A seismic shift is taking place in American church facilities, a shift that will become even more noticeable in the years to come. Church worship centers or sanctuaries will become smaller than they were the past 40 years. As church leaders decide to build, a large number of them will decide to build smaller than most of their predecessors have in previous years.
The trend for the past four decades has been to build increasingly larger worship centers. And while the large worship center will not disappear, you will notice more intentionality to build or buy smaller. Why? As I look at the church landscape in America, I see seven reasons, and only two of them are related to declining attendance. I will note those two first.
1. Decreasing frequency of attendance among church members. I noted this trend in a previous article. The informal definition of an "active" church member a decade ago was a member who attended worship services an average of three to four times a month. Now a member can be present only two times a month and be considered active. That trend is definitely adversely affecting attendance.
2. The growth of the "nones." I have written or spoken about this issue on a number of occasions. Pew Research found that the number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation increased from 15 percent of the population to 20 percent from 2007 to 2012. This shift is huge. One out of five persons will likely never be in your church services, and they no longer feel a cultural compulsion to do so.
3. The growth of the multi-site and multi-venue church. This movement is large and growing. Church leaders are strategically starting different sites and venues to bring the church to the population rather than expect the people to come to one worship center. Churches are more likely to have a few small worship centers or use one worship center on multiple days than to have one large worship center.
4. The Millennials' aversion to larger worship centers. I have seen this trend in my research of this generation born between 1980 and 2000. I have also experienced this sentiment personally with Millennial church leaders. On one occasion, I went on a tour of a large worship center with a Millennial. I came away greatly impressed with not only the size of the place, but its functionality as well. My Millennial friend remarked that he hopes he never has to build something that large. On another occasion, I went by a small worship center with little parking with a Millennial leader. I noted that only about 200 people could ever worship there. He countered that 2,000 could be at the worship center each week if it were strategically used throughout the week.
5. Governmental agencies are increasingly unfriendly to church building plans. I have worked with a number of churches that have run into big roadblocks with zoning authorities that refuse to let them build or expand. Some of the zoning authorities fear increased traffic issues in residential areas. I suspect many of them are concerned about more property that will be exempt from property taxes.
6. The shift in emphasis from the big worship event to an emphasis on groups. Worship services will not go away. Preaching will remain central. But an emphasis on worship services as the big event will not be as great. Church leaders are giving more of their energy to the development of healthy leaders and groups. As a side note, watch for an increased demand for small group pastors or discipleship pastors. As worship pastors were sought after the past 30 or 40 years, so will these other staff members for the years ahead.
7. The desire to spend more on ministry and less on facilities. Church facilities have grown in proportion to expenses of churches over the past four decades. Church leaders are looking for more funds for ministry, and they will find those funds by reducing facility costs. The big worship center will not be built in many congregations, so they will have more funds to reach and minister to the community and beyond.
This trend toward smaller worship centers has already begun, and I only see it accelerating. An ancillary issue will be the challenge of churches to do something wise with existing worship centers that will continue to have higher percentages of vacant seating.
But that's a matter for another article.