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Which churches are heading for decline according to Carey Nieuwhof?

by Pete Phillips, Premier's Head of Digital Theology

A new blogpost by Canadian church leader and blogger Carey Nieuwhof outlining his predictions on what will lead contemporary churches into decline within the next five years has already received over 15,000 views.

Both myself and John Drane reposted the blog on our Facebook sites earlier this week with a number of missiologists, church leaders and others broadly in agreement with Carey's insights.

whether we are online or onsite, we are always in-person!
The ruins of an abandoned church with a young man looking out of a window
St Dunstan's, London - Photo by Lee Scarratt on Unsplash

Carey argues that avoiding the shift to hybrid will be one of the pivotal moments in the future of the Church. In the article he notes seven characteristics of such churches and I want to list them and add a bit of commentary for the British situation. You can add your own views in the comments section below or over on Premier Digital's Facebook page. What do you think about these dire warnings?

Carey's a fantastic advocate of hybrid church but uses a different vocabulary to our hybrid conversation. Where we use Katie Tupling's vocabulary of onsite and online, Carey persists with in-person and online. We remember that Katie's vocabulary reminds us that whether we are online or onsite, we are always in-person!

The Seven Signs of Imminent Decline

1. Leaders bet everything on a physical return to church

We've all seen this - the rejoicing at buildings being opened up, the hoped-for permission to sing again, no social distancing inside churches. But we've also seen the lack of take-up in many churches. We'll have read the posts of anxiety. We'll have noted the sighs from those unable to come into our churches or fit into our programme delivery times. To be honest, not many people were coming to church any more in the first place. Are we really dependant on the 4 million coming back as our only hope? Is onsite church the best way to share the good news in a networked society?

Carey points to returns in Canada and America beginning at around 70% of the normal congregation but often dipping to 20-40%!!!! So already churches are facing an immediate decline of anywhere between one third and two thirds of their former size, with the 49% of all pastors thinking further decline in likely (BARNA).

Evidently onsite worship is part and parcel of the hybrid future. But it is likely that quite a few church buildings will decide to close down in the post-pandemic world.

For many people, online church has caught both their imagination and their spirit - they want the freedom to worship in their time and place, they love the domestic church, they love seeing others engage online. Perhaps onsite church has as much to learn from the online experience as the rest of us. One church I heard of has decided to refashion the inside of their church - to remove the pews and install chairs so they can see one another's faces when they meet together since Zoom Church has shown them how good it is to see one another in worship!

2. Success measured by onsite attendance

Church has always valued how many people turn up to our events. You go into many churches and see old pictures when the church was packed, when Anniversary meetings were overflowing, when crowds were a sign of God's blessing. Often modern day congregations and modern day preachers live under the cloud of such success. If only we were better...rather than looking at massive shifts in society since those photos were taken.

We need new metrics - metrics much the church is praying, how many connections we have with the local community, how many people we have helped to live life more fully. Remember Micah 6:8 is preceded by lots of daft metrics and God says that what he really wants is for us to act justly, love loving, to walk humbly with God. What are the Micah Metrics we can develop for a proper analysis of the health of the church? (Carey offers a good model here)

3. Online is an afterthought or regarded as a lesser form of church

In the UK, around 5% of people attend physical church before the Pandemic. The figures are continuing to decline despite growth in some areas. The demographics are against any such growth making a dent in the decline. Our churches are full of older people. The young have abandoned the church for many reasons - lack of interest, poor press, sexual abuse scandals, homophobia, lack of relevance, distrust of authority. Many of those ideas coalesce into onsite church being a social club for those who do attend.

Online Church reached a huge number of people and many of them were not in the age groups which onsite church attracts - young adults. If you look at the graph below, you can see that up to 48% of young adults said they were engaging in online worship activities during the lockdown (survey by SevantaComRes for Durham University). This means that online offers a new mission field for the Church - a new community of people who are interested in spirituality and faith expression. Why would we not take this new opportunity seriously?

