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