What will the American Church look like 25 years from now? Honestly, I have no idea. To paint a complete picture of the Church in the year 2034 with any hope of being right, one would need to consider a variety of economic, social, and ecumenical factors and trends. And that’s not what we do here.
First, this is a media and technology magazine, so I’ll limit my speculation to those arenas. The futures of denominations, doctrine, and church economics are best left to those with the extra letters after their names that indicate advanced degrees. Besides, who cares about being right? I’d rather have fun imagining the progression of church media and technology. So much has changed in the last five years alone that the next couple of decades could be a wild ride that surpasses anything I’m able to imagine or articulate in this space. Or we could go the way of Orwell’s 1984 and Zemeckis’s Back to the Future Part II and overestimate the technological progress the future holds. Either way, we can’t know for sure. We all have to wait and see what happens (barring any apocalyptic visions and/or prophecies, of course).
One final caveat before we get started: This exercise is about what I think could happen, not about the goodness or badness of what I think could happen. In other words, I don’t condone or condemn anything I’m about to predict—that’s a whole other article. With that said, fire up the DeLorean and buckle your seat belt. We’re going to the future.
In the year 2034, three church sizes persist: small, medium, and large. Each is formed out of and operates under different social, theological, economic, and geographic factors and, as such, each uses media and technology in different ways. Furthermore, each of the three sizes of church is associated with a different kind of church building or meeting space.
The large churches, known in the future as gigachurches, are comprised of thousands of members who both necessitate and fund the high-tech gigachurch buildings of the future. And while gigachurches aren’t the majority of American churches, they unquestionably serve as the face of institutional Protestantism. Gigachurches, having more resources at their disposal than their diminutive brethren, consistently embrace and upgrade the technological aspects of their campuses in order to facilitate a user experience designed to rival that of any amusement park, hotel, or tourist attraction. This is never more evident to a gigachurch visitor than the first time he or she is guided into an available parking spot by an android. Or when he or she is greeted at the front door by an android. Or when he or she places the kids under the caring, watchful eye of an android. Sure, volunteerbots require a substantial investment upfront, but they are well-suited to the gigachurch in that they are easy to train, provide a consistent level of service, never complain about their assigned role, and they never sleep through the alarm clock on a Sunday morning. Based on the integral role androids play in their weekend operations, gigachurch Chief Technology Officers unanimously agree that the bots are worth their weight in gold. Other popular gigachurch amenities include interactive spiritual development stations, 360-degree environmental projection on all surfaces, and customized multimedia content pushed to attendees’ mobile devices the moment they step foot onto the campus.
Most mid-sized church buildings aren’t church buildings at all—they’re movie theaters, rock clubs, and other performance venues that can comfortably accommodate a few hundred people at a time. Middlechurches lack the financial resources to own their own facilities (or they’ve chosen to divert the funds to other areas), but they can afford to rent space on Sundays. generally speaking, media and technology integration is valued among actual and prospective churchgoers, so middlechurches choose rented meeting spaces with installed technology that can provide immersive environments for entertainment-seeking patrons. As it turns out, the desperation of the theater and live music industries to compete for consumers’ discretionary income by creating more distinctive entertainment experiences has helped middlechurches by subsidizing the high cost of keeping up with the gigachurches. Sunday morning church tenants also help subsidize overhead costs for facility owners at a time of the week when their venues are typically empty, so both sides appreciate the arrangement. For the most part, middlechurches take advantage of these facilities, media-savvy volunteers, and third-party church media resources to create worship experience productions on par with most live theater or mid-level rock band production.
Nanochurches, small communities of 10 to 25 people, typically meet in living rooms, basements, coffee shops, public parks, unused rooms on gigachurch campuses, and other free spaces to which the community has access. Within the nanochurch classification, two distinct approaches to media and technology have evolved—those that use what they can (pro-tech) and those that don’t (no-tech). Those that employ media and technology elements in their services or gatherings do so using consumer electronics (home theaters, laptops, mobile phones, etc.) that fit the space in which they meet. These nanochurches know they can’t compete with the production and immersive environments of gigachurches and middlechurches, but they remain convinced of the potential of electronic media to communicate and connect. In the urban areas in which most nanochurches exist, electronic media is so integrated into every aspect of daily life that pro-tech nanochurches have no qualms about leveraging whatever digital elements they can in order to facilitate meaningful worship experiences.
No-tech nanochurches embrace a counterculture ideology that influences most aspects of their church life. They guard their faith communities as sacred institutions and thus resist the infiltration and influence of electronic media. When possible, they convene outdoors. If made to meet indoors, no-tech nanochurches observe a call to worship that begins with individuals turning off electronic devices such as mobile phones and even removing them from their person. This techno-cleansing ritual underscores the no-tech nanochurch’s perception of technology as distracting, invasive, and addictive, and thus each no-tech community worship experience serves as a short fast from the otherwise ever-present hum of digital advancement.
