Leith Anderson Has Bright Hopes for the Next Decade of Ministry

The next 10 years will be challenging—but don’t believe the worrywarts.
Leith Anderson Has Bright Hopes for the Next Decade of Ministry
Image: Illustration by Adam Simpson

Predictions of the coming collapse of evangelicalism were easy to find in 2009. Writers competed for the end date, many predicting 10 years of ecclesial hospice culminating in the death of evangelicalism in 2019. You can check out the predictions for yourself on the internet, although some of the publications that posted the articles are now out of business.

Evangelical churches in America are doing well, and evangelicalism around the rest of the world is booming—especially in Africa, South America, and parts of Asia and Europe. To flourish in the coming decade, what trends should American pastors anticipate? Let’s risk some predictions for 2029.

Evangelicalism Isn’t Going Anywhere

The question I’m asked most often is this: “What’s happening to evangelicalism?” People are curious about the state of the movement and the name itself.

The term evangelicalism may be uncomfortable for many, but it won’t disappear easily or quickly. Changing names rarely works anyway. Ask your friends, “What is the tallest building in Chicago?” Most will answer, “The Sears Tower.” Except Sears sold the naming rights a decade ago, and this second-tallest-building in the Western Hemisphere became the Willis Tower on July 16, 2009. Either way, evangelicals have a long history of adaptation, and the future will be bright for those who take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

What about reports of the decline of evangelicals, especially among younger adults? Most evangelical denominations are growing, some are plateaued, and a few are declining. New churches are being planted across our nation, from small rural towns to major urban cities. In 10 years they will be among the most effective and influential congregations in the country.

But headcount isn’t the only way to measure the strength of evangelicalism. What about intensity? The research of Landon Schnabel (Indiana University Bloomington) and Sean Bock (Harvard University) in the academic journal Sociological Science (November 2017, Vol. 4) shows how intense religious faith stays strong when secularization erodes the moderate religious faith of others. “Rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularization thesis would suggest, intense religion—strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism, and evangelicalism—is persistent and in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.”

What does this predict for the future of Christianity in America? Moderate churches and denominations will decline. Evangelical churches with intense faith will grow. Just don’t confuse intensity with extremism—serious biblical convictions are good; idiosyncratic fringe convictions are bad.

Minorities Will Become the Majority

America is a majority white nation and has been for centuries, but not much longer. By 2044 whites will still be the largest segment of the population but no longer 50-plus percent. Current estimates for 25 years from now are 49.7 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic, 12.7 percent black, 3.7 percent Asian, and 3.7 percent multiracial. There are many reasons for this demographic shift, including rising average ages and fewer births among whites than persons of color. And for the past 50 years, more immigrants have come from non-European countries than from Europe.

Already, the growth of churches, especially evangelical churches, is coming from ethnic minorities and non-white immigrants as white churches plateau. The Assemblies of God (AG) show the trend well. In 1989 there were 11,192 AG churches with 80 percent primarily Anglo and 20 percent primarily ethnic minority/immigrant. By 2018 this Pentecostal denomination had grown to 13,107 churches, with 62 percent primarily Anglo and 38 percent primarily ethnic minority/immigrant. It’s not just that minority/immigrant churches are rapidly growing (2,260 churches in 1989 to 4,915 churches in 2018—a 117-percent increase), but that primarily Anglo churches have declined (8,932 churches in 1989 to 8,102 churches in 2018—a 9.3-percent decrease). Influence magazine reports a new AG church plant every 21 hours, and 54 percent of the millions of adherents are under the age of 35. Over the past decade, the millennial population of AG churches has increased by 11 percent.

Unlike immigration to Europe, a high percentage of immigrants to the United States have come and are coming from countries with Christian majorities and some, like Honduras, with evangelical majorities. Pew Research Center says that 68 percent of immigrants to this country are Christians, and all other religions combined total only 12 percent.

Royal House Chapel International is a megachurch in Accra, Ghana, with churches of immigrants growing along the east coast of the United States from New York to North Carolina. American churches have long sent missionaries to Africa; Africa is now sending missionaries to America.

The racial and ethnic diversity of Pentecost in Acts 2 is coming to America in the 21st century.

Churches Will Adapt as America Ages

In the race toward an old and shrinking national population, Japan is winning, Europe is catching up, and the United States has joined the race. The Center for Disease Control reports that the national birth rate in 2018 was the lowest in 32 years with future declines predicted. Beginning in 2035, we will have more old Americans (78 million over 65) than young Americans (76.7 million under 18).

At the same time, the ranks of seniors are rapidly growing. High birth rates 65 years ago mean that more than 10,000 workers per day are reaching retirement age. The booming senior-high-school group of the 1970s will become the booming seniors-only group of the 2020s.

There will still be millions of children, teenagers, and young adults. But they will be a smaller percentage of the total population. Some churches will aggressively focus on younger generations and succeed at keeping and recruiting a shrinking market. That will make youth ministry even more difficult for the rest of the churches who can’t compete. More congregations will either increase their average age, establish cooperative youth ministries with other churches, welcome young immigrants, or seek creative alternatives.

A church in the Southwest had no teenagers and no youth group. The leadership called for a major increase in the church budget to recruit a youth pastor and build a youth program. It was an assignment few potential youth pastors should ever accept. At the church budget meeting, a member proposed an alternative plan to call a senior adults pastor instead. The congregation agreed, called a seniors’ pastor, and was surprised by the unanticipated consequences. The new pastor developed an outstanding seniors’ ministry that attracted a large number of retirees. Their children were so impressed with what they heard from their parents that they decided to check out the church, bringing their teenagers with them. After a few years, the influx of these families and their children required the congregation to call a youth pastor for all the new teenagers.

