In the ongoing debate over whether digital gizmos will replace books, the conclusion of many media watchers is an unequivocal “yes and no.” Amazon’s Kindle has really become a game-changer, delivering books within seconds of purchase via Sprint’s wireless network. Problems do exist, as Jeff Jarvis points out, because if you do not have good Sprint coverage in your area, books take hours to download, not seconds. In other words, it’s not perfect.
So, will digital replace books? Yes, e-books will replace printed books for many, maybe even most. But, printed books will still survive in print-on-demand processes that print each copy as ordered. Books will also survive in niche groups like “Save the Real Books” (which I just made up, but you get the idea). After all, there are groups for vintage cars, vintage wine, vintage clothing, vintage furniture—so why not vintage book printing?
Digital won’t eliminate printed books, but digital will be another means to acquire and read books. In other words, rather than one model (printed books), we’ll have a network of niche models from which to choose, including print, digital, audio, digital audio (the new Kindle can read your book to you), digital mobile and so on.
Which brings us to churches, again.
Using the e-book versus printed book model, what does that say about churches? I have been saying that we’re counting the wrong things in church (attendance) when we should be counting community engagement. I’ve also said that church attendance will decrease (this is not an original thought), and we’re moving rapidly toward a post-Christendom era like Europe.
That said, I don’t think all existing churches will die. For instance, the mega-churches spawned by baby boomers will not go away. I think their influence will diminish and some will downsize. But churches will always exist, some will always have buildings and property, and most will always be trying to attract people to them.
But, I think new forms of church will emerge from the next generation of church leaders. These forms are not even thought of yet. Example: A few years ago, who would have thought of LifeChurch.tv with an Internet campus and a bunch of satellite sites?
Lyle Schaller came close in the 1980s when he advocated that small churches use video sermons from outstanding preachers, but Schaller did not imagine that video sermons would be simulcast to remote satellite locations where a live band would lead worshippers in person, cutting to the remote video of Craig Groeschel (or Andy Stanley) in time for the message.
To get back to our question: Will churches of today disappear? Yes and no.
We can be certain of this: We live in an age of discontinuous change and unexpected consequences. Nobody knows exactly what church will look like in the future because we’re not there yet. But I have a feeling it will employ multiple models, not one predominant model like we had from WWII until about 1985.
That’s about the time the church growth movement popularized church planting by anybody, not just denominations. That shift resulted in hundreds of new churches, led by entrepreneurial church planters who created different models. That is what I think will happen, again, but this time the new models will be even more innovative than those of the last 25 years.
We’ll still have bricks-and-mortar churches, but also house churches, coffee shop churches, outdoor churches, churches that meet once a month, churches that meet online, churches that consists of groups which interact frequently, and churches that we can’t even imagine yet. We will also see “single market” churches that focus on the homeless or the physically handicapped or the poor or any niche group you can think of.
In other words, the same thing that is happening in the broader culture will happen in churches, too—more options, more models, a network of niches, rather than a predominant church form.
I am also certain that whatever emerges, church will not ever be the same again. By extension, neither will denominations, cross-cultural missions programs or Christian education programs. These will all change radically because the current models are unsustainable in today’s culture.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.