go back to Sunday worship with a few midweek (group) meetings and the odd inspiring quote on Instagram is already a thing of the past. Sundays will continue to be really significant gathering and worship days for churches, but it can no longer stop there.

If people live every day in need of hope and resources to live out their faith (or to find faith) every day, church leaders have to start coming alongside people every day. Like many are doing right now.

In the future, churches will shift their focus from Sunday to every day, because people need to find faith and live out their faith every day.


This one takes us out on a bit of a ledge, so bear with me. Like I said, everything could be different in two months.

But I’m wondering how the disruption will fare for the multisite movement that’s been part of our landscape for the last three decades, with growing churches planting numerous physical locations.

Here’s what the current crisis has done so far. Overnight, every multisite church became a single site church, that single site being the internet.

And, as already discussed, church leaders are also discovering that digital church scales in a way that physical church doesn’t.

I have no idea what will happen to multisite churches when locations are allowed to reopen. Perhaps more people will flock back to church in person.

There are rattlings already that this could be the end for many malls, theatres and even restaurants.

That could mean that real estate, being cheaper than ever, could be snapped up cheaply by church leaders wanting to expand.

Or it could mean that you’re trying to be Blockbuster in the age of Netflix, AppleTV and Disney+.

If digital breaks down physical barriers, what will happen to physical locations?

Right now I think this is simply a question to be asked rather than anything to be acted on. But again, asking the question now gets you ready for an answer then.


Even in these early weeks of the disruption, church leaders and rethinking and reinventing the sermon.

For decades/centuries, the standard method of delivery has been a 30-40 minute monologue by a preacher based around scripture.

To be clear, I’m almost at the point where I think preaching could be a sacrament. I take it very seriously and believe it gets used powerfully by God to change lives through the preaching of his word. (Side note: It’s weird to me how many denominations restrict the presiding over communion to clergy but let anyone preach. Way more damage has been done through awful sermons than from misdistributing communion).

So how will the sermon be reborn? In many ways, but the key is to experiment.

  • Many sermons are getting shorter. Speaking into a camera takes a unique skill set, and most leaders are choosing to go shorter rather than longer.
  • You can easily make messages interactive. Having live-chat during sermons can allow your hosts to engage with people, and at the very end of the service on Sunday I took live questions from people about the message.
  • You can start to film in advance and make the messages more creative, almost taking a cinematic approach to it.
  • Some sermons might get longer and more intellectual. Online isn’t just video or social media. It’s also audio. In this post, which I wrote a few years ago, I argued one way that the Sermon 2.0 could take shape was through long, off-Sunday content. Shorter isn’t always better.  Long-form content has a role.

I realize there’s no consistent pattern here. That’s the point.

There will perhaps always be a role for the 40-minute message on a Sunday morning, but for the church to become far more creative than only has an upside.

Crisis is a cradle for innovation. So when it comes the sermon, innovate. Explore Carey’s new series on How to Lead Through Crisis.


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