Networks & Preaching
In 2034, a discussion about preaching is a discussion about church networks. Church networks are not denominations, but instead function more like retail chains. Consider the present-day LifeChurch.tv model in which 13 physical campuses across five states (plus the Internet and Second Life campuses) feature preaching beamed from the main campus (or the flagship store, in retail terms). Twenty-five years from now, every gigachurch will be part of a network, either as the flagship location or as a location near the top of their network’s pyramid. Because of the widespread popularity of the network model, there is no stigma associated with attending a “secondary” location (especially since the teaching pastor of a given network rarely preaches live even at the flagship location).
The standard for church networks is set by “The Big Six”—six pastors that can each be found in most of the major markets in the US. Traveling to San Francisco on business? The Big Six are there. New York City? The Big Six are there. Philadelphia? Five of The Big Six are there. (As of 2009, you’ve probably only heard of two of The Big Six, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise of their identities.) While some critics deride this development as the Gap™-ification of the American Church, proponents say that making The Big Six—ostensibly the six most gifted spiritual communicators in the country—available from sea to shining sea is the best possible use of their talents and the best possible offering for the Christian churchgoer. Each of The Big Six sit atop a church network that includes at least a hundred churches, and each network is a healthy mix of gigachurches, middlechurches, and nanochurches.
Most middlechurches and pro-tech nanochurches belong to a network, which brings with it a myriad of benefits: established branding, established ministry and programming models, and an established teaching pastor (whom they don’t have to pay a salary). Given the choice of opening a Chick-fil-A franchise or starting a brand new fast food restaurant of your own invention, which would you choose? Using that same reasoning, most church planters (and a few shrewd executive pastors) began to recognize the value of joining a church network in the early- and mid-2010s and the network model exploded across the nation.
The sermon itself has changed dramatically in 25 years. As I mentioned earlier, the teaching pastor rarely preaches a live sermon. Sermons of the future are so heavily-fortified with interactive multimedia that it’s easier on everyone involved—from the preacher to the post-production staff—to record an entire series of messages at one time in front of a green screen. However, at nearly every gigachurch and middlechurch, the illusion of live preaching lives on thanks to High-Definition hologram technology and significant advances in audio systems. For attendees, the live-preaching spell is only broken when the holographic projection grid flickers—an occurrence that grows more and more infrequent thanks to the dedicated Research & Development team at PanaSony.
Middlechurches use the aforementioned holographic projection (when available) or HD screens for sermoncasting, while pro-tech nanochurches use the best computer or home TV screen owned by someone in their community. Of course, no-tech nanochurches insist that preaching be done live by an active member in the community as part of their rebellious stance on church technology. The resulting sermons are more tailored to the community than a network sermon but lack the polish and production that have made church networks so popular.
Churches that don’t belong to a larger network aren’t necessarily required to host live preaching—many make use of downloadable sermon content from a variety of communicators and select the best messages for re-broadcast in their services. The staff member who makes these preaching playlist decisions for a local church functions like a sermon VJ, mixing and matching the best available sermons from one week to the next in order to facilitate appealing programming for committed and prospective attendees.
Overall, integrating multimedia into what was once single-medium monologue has made live preaching a largely forgotten pastime. Even so, audiences are more holistically engaged because sermons appeal to more than their ears. By involving more senses, and by incorporating dialogical elements that are facilitated by mobile communication devices, sermons are more interactive than ever for the churchgoer. If he or she is largely passive during a sermon, it is now by choice rather than obligation. Furthermore, the average sermon is now 20-25 minutes instead of 40+ minutes and moves quickly through a text-interpretation-application or topic-analysis-application progression.
As we’ll discuss later, a more prominent community conversation during the week led a shift from the sermon serving as the pinnacle of the church week to the sermon serving as the conclusion of one conversation and the beginning of another conversation. So despite the increased level of production associated with the sermon of the future, the sermon actually occupies a less prominent position in the scope of the week to week, Sunday to Sunday experience.
Music is another traditional service element that has changed in 2034. In 2009, most contemporary worship services include a 20-40 minute music set before the band gives way to the sermon. Twenty-five years later, it’s most common for a 10 minute set to begin the service and for another 10 minute set to conclude the service. The first set introduces themes and gives worshipers the opportunity to reflect on attributes of God. Typically, the first set is followed by elements that are more interactive and interpersonal and then the sermon. Following the sermon, there are more opportunities for interactivity and response, followed by the second 10 minute music set. The second set differs from the first in that the songs are almost exclusively focused on response and action. When this new worship music paradigm emerged in the 20-Teens, a significant number of the old guard of reflective worship songwriters were unable to reorient themselves with the times, which made room for a fresh batch of young songwriters whose music focused the calling of the Church to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Also, these new songwriters effortlessly incorporate hip-hop, techno, and world music elements into their songwriting and arrangements, broadening their appeal to the increasingly diverse churches of 2034.
