The first decade of the 21st century was one of highs and lows for U.S. congregations. In the wake of the tragedy of 9/11, many more people went to church for the next five Sundays or so. Then the numbers turned downward. If 9/11 and its aftermath shaped much of the external environment in the early years of the decade, an economic recession shaped much of the latter years.
The common 21st century challenge for churches across all sizes, regions, and traditions is to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people.
Most churches now recognize that congregational life and practices in the current century will need to be more than incremental improvements on what worked in the past. Major cultural and generational shifts are occurring. In this new context, church leaders are more confident in their knowledge of the dying edges that are passing away than they are of the living edges in which God is moving in this new day.
The common 21st century challenge for churches across all sizes, regions, and traditions is to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people. The people God has given us in the U.S. in the 21st century are more numerous, younger, and more diverse than in the past, while our churches overall continue to become smaller and older, as well as much less diverse than their communities.
The Lewis Center for Church Leadership is launching a new initiative to help church leaders address this challenge. Just as the Lewis Center’s focus on stewardship and finance has helped many church leaders better fund their ministries, the Center’s Reach New Disciples emphasis will offer more effective tools to congregations with a heart for connecting with those around them. Churches, especially long-established congregations, often need to reengage their surrounding communities in ways similar to their early days of congregational life.
Churches grow as a result of relationships. Today many of those relationships will not begin when new people arrive to visit a church but rather when churches connect with others in the community. Some refer to this as a move away from an “attractional” model to a more “missional” orientation. In any case, social and cultural forces are not factors in nudging people toward church today as in the past. Churches need to learn new practices to fit a new context.