What’s happening to Church?

I’m certain that God is in the future, but wonder if the church has a future.”–Leonard Sweet

“The future of the Church is Shalom for All–the people of God, seeking the shalom of the community to where they have been sent into exile (Jeremiah 29:7).”–Michael J. Christensen

Three Questions:

  • What do we mean by ‘church’?   
  • What is the future of the Church in North America in light of declining church attendance, increasing secularism, growth of the NONES (no religious affiliation), rise of the DONES (I’m done with church), and closing of churches?
  • How can we “do church” differently to help us love God and our neighbor (and even our enemy) as we love ourselves?


Decline in Attendance[i]

  • What researchers forecast for decades now is undeniably true: traditional church attendance continues to decline (Gallup, Pew, Barna)
  • Although more than 40 percent of people “say” they go to church every week, statistics show that fewer than 20 percent actually attend regularly. 
  • In other words, more than 80 percent of Americans are finding more fulfilling things to do on Sundays.

Growth of the Nones[ii]

  • People claiming no religious affiliation rose from 15% in 2007 to 20% in 2012, pointing to the growth of the “Nones” (None of the Above)—who may believe in God, may be spiritual, but not religious (Pew Research 2012). 
  • Nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian (as measured by 15 different variables related to people’s identity, beliefs and behaviors) (Barna).[iii]
  • If current trends continue, Christians will become minority in a post-Christian secular culture.

Rise of the “Dones”[iv]

Newly reported Rise of the “Dones” (Done with Church). [Who often are key lay leaders in local churches and national Christian leaders (who are not pastoring churches).  E.g. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, wrote about Why I left Church.  Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, confessed on his blog:  “I don’t go to church very often…and most of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church…I also believe the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.”

Christians leaving traditional churches say they’re still spiritual, but church no longer meets their needs. They become unaffiliated believers who may sometimes go to church, but they’re done with church commitments, congregational conflict, and cultural Christianity.[v]

If less than 20 percent actually attend church regularly, where do they go to church?

About 70% attend traditional churches and 30% participate in alternative forms of church today, according to Graham Cooke, author of Permission Granted to Do Church Differently in the 21st Century.  But these percentages will reverse themselves within the next 10-15 years.

“Followers of Jesus in the US who do not attend a local traditional church will grow from 30% to approximately 70%,” says Cooke. One third will still attend traditional churches, one third will meet to worship God in alternative structures (homes, schools, restaurants, pubs, parks, theaters, hotels and shopping malls. “And one third will live out their faith in the fields of media, arts, and culture.”

In other words, increasing numbers of those who follow Jesus are not following him into a classic church building.  And the remaining remnant can’t afford a pastor or sustain an annual church budget.

Close of Classic Churches

So what will happen to classic church buildings in the next 20 years?

Classic church buildings will close their doors. 

  • Hartford Institute estimates there are approximately 350,000 religious congregations in the United States.
  • Only 2,000 or so show signs of steady growth (mostly mega churches)
  • As many as 200,000 will close in the next 20 years, currently at a rate of 4,000-7,000 per year (c.f. approximately 1,000 new church plants annually)

Some classic churches, of course, will remain open, survive and thrive, thank God!

Others will become legacy churches as long as their endowments last.

Sadly, most will close and the property sold to the highest bidder; they will be torn down or converted to condos, community centers, museums, restaurants and even night clubs.



  • Former Roman Catholic Church in Newark is now a Jazz club and restaurant called The Sanctuary.
  • Washington Square United Methodist Church in NYC is now luxury condos
  • Berkeley Church of Nazarene is now a Buddhist Monastery

The Good News

Change is blowing in the wind, creating new opportunities for church redevelopment and fresh expressions of ecclesia. It’s time to ‘do church differently.’

We can watch with cynicism, resist the changing tide…

OR, we can do church differently in the Third Millennium of Christianity. 

Once unsustainable churches close,

new ecclesial life can emerge.

Falling church attendance does not mean a decline in the practice of Christian faith. Rather, the Church is morphing as believers look for alternative ways to worship God and love their neighbor as oneself.

Congregational life is migrating to small groups for intentional community, simple worship and vital mission in the world.

The structures of the local church and perceived boundaries of the traditional parish are shifting and transforming into a more fluid organism and inclusive community of faith.

Church is manifesting in communities, organically, and missionally.

Emerging Alternative Church Structures

Jesus said: “you cannot pour new wine into old wineskins…” (Luke 5:37-38), but you can create new wineskins for new wine. A new old story of “God so loved the world…” has been emerging and the people of God are learning how to tell the old story in new ways.

Essential Elements of Ecclesia

Ecclesia=called out ones.  Out of the world and into community, to worship God and to participate in God’s mission in the world.

  • Acts 2:42-47  ecclesia (gathered), koinonia (fellowship), didache (teaching), eucharist (thanksgiving), diaconia (service)–expressed in mutual dependency, generosity, sharing and numerical growth
  • “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am, right there, among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
  • “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together…” (Hebrews 10:25)
  • “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
  • “Bear one another’s burdens….” (Galatians 6:2) 

What are some fresh expressions of ecclesia?

       Church Online                                                                                    Missional Church                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Emergent/Emerging

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Organic Church  



Border Church at the California/Mexico Border, San Diego

       House Church                                                                                        Shalom Church

Permission Granted to Do Church Differently


  • Re-think Church. 
  • Re-imagine Faith.  
  • Envision ecclesia as community centers
  • Adapt Shalom strategies of Asset Based Community to re-purposing church buildings for the common good 


Eccesia is essential; structures change.

The Church has a future…if we re-purpose church buildings and re-form eccesia 

  • Time for church as the people of God to leave the temple and be the tabernacle in the world.
  • Time to get out of the church building and into the community.
  • Time to start Shalom Churches.

“Be the Church you want to see in the world.” 


[i] Hartford Institute of Religion Research (2012). Hartford Institute estimates there are roughly 350,000 religious congregations in the United States, mostly Protestant.  Average attendance: 186 (factoring in mega church attendance)

[ii] Pew Research 2012  http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/#who-are-the-unaffiliated

[iii] Barna Group conducted a major study on the U.S. unchurched population in 2014.

[iv] Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore by Thom Schultz  http://holysoup.com/2014/11/12/the-rise-of-the-dones/

[v] Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore by Thom Schultz and Joani Schutz

[vi]Permission Granted to Do Church Differently in the 21st Century by Graham Cooke and Gary Goodell (2010)

[vii] http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html  This estimate relies on the RCMS 2010 religious congregation’s census. Of those, about 314,000 are Protestant and other Christian churches, and 24,000 are Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Non-Christian religious congregations are estimated at about 12,000.

[viii] Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore by Thom Schultz and Joani Schutz

[ix] Mega Churches will continue to increase, absorb smaller churches, start or take over seminaries and replace denominational structures. http://thomrainer.com/2014/01/04/fourteen-predictions-for-american-churches-for-2014-part-two/