The 2020’s are upon us, and while I am not interested in speculation, I believe it is important to stop and assess what our current trends suggest we will be dealing with in the coming decade. Here are some very initial and quite limited thoughts about what is before us.
 
First, some of the challenges we know are coming: 
 
The Contraction
There will be a stunning number of congregations that close, sell, or radically transform themselves by the end of the decade. Some suggest that by 2030 up to one-third of our current congregations will no longer exist. The primary financial and attendance support for many congregations today comes from those over 75. As they pass on, there will be a void that will be difficult for many congregations to fill and nearly impossible to overcome.
 
The Retirement Tsunami
Most American denominational groups are in the midst of a tsunami of retirements of clergy and key leaders. Boomers born in the 1950’s are exiting the congregational and denominational stage in record numbers. As the “bulge in the snake” of those born between 1946-1964 exits the leadership scene, the ensuing opportunities and crises will become clearer. By the end of the 2020’s, the last of the Boomers will be retiring (those born in 1964 will turn 66), and the leadership transitions of most denominations, churches and religious institutions will have taken place. 
 
The Pipeline 
Theological education in America is in the beginning stages of a massive downsizing and resulting shift in methodology.  Enrollments in traditional M.Div. degree programs are already plummeting, and efforts to stem that by offering 2-year M.Div. programs have had only modest success. There simply are fewer and fewer college graduates interested in spending three to four years in a full-time graduate school setting. Online alternatives and a shrinking student population will continue to force traditional institutions to adapt. This will have profound impacts upon church staffing models. 
 
Conflict Spreads      
As most congregations continue to contract, and as our culture continues it’s relentless descent into incivility, more and more congregations will be visited by significant conflict. Scapegoating is a common response to loss, and as losses mount, there will nearly always be a group in a church that sees clergy leadership as the issue. Sadly, forced terminations will continue to rise, and the resulting loss in momentum and trust will accelerate the demise of many congregations. Add to this the likelihood that the decade will bring into focus a litany of knotty issues many have avoided: sexual orientation, justifiable war, sexual explotation, pervasive violence, political polarization, immigration, civil religion, etc. These will require an ability to address thorny issues that most congregations are simply not able to manage. Our traditions of conflict avoidance and/or our emulation of the toxic political culture have weakened our ability to disagree without demonizing those with whom we disagree. Fragmentation and polarization will continue their ugly growth in congregations. 
 
So, what are some signs of hope for the coming decade? 
 
The Gift of Clarity
As their metrics continue to slide, some congregations will accept the invitation to re-examine why they exist, rather than simply assume they have a right to exist. This will return them to the primary call of the church in Acts and re-engage with their original reason for being. The resulting clarity will energize and invigorate those who have survived the great contraction, and give them a message that resonates with a culture in search of real meaning. As simple as this sounds, it will be very challenging for traditional churches that have become encrusted with decades of local traditions and 20th century consumeristic expectations. The old adage that “every Sunday is Reformation Sunday” will ring increasingly true. 
 
Jesus Will Lead Us
As congregations are faced with their demise, some will recognize that they have inadvertently wandered far from being shaped by the Jesus of scripture. As they rediscover his core message and mission, doing so will enable them to differentiate from institutional culture and traditions and refocus themselves around his radical and challenging core message. Realigning and recalibrating every aspect of their corporate life around that message will revitalize those who choose this path.
 
The Growth of Diversity
As America’s demographics continue to diversify, so will those churches that survive the decade. Think of diversity in any arena (gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, economic, worship style, methodology, missiology, etc.) and it will probably mark those churches that thrive in the coming decade. 
 
The Surge of the New 
One trend that will continue is the surge in multisite locations and church planting. As facilities become available due to closures, larger churches that are well differentiated and relentlessly focused on a clear mission will continue to step in and expand their growth by multisite methodology. The unfolding culture in American congregational life in the 2020’s will become increasingly hostile to 20th century expressions of faith but more engaged by church starts that begin as cell groups or church plants focused on community, discipleship and service rather than facilities and staff. Innovation and entrepreneurial thinking will continue to guide these expressions of faith. 
 
Turnaround Leadership Emerges
With the overwhelming majority of churches in America in decline (nearly all those started prior to 1980 and with attendance less than 1000), a new skillset in lay and clergy leaders will emerge. Rather than think of turnaround as simply a reversal of numerical decline, the real turnaround for most congregations will be to move from irrelevance to relevance in the lives of their constituents and their communities. These leadership skills will be birthed and honed in the midst of intense and tense seasons of spiritual discernment among congregations that proactively seek a new way forward. For some, it will be a smaller but more authentic expression of the faith they will come to embrace and celebrate. For others, it will result in substantial growth. The new metric for thriving churches, however, will be faithfulness to the gospel mission rather than cultural or corporate metrics that violate gospel tenants. 
 
The 2020’s are here. Buckle up, it’s going to be quite a ride. 

Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.