Will this work everywhere? Probably not. The point is that they recognized the demographic realities and designed their ministry to fit.

The Religious Liberty Showdown Is Just Starting

Religious liberty may not be specifically mentioned in the Bible, but it is a wonderful goal and a long-established part of American culture that has protected Christians and non-Christians and allowed Christian faith in America to become numerically larger than any other country. That is rapidly changing as pluralism and diversity of identities conflict with sincerely held religious beliefs.

Fears about the possible closing of traditional religious colleges, adoption agencies, rescue missions, and other ministries arose when the 2019 House of Representatives passed (236–173) the Equality Act to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Expect the polarization to continue—and grow. Sincerely held religious beliefs on human sexuality and opposition to all discrimination will threaten churches and faith-based organizations for a generation and more. With opposing lines drawn and stakes high, compromise and accommodation are repeatedly challenged to make for a win-lose conflict. And it’s not just about human sexuality; this extends to taxation of religious organizations, regulations of clergy, evangelism, religious discrimination in employment, speech, and more.

The threat of lost religious liberty is concerning to both white evangelicals who have enjoyed majority power and status and minority religious groups like Muslims. Evangelicals will need to make some unlikely allies in the fight to preserve religious liberties. And what if, after the showdown, those liberties are diminished? When I asked my friend Claude Alexander, an African American pastor in Charlotte, what white churches can learn from black churches, he told me that the black church has experienced a long history of discrimination and can teach the white church how to be faithful when liberties are lost.

Evangelism Today Will Predict Church Health Tomorrow

The biggest predictor of future faith and growing churches is evangelism. Why do churches survive and thrive? Because they recruit new people. Yet political and cultural shifts toward isolationism, protectionism, and nationalism are morphing into growing tribalism—including in churches and denominations. After World War II, there came generations of globalization. This expanded transportation, grew companies across borders, and produced the largest growth of Christian missions and Christianity in history. Today’s political, economic, and social trends are closing in rather than reaching out. When congregations adopt this inward tilt and prioritize keeping insiders over evangelizing outsiders, they start down the path to atrophy and eventual demise.

There were 120 identified believers at the opening of Acts (1:15) and a dozen apostles who were the epicenter of evangelism in a nation of four million people. Although not an algorithm for fulfilling the Great Commission, this base of 10 percent won the empire. Take a poll of church attendees and ask how many have shared their faith or invited others to church in the last month. If one-tenth of church people regularly reach out to outsiders, it probably will require the other 90 percent to serve and disciple all the new believers. The church with 10 percent or more who share and invite has a promising future. Less than 10 percent is a flashing warning light.

Thom S. Rainer, former president of LifeWay Research, claims that “the number of effective evangelistic churches (EEC) is surprisingly stable. The percentage of such churches has remained in the narrow range from 6 percent to 7.5 percent.”

Which churches are most likely to lead the way in effective evangelism? Established churches where the pastor and leaders are relentless in prioritizing and promoting evangelism, and new churches—because they need newcomers to survive and thrive.

As Populations Shift, Churches Will Redistribute

ZIP codes are more than postal delivery numbers; each one has its own mix of geography, race, ethnicity, poverty, affluence, growth, and decline. Growing ZIPs tend to have growing churches; shrinking ZIPs tend to have shrinking churches. Let’s not predict everywhere when we should see the future in terms of somewhere.

Timberwood Church in Nisswa, Minnesota, (ZIP 56468) welcomes 1,000 worshipers to two services in a town of 2,034. Cornerstone Church in Litchfield, Minnesota, (ZIP 55355) has well over 1,000 worshipers at weekend services out of 6,630 local residents. Eaglebrook Church (multiple sites with different ZIPs) tops 20,000 each weekend as Minnesota’s largest congregation. All three have thrived in very different communities. Nisswa is a resort town. Litchfield is surrounded by farmland. The Twin Cities, where Eaglebrook has multiple campuses, have 3.6 million people. All three belong to the same Converge denomination and are effective in ministry and outreach. They have adapted to their local cultures. But there are also towns and ZIPs in the Land of 10,000 Lakes where population is declining, unemployment is high, youth are moving away, and churches are closing. These towns are losing their hospitals, churches, and even their schools. As they adapt with telemedicine and long school bus rides, churches will adapt with house churches and telechurches.

Expect restructuring and redistribution. Don’t assume that closing a church is some kind of a canary in the denomination forecasting broad decline. The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (4Cs) is one of multiple denominations that sold a building and used the money to start new congregations. The death of one became the birth of many. Compare this to what happened with school districts. In 1940 the United States counted 117,762 public school districts; by 2010 the number declined to 13,588—a decrease of more than 100,000 school districts. And, the number of public schools dropped from 226,762 to 98,817. This restructuring happened as the national population more than doubled from 132 million to 309 million. Apparently there were lots of small, one-room schools and now there are a lot of mega-schools.

Fewer buildings doesn’t necessarily mean decline. Let’s expect closed churches, new churches, megachurches, and house churches. Restructuring and reorganization can be uncomfortable and wonderful at the same time. Those that adapt to fit the local culture and speak the area dialect will do well.

When Heaven Looks Back

Preachers have sometimes fantasized that when they get to heaven they will line up to ask the first-century apostles what it was like when the church was getting started and God was doing such great things to advance the gospel.

I have a different fantasy. I imagine Peter, Paul, Andrew, James, and other apostles lining up to ask us, “What was it like to be part of the church at the beginning of the 21st century when God was doing such great things around the world? What was it like, and what was your part in God’s great time?”

Leith Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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