The Future of Church

Published 3 months ago • 4 min read

The Future of Church

'It's like thinking outside the box - without the box!'

I heard this phrase at an online clergy conference, a few months into 2020, when we all moved instantly to online ministry.

The ‘box’ that the speaker was referring to was the church building itself. He was connecting to our grief and confusion about suddenly having to worship online, outside of our physical worship spaces.

But I don’t know. Between you and me, I’ve heard lots of ministers fantasize out loud about what it would be like if their buildings disappeared!

Truly, they love the church, and they love its sacred spaces. They love their congregations. But for decades now, we have felt the burden of decline. We are exhausted by how much energy we use keeping up with the buildings, and with keeping everything like it has always been.

We feel the constraint of having to give so many resources, money, and energy into maintenance, and comparatively fewer to really connecting people with the love of God.

We don’t really want to lose our buildings, but lots of us would not mind losing the box of institutional expectations that keeps us from serving as we are truly called.

Especially since fewer and fewer congregations can afford full-time clergy service - most cannot these days. Many struggle to afford half-time salary and benefits combined. Clergy and other ministers struggle to find full-time work with congregations in the traditional model.

And suddenly we find ourselves outside of ALL the boxes.

In some ways, this is exhilarating - and in some, terrifying. Where do we go from here? How do we meet the challenges of the future - and present - church with courage and faith?

When I look at how the church has been struggling, and how the sudden radical change of not meeting in person changed us further, I see four areas of opportunity and hope for the future…

1. Truly Online Ministry. As we move past simply broadcasting in-person worship, we open up into new ways of engaging our faith fully online, and truly combining online and in-person ministry. Online ministry can be things like church management systems, which today come with automations making it easier to administrate smaller, less-staffed congregations. They also make it easier to help members grow in their relationship with God, connecting them with resources and events for growing in faith.

There are also new kinds of online communities of faith, where deep soul work is shared across geography, and denomination.

2. Ministers as Faith Practitioners. Many clergy already feel stifled being ‘CEOs of small non-profits’ - concerned more about the administrative aspects of running an organization (out of necessity), and having less energy for the spiritual leadership we are called to. Now we are considering how to be doctors of faith in a spiritually suffering world. We serve congregations - and we serve the wider church, and the wider world. We can serve multiple congregations, organizations, and individuals at the same time.

We can also specialize in types of ministry: spiritual direction, life cycle liturgies, Biblical study, faith development, discipleship, etc. We can serve ministries developed around specialties, instead of all ministry being 'general practice' - the traditional congregational model.

3. Congregations as entrepreneurial communities. The truth is, most people - especially younger people - are not going to walk through the doors of our churches these days.

There needs to be more 'bringing church to people' than bringing people to church.

Taking a page from the small business model and thinking about marketing - who are we trying to reach? Why? What difference will it make in their lives? - will keep us true to the foundations of our faith, and why it matters that we know how much we are loved by God.

An entrepreneurial approach to money will be helpful, too...

4. A whole new approach to money and ministry. It's the third rail of ministry - how to pay for it. Pledge campaigns are no longer effective enough to sustain most congregations. Clergy struggle to live on the part-time salaries, while doing full-time work.

The future of church is absolutely dependent on being honest about how ministers are compensated, and that they should be compensated. As well as honesty about how aging, dwindling congregations struggle to afford to pay for all that goes into congregational life.

Making space for subscription models, creating courses and services that clergy and congregations charge money for, and using our buildings as a true source of income are just a few ways to rethink finances and church.

Beyond this, understanding that ministry and money can coexist, and that there is nothing inherently non-spiritual about financial concerns, is extremely important in order to find new ways of being church that is thriving.

Many of us are already doing these things out of necessity. We can keep doing them out of audacity.

The box we are thinking outside of isn’t the buildings. It’s the institutional mindset. It’s the thinking that says that we have to be IN the building in order for it to be ministry.

It’s the box that says only salaried ministry, paid by pledging to giving campaigns, is legitimate ministry.

It’s the closed doors of congregations who can’t make it work anymore in the traditional model, and clergy who fear being permanently out of work.

We can think outside the boxes that limit our imagination and contribute to our decline. We can live in hope, grounded in faith, and into the future of church.

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Fr. Cathie Caimano

Episcopal clergy, Ministry Innovator, eternal optimist, Free Range Priest.

19136 Juanita Lane, Cornelius, NC 28031
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I provide practical advice and innovative ideas for ministry so you can create the Future of Church without having to figure everything out all by yourself. Reimagine congregational, entrepreneurial, small church, part-time or denominational ministry. Share more Good News. Get more ministry JOY.

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