Trends Impacting Your Church  (whether you know it or not)

by Rev. Cameron Trimble

When most people look at the trends shaping congregational life, they look at the shifts within the sector. Fewer people are attending church. Less money is flowing into the general operating fund. Our buildings are aging. Clergy are aging. That is one way to tell the story of Mainline life in North America. 

It becomes a more interesting story when we widen our lens. Why are fewer people attending church? Why is less money coming in to support ministry? 

The only way to access insights into this kind of inquiry is to look at the trends beyond the silo of Mainline church. Once you grant yourself the freedom to become curious about the shifts in our wider culture, suddenly the answers to these questions become obvious even as new questions become apparent. 

Let’s consider what your congregation can learn simply by looking at the trends impacting the internet. Each year, Mary Meeker, a global technology research expert, presents her “Internet Trends Report,” the most highly anticipated slide deck in Silicon Valley. Here are some highlights from her 2019 presentation

Mary Meeker observes: E-commerce is now 15 percent of retail sales. Its growth has slowed — up 12.4 percent in Q1 compared with a year earlier — but still towers over growth in regular retail, which was just 2 percent in Q1.

Why does this matter to your church? 

We are all now entirely accustomed to buying and selling online. We do most of our transactions virtually. In fact, most of us don’t carry cash or use checks. If your church doesn’t provide ways for people to give electronically both onsite and online, you should expect a continued decrease in giving to your church. 

Mary Meeker observes: Americans are spending more time with digital media than ever: 6.3 hours a day in 2018, up 7 percent from the year before. Most of that growth is coming from mobile and other connected devices, while time spent on computers declines.

Why does this matter to your church? 

If your church doesn’t have a robust social media presence, you simply don’t exist for many people who use social media to connect with their favorite brands, businesses and charities. In 2018, people gave over $1 billion dollars in charitable giving through Facebook donations. On Giving Tuesday alone, people came together on Facebook to raise over $125 million to support the causes they care about.

Apart from financial donations, social media is the strongest tool we can use to share messages of hope, inspiration and welcome to people living in our communities. With the ability to geo-locate targeted ads, we can offer alternative messages to the current divisive politics we see in our nation. While we have been taught that the pulpit is our strongest platform for our prophetic voice, in truth, social media is much, much stronger. 

Mary Meeker observes: Images are increasingly the means by which people communicate, as technology developments like faster WiFi and better phone cameras have encouraged a surge in image taking. More than 50 percent of Twitter impressions now involve posts with images, video or other media; Twitter used to be text-only.

Why does this matter to your church? 

We are wordy people in Mainline church. We publish LONG e-newsletters with lots of writing. We put tons of words on our websites. We post sermons that are many pages long. But increasingly...no one reads that stuff. Inspired by images that provoke emotional responses, people engage and share content that feels helpful, insightful and/or funny. If you want to communicate with people in your community, you will have to learn their language. Canva.com will be your new best friend. 

Mary Meeker observes: The internet will become more of a cesspool. Getting rid of problematic content becomes more difficult on a large scale, and the very nature of internet communication allows that content to be amplified much more than before. Some issues: 42 percent of US teens have experienced offensive name-calling online, terrorists are being radicalized on sites like YouTube, and social media has encouraged increased political polarization.

Why does this matter to your church? 

Cyber bullying is an epidemic in our nation and one that must concern the Church. While strangers gaining access to our children is troubling, the online personal attacks that we see among congregational members are all the more shocking. We should know better and do better. The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, recently published a powerful piece on the need to use social media responsibly and with respect between church leaders. 

Taken a step further, as people of the “Good News,” we have an opportunity to messages of hope as an antidote to the fear-mongering that we now see spreading so pervasively through online channels. No doubt: fear sells. But hope does too. Take inspiration from 15-year-old activist Greta Thunberg speaks truth to power at the UN COP24 climate talks. 

Health care is steadily becoming more digitized. Expect more telemedicine and on-demand consultations.

Why does this matter to your church? 

This matters, perhaps most of all, because increasingly more and more of us won’t be able to show up at a church on Sunday. Already in the United States, average church attendance for most people is once every 6 weeks. In most congregations, if you can’t make it on Sunday, you can’t engage in the life of the church. That is a guarantee for going out of business for congregations in the future.

We must get more creative and invest more research and development into ways people can remain connected and engaged with their fellow congregation members even when they are living in other parts of the world or simply away on business trips or vacation. We need to become comfortable hosting meetings online using video conferencing platforms rather than requiring members to show up for committee meetings. We need to prototype experiments in providing online, accessible pastoral care for those in crisis and those simply needing to work through life issues. We need to prepare for the day that virtual reality allows us to gather together online in experiences just as (or more) powerful as sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning. 

The ways we imagine and create congregational life together, particularly in the Mainline Church, needs to be reimagined to adapt to these trends and many more. I can't imagine a more exciting time to be in leadership, to have the privilege to architect new expressions of spiritual formation as we continue the epic journey of being People of the Way.

We need not look far for inspiration. The founder of our movement, Jesus, used the tools, tales and talent at his disposal to connect people to a deeper message of hope, love & faith. So too should we. The very future of our world may depend on it.