The question “What is trending?” is now part of our cultural vernacular.
Social media has transformed trend analysis into a moment-by-moment process through constant updates about the most popular topics appearing in Facebook posts, tweets, hyperlink clicks and web searches.
The question “What is trending in local churches?” is of particular interest to people of faith.
I asked four Baptist leaders to share their insights regarding church trends. While each respondent shared unique insights, three leading trends emerged.
- Technology is transforming congregational engagement both in worship and throughout the week.
“In almost every church I go to, the words to the hymns or choruses – and even worship prompts – are done on a screen,” noted Steve Vernon, associate director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
“I suspect that fewer and fewer churches will even consider the pretext of purchasing hymnals,” he added.
A member of the board of the Baptist Center for Ethics, Vernon also observed that a growing number of congregations have wifi in their worship centers, which allows worshippers to use tablets and smartphones to read the Scripture.
“This does present the temptation of checking email if the sermon lags, but it is the price we pay,” he quipped.
Jim Hill, executive director of ChurchNet in Jefferson City, Mo., focused on how social media has changed the ways leaders engage their members throughout the week.
Using social media in local churches was initially a novelty, but now “many congregations have moved much more intentionally and profoundly into the social media realm as a significant, if not the primary, method of communication and collaboration,” he observed.
“In some congregations, it has become the most important communication tool for the staff and congregation,” Hill added.
- Rising costs and declining revenues are necessitating adjustments to church staffing.
Bivocational ministry and yoked ministries – in which two or more churches share a single pastor – were cited as growing trends, particularly among smaller congregations who can no longer support full-time clergy.
Tom Wiles, executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island (ABC-RI), cited escalating costs of health care, housing, transportation and education as leading causes behind this shift.
“There is, therefore, a fresh willingness to investigate not only bivocational ministers, but yoked ministries,” Wiles said. “Conversations about shared staff and ministries are more likely than in previous decades.”
“Younger pastors – or those who are new to pastoral ministry – expect to be ‘tentmakers,'” stated Soozi Ford, executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky. “Tentmakers” is her description of bivocational ministers.
Around 80 percent of the seminary students Ford has spoken to realize that full-time ministry positions are unlikely and “have other skills/professions which they are … willing to use for the purpose of supporting their families.”
While affirming an increase in churches adopting a bivocational ministry approach, Hill noted that “a significant percentage of clergy have served bivocationally for generations.”
Even so, “there are signs of an early trend toward congregations ‘raising’ or ‘calling out’ their staff from within the congregation based more on gifts and passions than the traditional resume,” he said.
- Changing perspectives are altering missions and community engagement.
Ford shared that smaller churches now see themselves as “mission outposts” focused on the positive impact they can make in their community rather than on their shortcomings.
“These churches are taking stock of their gifts and the needs of the community, and are beginning to reinvent themselves as community servants in the name of Jesus,” she explained.
Ministry efforts to feed the hungry and help people are a long-standing tradition, but addressing the systems that create poverty is “a new trend, at least in our state,” Hill observed.
There are a growing number of churches seeking to pursue justice by addressing systemic problems, which has resulted in “greater collaboration across denomination and interfaith lines,” he added.
Editor’s note: This is the seventh and final article in a series on church trends. Previous articles are available on “the Garden State,” missional engagement, Hispanic Baptists, technology in Christian education, social media and faith formation.