One question I am often asked when I lead a conference is "What do you think is the future of the small church?" My response has consistently been that I think we will see the number of smaller churches increase in the coming years. The ones that will struggle most will be the medium size churches. Many of them will be forced to offer many of the same programs large churches offer or they will see their people leaving for those larger churches. This will create financial challenges for these churches, especially those carrying debt. Some of the financial problems will be the result of people leaving, but some of it will be due to increased staffing and programming costs as they attempted to compete with the larger churches. I sense it is going to be a difficult time to be a medium size church in America in the next couple of decades.
I also believe some large megachurches will find themselves in trouble in the future. What will happen to them if the government ever decides to eliminate tax deductions for contributions made to churches? Will their membership continue to support them at the same level as they currently do? What will happen if church property is no longer exempt from property taxes? These churches have properties worth millions of dollars, and as government finds less and less to tax eliminating the property tax exemption churches now enjoy is going to look very promising to many politicians. Many of these churches continue to be led by their founders. Some megachurches have seen the leadership baton passed on to new leaders. While some made that transition very smoothly, others did not. As more of these founding leaders transition out of their roles it will be very interesting to see how these churches do.
Smaller churches are able to avoid many of these problems. While many of them complain about a lack of finances, the reality is that most are in good financial condition. Many of them have no debt. Increasing numbers of them are calling bivocational leadership reducing the amount of money they must pay for salary and benefits. While most small churches dream of seeing their finances improve the reality is that they are less susceptible to financial setbacks than many of the larger churches would be.
Property taxes would be minimal on most small churches. If the taxes were more than the church could handle, the congregations could walk away from the property and begin to meet in houses. Anything a church of 50 people can do in a church building they can do by meeting in one or two homes. If they have no debt on the property there is no reason they can't just walk away from it. Emotionally, it would be hard, but it could be done.
Smaller churches don't have to depend on putting on a great show every week to attract people. I am not against having a meaningful worship service that incorporates different elements. However, in some larger churches the focus is on the program. The problem with having a spectacle program is that you run into the danger of having to make the next one just a little bigger until eventually it's all about the show. Smaller churches can be more focused on the Scriptures and building relationships with people.
Smaller churches are often criticized for being unwilling to change, but if change is presented correctly they will change and can often do so quicker than a larger church. It's much easier to turn around a bass boat than an aircraft carrier. The larger the bureaucracy the longer it takes to implement change. As things continue to change faster and faster in the 21st century it will become more important for churches to be able to make needed changes quicker as well.
For these reasons, and more, I think the future of smaller churches is very good. Yes, some will close their doors, but that's because they have lost their vision for ministry, their purpose for existence. But, for those who continually seek how God would have them serve their communities I believe the future looks bright. If you are blessed to lead one of these churches, rejoice and see what great things God wants to do in and through you and your church.