Another significant shift in worship music for the 2034 church is the widespread disappearance of “worship pastor” as a full-time staff position. This coincides with worship music’s decrease in prominence in a typical worship service and the new emphasis on visual media and interactive web experiences. Church payrolls reflect this change, and even the majority of gigachurches rely on contract worship leaders, who get paid per worship set, and volunteer backing bands. If a worship leader is on staff at a local church, it’s generally as a visual artist, web designer, or a demographic pastor (students, men, singles, etc.).
The overall performance quality of worship music hasn’t suffered as a result of non-staff worship leaders, but the position has become more transient as musicians come and go and hop from worship gig to worship gig. Many argue that this newfound transience disrupts the flow of the communal worship experience and creates an emotional divide between musicians and audience, but up to this point no research testing this assertion has been conducted. Besides, most people who acknowledge the divide aren’t willing to divert the financial resources toward bridging it, especially to the detriment of visual and web-based media budgets.
Pro-tech nanochurches utilize the best musician or musicians they can find for free or very cheap. Of course, finding such musicians can be a difficult undertaking, so many nanochurches utilize pre-recorded visual song tracks that can be mixed and matched to create a custom worship music set without requiring any musical expertise or professional audio equipment.
No-tech nanochurches, ever the exception, still incorporate as much group singing as their time together allows, regardless of whether anyone in their small pool of members has any musical proficiency. In keeping with their commitment to forego electronics in their services, they typically employ an acoustic guitar or piano for accompaniment, or they just sing a cappella. These churches maintain that decentralized congregational singing has a healthy effect on a church community, but this model has yet to catch on outside the no-tech nano world.
Touchscreen displays and 3D virtual environments support the interactive spiritual development stations found at many gigachurches. It is through these stations, often found in foyers or dedicated interactive spaces, that individuals or families can access on-demand content from the gigachurch’s central media library—an on-demand buffet of sermons, worship sets, interactive curriculum, and guided spiritual exercises and meditations. Churchgoers can access the stations and enter into a worship experience of their own programming, on their own schedule. The experience begins when the participant visits the station; the experience consists of the content the participant selects; and the experience ends when the participant is ready for it to end. Thanks to these elements, the very concept of the worship service (with its rigid beginning, middle, and end) has begun to erode in the minds of a few gigachurchgoers, who prefer the more casual, organic experience made possible by the stations to the traditional service format. Of course, these stations are out of financial reach for middlechurches and nanochurches, but some of them manage to create a similar feel on the Web.
Within the context of a worship service, free wireless Internet access allows attendees at churches of all sizes to interact via their mobile devices, discuss sermon points with fellow attendees, tag service elements for later reflection, or instantly upload the entire service (along with their on-the-fly commentary) to their MyFace profile. It’s fair to question whether this sort of technology-driven multitasking during worship services is helpful or hurtful for the churchgoer, but most church leaders simply view it as inevitable.
No, people aren’t solely focused on a sermon, a song, a prayer, or any other element of a service. But that’s how people in 2034 live every minute of every day—blogging and video chatting while watching TV, microblogging and shopping online during meals, and so on. The Church in 2034 ministers to people who have mostly embraced the ubiquity of technology in their lives. As a result, the Church in 2034, for the most part, has done what it can to facilitate the kind of weekend multimedia experience that people expect. If electronic media is the language of culture, most churches in 2034 have few, if any, reservations about speaking that language in every aspect of church life.
Perhaps the most interesting effect of media and technology on the Church in 2034 is the increased member interaction between Sunday services. Each weekend, most sermons function as a conversation catalyst designed to provoke thought, conversation, and action during the week. Teaching pastors may blog or vodcast some key points and questions Sunday evening to get their audiences talking, or campus pastors and group leaders might fill that role. Congregations and other large groups within individual churches respond on the official church blog, social network profile, or forum, or on their individual blogs, forums, social network profiles, and vodcasts. Small groups (incredibly popular among gigachurch and middlechurch members) and pro-tech nanochurches take things a bit further and engage in short video conversations facilitated by a service similar to Tokbox (except that it’s completely reliable, is integrated with home TVs, and delivers HD signal). Consequently, Christians in 2034 are beginning to associate the term “church” with a group of people more than a building or a weekend experience.
Even with facilities that are more technologically advanced than ever, the Monday through Saturday techno-fellowship that characterizes the Church in 2034 is arguably its greatest strength. The political power and moral authority of the North American Church are long gone (though a few old-timers still fondly remember those days), so Christians of all shapes and sizes embody a renewed emphasis on deep connection with one another. The majority of the faithful appear to realize that resources, multimedia, and production are wonderful tools for weekend services but poor substitutes for authentic, missional community. In the Church of the future, this kind of community is increasingly facilitated and shaped by new technology—the effects of which should be clear by 2059.
As we live in the here and now, I think we owe it to ourselves and the generations of Christians that will come after us to imagine the future. We must think carefully and critically, even if we can’t see the future clearly, and we must do our best to consider the long-term implications of the way we do church today for the sake of the church tomorrow.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on Scott’s predictions, the predictions from our guests, and any predictions of your own about the Church in 2034 that you’d like to offer. Share them in the comments section or email us @ firstname.lastname@example.org.