A lot of times, people think that large churches are a modern invention. The truth is that large churches were the norm, especially in larger cities, until after the beginning of the reformation. Sure, a small village might have small church, but London, Paris, and Rome all had larger churches in the middle ages.
Larger churches predate the Roman Catholic church, though. The birth of the church in Acts 2 saw the Church’s early numbers bloom to “about three thousand” on the day of Pentecost. As persecution increased, the Church spread and often met in smaller locations, but Biblical references don’t generally talk about a large number of churches in a single city, but talk about the Church at _______.
There are myriad reasons why smaller churches started taking over. The diversity of denominations is a large factor. If you live in a town of 5,000 with 20 or 25 different denominations, you’re going to have smaller congregations than if you have 1. For the sake of comparison, I live in a small city of 300,000 that has about 300 churches in it. Some have several thousand while others only have a handfull of people.
Smaller churches do provide the individual attention that some people prefer, but because they have fewer resources, the programs they provide tend to be fewer in number.
As society moves from a feeling of community to individuality, as I think we will, I think larger churches will have a harder time. “I love being a part of something bigger than myself,” will give way to “I feel like no one notices me.” Large churches will combat that feeling with small groups, home studies, individual attention facilitated by technology and the like. Smaller churches who aren’t stuck in the past will see their numbers climb as people who feel lost in the crowd begin to try smaller congregations because they feel more “at home” there.
I’ve mentioned the idea of sermon or church surfing. I think this is the ultimate incarnation of the “church is about me and my needs” idea. I don’t imagine that everyone will tailor services to themselves and what they want. This is just one of the possible reactions.
Some people will seek out smaller groups where they can feel known. These small house-churches, facilitated by the ability to import worship and teaching, will provide that feeling of intimacy and accountability.
Others will dive into leadership, trying to be important to a church. The danger of this is motivation. If someone is serving just to be noticed or to feel good, that won’t yield the fulfillment that serving because you love Jesus and want to help out will.
The desire to be a big fish in a small pond might help some smaller churches who lack members able to do one job or another. If a department of technical artists splits off to multiple churches, the net effect could be quite positive, especially for churches who had long wanted to grow in that area, but didn’t know how.
Church planting with new forms of worship and teaching at the fore, will take the place of some churches which will naturally die because of the graying of their congregations.
In 2063, I don’t think there will be a church like Lakewood Church in Houston, TX. That’s not to say that there won’t be large churches, some larger than Lakewood in total attendance. I just don’t think there will be a church meeting in a 16,000 seat arena. I think the larger churches will meet in much smaller locations spread throughout the country.
Multisite churches could possibly have hundreds or thousands of locations. There very well might be a Lakewood Church, LifeChurch.tv, & WillowCreek (as well as others) in every major city in the country. As long as the economics work, why not open another branch?
These former mega churches might have fairly large original campuses, but could also have StarBucks-sized buildings that may hold only twenty to two hundred worshippers. These intimate gathering places could have 3D video feeds of worship and preaching from the main campus. This technology could create the illusion that the building is much larger inside than outside. Each seat could feel like it’s three or four rows from the stage.
Some of these pod-churches may even be temporary buildings, moved into place on Sunday mornings and moved away before Monday. Others will be permanent structures, but have on-demand church where you can go on Thursday at 3:00 p.m. and see the previous week’s service.
If you imagine that these or some new mega church uses this pod church model, placing 300 pods in densely populated areas, having ten services a week with an average of twenty attenders per service, the whole Church could easily grow to 60,000 people. Part of the advantage of this model is that people who want to go to church, but can’t because other responsibilities take them away during traditional times like Sunday mornings can participate.
In some ways, this is the same model that people have used for centuries with devotional material written by Godly people. In some ways, this is the movie theatre model of distribution of information. In a more individualistic society, this makes more and more sense.
Deep connections can be formed in this model, too. There’s no reason a qualified lay leader couldn’t connect with each person at each service. Groups could go out after church to discuss what they’d just learned and develop friendships. Like the church in times of persecution, pod churches will decentralize worship.
I don’t think the megachurch model is doomed, though. While small pod churches might be entry points for many, growth of the model could create super-pods verging on the larger sized congregations of the past. Perhaps these super-pods will resemble movie theaters with each sub-pod being tailored to individual needs. A family might arrive and promptly split up as today, but with children going to a sub-pod with teaching created across the country from their location. Likewise, adults could go to issue specific pods with single pods and married pods being obvious choices. This solves problems that churches today have with designing services that might exclude certain groups. A week on marriage might seem very annoying to someone who wishes to be married, but can’t seem to get a date.
I think there’s room in 2063 for churches of all sizes and shapes, but some might just find it harder to exist than others. I think that while small, medium, large, and mega churches will continue to exist, the way they look might be quite different from how churches of similar size look today.
Just because some smaller churches are on the verge of extinction today, that doesn’t mean that all are or will be. I think we can say with some degree of certainty that all churches will change. For some that change might be changing size or dissolution of their congregations altogether. For others, that change will be growth.