The beginning of a new year brings new opportunities to examine and adjust our priorities and our approach to life. Like clockwork after the ball drops in Times Square, fitness centers are flooded with newcomers, throngs of people commit to fad diets, couples commit to spend less and save more, and more.
But also like clockwork every year, once we get a few weeks into January those new commitments start to fade. The gym empties out again, the fad diet was too extreme, and the budget commitments couldn’t stand up against the convenience of Instacart and Amazon Prime. By the time February hits, all is basically as it ever was.
Most Christians recognize that in 2024 we’re at something of an inflection point in the normal rhythms of evangelical church life. Some attribute this to the changes wrought by COVID-19, others to political and ideological polarization, and still others to phenomena like secularization, globalization, and deconstructionism. But whatever the reasons, most can sense that change is afoot and to flourish in the emerging present, churches must adapt.
Now that the “new year, new me” hype has now waned and we can think seriously about what’s ahead, I want to suggest eight shifts I believe churches must begin to make in 2024 in order to thrive.
We will cover the four in part one of this article, and another four in a later part two.
Shift 1: From a One-Size-Fits All Model for Church Toward Agile Innovation
In a time where many churches are struggling to attract and retain new people, it is tempting to look at what Example Church is doing in another state and copy everything they’re doing. I confess that when my wife and I planted our church plant in Flint, Michigan, 10 years ago, we did just that. We “ran the play” that the big churches we looked up to were running. The problem was those churches were in cultural contexts very different than ours. There came a point, frustrated that the magic model we were trying to force upon the people to whom God had called us wasn’t being received with enthusiasm, that we realized we needed to do things differently.
As our local cultures change—and they are changing fast—church leaders must shift toward a posture of agile innovation. It’s freeing to recognize that there are many diverse, beautiful expressions of church life that Christians have walked out together over time and location. There’s no magic model. Instead, we must listen to the needs and unique characteristics of our context and our congregation, and develop globally-informed, but locally specific forms of church community.
Shift 2: From Digitally Primitive to Digitally Savvy
Digital technology is moving at a rapid pace, with the rapid adoption of technologies like Artificial Intelligence and spatial computing for use in everyday life. Christians have historically been at the forefront of adopting technologies for the purpose of sharing the gospel, from the Roman roadway system to deliver Paul’s letters to the printing press and, later, broadcast media. There is tremendous potential for innovation for churches, missional practitioners, and Christian ministries alike. For this innovation to take place, many churches must shift from seeing digital ministry as a peripheral component of ministry to an integral and necessary way to engage people where they now spend a significant portion of their time. Digitally primitive approaches to ministry still leverage technology in much the same way we did 25 years ago—one way communication of information, content, and events. Digitally savvy ministry focuses on cultivating relationships online and bridging the divide between physical and digital in our approaches to ministering to people.
I currently serve as the Lead Researcher of the Digital Mission Consortia, where we have done some work on this subject. All of our research is available for free.
Shift 3: From Information Dissemination to Environment Shaping
Related to the last shift toward being more digitally savvy, churches must consider shifting our relationship with “content” as a whole. For centuries, a crucial function of church leadership was to be holders and dispensers of biblical and theological knowledge. Clergy were among the most well-read and well-educated and were thus looked to for the grand answers of Christian life. But the internet age has brought about a seismic democratization of information. Now a teenager with an iPhone holds more information in their pocket than our ancestors could read in a lifetime.