Traits Over Trends
by Will Mancini
During the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I spend time praying and thinking about what I want to say to pastors and church leaders as we kick off a new year. Given the nature of 2020, I felt even more passionate than normal about discerning what church leaders need to hear heading into 2021. I believe this is a critical moment for the church in North America (which I talk about in detail in the Future Church book) and I want to serve the church as effectively as I can in this specific time.
So this year, I won’t be offering tips on preaching to a virtual audience or ways to increase online engagement. You won’t find 3 steps to growing your small group ministry, 5 strategies for reshaping your children's ministry, or 7 keys to effective student ministry in the “new reality.” All of those things have their place, but it’s not here … and it’s not now.
If all you do is pivot your programs based on the shifting trends of culture, I believe your church is doomed to irrelevance in the long run. In the short run, you’ll create wasted sideways energy that will result in frustration for you, your team, and your church. And, most importantly, you’ll be increasingly ineffective in multiplying disciples of Jesus. Discerning trends is part of leadership. If you do a search for “church trends,” you’ll find a glut of articles. In the past, I’ve written about trends myself.
Understanding and identifying trends, however, is NOT the most important thing for pastors to be doing right now as we launch into 2021.
Here’s why trying to track church trends should not be your highest priority.
1 - Complexity is increasing.
If we’ve learned one thing from 2020, it’s that our world is becoming more complex. The factors you must consider when making decisions has increased. You never had to consider local or state government health directives about the number of people who could gather safely. You never thought about whether or not to require masks for in-person services. The spacing of the chairs in your meeting venue was never dependent on social distancing. The capacity of your kid's ministry environments was most dependent on the number of volunteers you could recruit, not the number of children that could be in a space safely. The idea of a “contactless experience” was something that had never entered your mind before March of 2020.
That’s just a sampling of the things you have to consider, and I haven’t mentioned the larger division around political issues or the greater discord around systemic racism. The number of factors you need to consider on a daily/weekly basis is increasing, which makes it more and more difficult to rise above that complexity to identify helpful trends.
2 - Everything is accelerating.
Not only are things becoming more complex, they’re moving more quickly. In March, most churches made a shift from predominantly in-person gatherings to 100% online services in just a single week. Many churches scrambled at an exceptional pace—to get online giving platforms in place, to offer something online for kids and students, and to find ways of connecting with people outside of in-person programs.
Throughout 2020, other changes came at us quickly. Information about COVID shifted seemingly on a daily basis and was dependent on who you chose to trust. Offices shifted to primarily working from home in a matter of days. Schools shifted to online learning in just weeks. Even now, information about the vaccines shifts again and again about how it will be distributed and how long it will take to vaccinate enough people to have a substantive effect. This acceleration of change creates an environment where you, as a church leader, simply cannot keep up. You could waste hours every day trying to stay current on what’s going on and still feel confused about which trends will have the greatest impact in your specific community and on your church in the future.
3 - The length of the transition is uncertain.
We’re all tired of the phrase “the new normal.” But we’re not IN the new normal yet. We’re still in the transition period. Not only that, but no one knows how long it will be before we settle into a new normal.
Back in March, I shared an article that compared the pandemic to a blizzard, a season of winter, and a little ice age. We’re firmly in the “little ice age” at this point and we don’t know how long it’s going to last. Maybe by the summer, tens of millions of people will have been vaccinated and all restrictions about in-person gatherings will be lifted—on church services, sports, and concerts. Or, it could be another 18 months before those restrictions are lifted. We just don’t know.
In this kind of unstable environment—where complexity is increasing, everything is accelerating, and the length of the transition is uncertain—trends are NOT the most important thing for you as a church leader. What’s trending today may very well be obsolete next month.
What should a wise leader do in times like these?
Stop Chasing Trends and Start Cultivating Traits
You can’t control the external forces driving church trends in 2021. But you CAN cultivate the fundamental internal qualities to lead and serve your church effectively no matter what the future brings. In conversations with several Future Church Co. team members, we’ve developed 4 essential leadership qualities that will provide a strong foundation for church leaders in 2021 and beyond. I’ll introduce the 4 traits here and then explore each one in greater depth in a series of posts over the next week.
Trait 1: Security Effective leaders are secure in who God has called them to be and what He has called them to do. This internal security provides the freedom they need to make decisions and even take appropriate risks even when surrounded by uncertainty. Effective leaders are secure … but not safe.
Trait 2: Positivity If you want to lead well, you need to have a positive attitude toward the future. You’ll set the tone for how your team and your church view what’s coming. This can’t be a cheap positivity that ignores reality or minimizes real challenges, though. Effective leaders are positive … but not Pollyanna.
Trait 3: Simplicity People don’t have the mental or emotional margin to absorb any more complexity at this point. When you lead, you have to deliver a simple, clear message that people can hear and understand easily. You can’t be superficial or condescending, of course. Effective leaders are simple … but not simplistic.
Trait 4: Agility If you’re not able to move quickly and easily as a leader, you won’t thrive. You can’t be tied to past strategies or unable to develop fresh approaches. At the same time, a change that is untethered to a greater mission and vision breeds unhealthy fear in those you lead. Effective leaders are agile … but not aimless. P.S. When I mention the Future Church Co. team when creating content, let me pull the curtain back a little. I have spoken to several of you who were not aware of a big change I made in August. Having sold Auxano in 2012 and leading it through the summer of 2019, I decided to leave and start the Future Church Company as a reset of my life's consulting work. Our content at any time is a collaborative work between me (Will Mancini) and four other people on the team.
Dave Rhodes, our Chief Training Officer Cory Hartman, our Content Manager Kelly Kannwischer, our CEO Steve Finkill, our Communication Manager