A bar chart giving the breakdown of those attending different types of online faith-related activity during July and August 2020
Online Faith-Related Activity Polling, Centre for Digital Theology

Online needs to be, for at least some of the Church, the new focus of our work. We are not a chaplaincy for a minority who like onsite church, we are called to share the good news with all of creation. We need to lift our our heads and the minor vision many churches are currently engaged with. That is not to say that the elderly, the onsite church, the social club churches are not important. They are but they are not everything and how can we ignore the 66 million who are not coming anywhere near onsite church in the UK alone????

4. All Feedback comes from their Echo Chamber

We are all guilty of listening only to our echo chamber. So remainers were shocked at the Brexit result because they had their own echo chamber. But we do it in the Church as well - listeners to those who sit around us rather than always picking up feedback from those who don't. If we only listen to those who come to onsite church, we are always going to think that onsite church is the only model theologically or technologically feasible.

Who are you listening to? One of the great things about our MA in Digital Theology is that you can disagree completely with other people in group but you get to hear those voices, that input that you don't get. This is a true learning environment where new ides can be developed and heard. Where echo chambers can be breached.

5. Churches which quickly went back to 3 song and a message

The pandemic changed the way we did Church. And during the pandemic, many churches shifty quickly towards interactive models rather than theatre models of doing church - think more zoom, less YouTube. We've adapted continually to try different things, to see what works, to explore ritual and encounter and different ways to grow our discipleship.

We don't need to stop this experimentation and adaption into the future. We need to explore more about the body of Christ - about mixing onsite and online into hybrid church, about doing online church where ritual happens online as well as onsite, where God is encountered in the digital space.

6. The Church building was re-established as the sole locus of ministry

Where do we encounter God? Where does God encounter us? During the pandemic we were confined to our houses - that was where we learned to hear God, to pray, to encounter the divine, to develop our spirituality. Indeed, the home and family has been the spiritual centre of Judaism, Islam and Christianity for huge swathes of history. This domestication of the Church reminds us that power and privilege have been strange bed-partners for the Church. In the UK we are embedded into those structures through our civic buildings and influence. But what would it mean to take the Church back home and to see our domestic environments as the centre of a less powerful, less politically embedded church?

We love the power of mixing with politicians and the socially elite. For most of his life, perhaps just until the last week, Jesus spent his time with ordinary folk, in their homes, in their synagogues, in their fields and on their mountains. The rich sought him out, the religious came to mock him and argue with him. He had parties within sinners and tax-collectors and allowed people to approach him in the streets, at a party, in a wedding. Apart from in his youth and in the last days, Jesus avoided the Temple. He never set up a shrine and told people to come to him. Indeed when Peter suggested doing that at the Transfiguration, Jesus rebuked him for even thinking it!

7. The leaders excluded Gen Z from the Inner Leadership Circle

Apparently, Benedict, one of the earliest founders of a monastic community, argued that the young should always be the first to speak in his community because they were closest to the Spirit. Of course, that always gave the older members of the community time to set things back on the straight and narrow. But the point is important - where are the young voices in our churches. Of course, when the youngest member is in their 60s, you don't have many Gen Z around. Our models of Church in the UK tends to exclude young adults.

But what are we doing to include the excluded? Not just Gen Z but also people with disabilities, working people, people restricted to their homes, the poor. When our leadership circles are full of the rich, the elite, the white, the male, then our church practice may well reflect the church of the elite.

What would it mean for us to bring in people a couple of generations younger than us to be a core part of our leadership thinking? What would it mean to break apart the model of the church where the elderly, the weathly, the professional model and permit the kind of the church.

Sadly, for many churches across the UK, we'd be hard pressed to find anyone from that age group engaged in our worship to invite them onto leadership - this HAS to change.

Carey's blogpost is worth reading, careful reading, and praying over. He incorporates many links and offers some good courses to help us in ministry. His podcasts are enriching and entertaining. His wisdom is profound.

The key thing for me is that Carey reminds us we need to stop focussing on how we did church before the Pandemic. We need to maintain the shift towards change, the shift towards hybrid, the shift towards inclusion. How might you do that in your church.

Taster Sessions

By the way - have you see our taster events for the MA in Digital Theology. We're having one on Tuesday 22nd at 7pm and one on Saturday 26th at 11am. You can sign up for them here:

Come and learn more and equip yourself for growth rather than decline!


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