Digital Parish: 9 predictions for the future church

We’re wrapping up season 4 of Pastoring in the Digital Parish by looking towards the future of church in the digital age. Our guests this season all painted some pictures about what will happen and what needs to happen in ministry to continue our mission of transforming the world. What are you predictions?

The Episode

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[Nathan Webb v-mail]


This is Pastoring in the Digital Parish, your resource and connection for leading ministry in digital spaces. My name is Ryan Dunn.

A digital fellowship hall. I love that idea of the future church from past professor and active listener, Nathan Webb.

A little Good news/bad news in this episode of Pastoring in the Digital Parish: The bad being that this will be the final session of season 4. The scheduling stuff has hit the wall. Between some guest reschedules and my own upcoming travel schedule, doing more episodes for the next several weeks looks a bit iffy.

That means the good news is that we’re primed to get started on the next season… which was originally set to start in 2023… but will now get underway before the end of the year. Which means we can dive into topics like digital Advent. And Christmas contemplative groups online. And who knows what else. I can also say that we’re going to talk about trends in research and church marketing, cultivating online communities (because we can’t learn enough about that), and some topics you suggest. Which you can do be emailing me at [email protected]. How can we help in resourcing you for digital ministry? Let us know!

In this session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish, we’re going to do what we do at the end of every season: give a snapshot of some of the key learnings from that seasons adjunct professors. This season, we made a turn from talking about the now to really talking about the what is yet to come. It’s the now but not yet aspect of digital ministry. 

So I’m going to share 10 ideas or predictions about the future shape of ministry based on things I heard from our guests through this season. So based on what we know today, these are 10 possibly surprising predictions for the future of ministry… with a keen focus on ministry in the digital space.

You get it.

Prediction number one: Very few ministries are going to be geographically defined. 

Ryan Panzer noted how our locations of faith formation have changed. They have already changed. A few years ago, we could argue that the primary local of faith formation was the worship space or sanctuary. Maybe we could’ve argued that it was the Sunday school room. In either case, the location of faith formation was centralized geographically. 

We have already begun to take our faith formation on the go with us. And this trend is going to continue. So we may still be primarily formed through the Sunday morning sermon, but we are increasingly interacting with the Sunday morning sermon in spaces outside of the sanctuary. We’ve taken it with us… to our living rooms… to our commuting space… to our walks in a green space… to coffee shop. I don’t know… so many places.

We could also argue, however, that we’re no longer being primarily formed by that Sunday sermon. Instead, we’re finding different ways to interact with faith formation. In some cases, we’re interacting with little nuggets of knowledge posted to our social feeds in the form of a quote meme. Or we’re listening to two of our friends process their stories in facing racism through the church’s podcast. The case here is that we’re bringing the nuggets of faith formation into our space instead of going towards a special geographic location for faith formation.

Because of this, the neighborhood model of church is fading. It was already in decline as attractional, mega-church model had people driving past many more geographically-convenient churches in order to participate in the community of their choice. But now the neighborhood pull is even weaker. 

Instead our faith communities are going to be much more defined by values as opposed to geography. So we’ll build bridges of connection not by building a faith community in key geographic areas, but instead will build those bridges and points of invitation by providing signposts of affinity. 

Here’s what I mean: Glendale United Methodist Church in Nashville is named after the neighborhood in which it’s located. A few years ago, it was a dying congregation. When they seized on a specific mission to make spiritual connections with specific people in mind, then they began a period of growth that would make a lot of us a little envious. For sure, I hope my church in Nashville… one in a very similar situation and even with a very similar name… I hope they are able to follow this style of outreach. Glendale has effectively utilized digital spaces to consistently communicate what is important in their faith community, who they are, and what they do.

Because of their transparent communication, Glencliff draws people who suspect they’re going to find connection and meaning within the church community. Some of these people live well outside of the Glencliff neighborhood. Because of that fact, their proximity sometimes limits their ability to participate in in-person events. I’ve found this to be the case in my own church as well. We have a number of people who are definitely part of our church community who rarely, if ever, are able to join us in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings… at least, in person, that is. But they’re still interacting with our online material. They give towards the mission of the church. They converse regularly with the pastoral staff and our members. So are they not active participants in the church community because we don’t see them in the pews? I’m sure we’re both onboard in saying they are active.

And that leads to prediction number two: Attendance is not the metric of the future.

Hopefully this comes as a relief… because, in reality, it’s likely we’ve been watching a decline in our worship attendance since 2009. That has been the reality for a majority of churches. Let me say that again so you can hear it: a majority of churches, in the US, have seen consistent decline in worship attendance since about 2008 or 2009. That’s become even more pronounced since 2020.

It’s neither healthy, nor, do I believe, altogether accurate to measure church vitality through attendance.

So what is the metric of the future? Wellll… I don’t know yet. I haven’t heard a definitive answer.

So from my blindspot of ignorance, I can only prognosticate that the metric of the future is relative to each faith community. I think in those terms the metric of the future will be a combination of engagement numbers. Those numbers may include things like email opens, financial contributors, Twitch subs, Discord registrants.

And this is why the future metrics will be relative… because of where and how our churches will engage with people. For a church or ministry that is heavily engaged in streaming on Twitch: like Methodist Gaming or past Pastoring in the Digital Parish participants Crossfire Faith and Gaming… for those ministries an average of Twitch participants during their livestreams is a very telling metric. For my church, the size of the email list might be a fair metric. Or an average of newsletters opened could be telling.

Other ministries might point towards Facebook follows. Or average post reach. Or they might dig into the weeds and come up with a formula that averages together disparate statistics and puts them into a relative performance metric… kind of like QB rating in football or Wins Above Replacement in baseball. Actually, I would love to hear if someone is doing something like that. Email me.

These metrics of vitality need to be adaptable because, according to prediction number three, our future models of ministry are going to be fluid and entrepreneurial.

We are going to exorcise the Ghost of Church Past like never before. We’ve all heard the voice of that ghost. It’s the voice that meets our new ideas with the saying “But we’ve never done it that way before…” OR “We’ve just always done it THIS way…” 

Instead of leading future ministry based on pre-existing models… you know, based on the ways that we’ve always done things… we’re instead going to lead with mission. 

So let’s analyze this using one of the sacred cows of many churches: the confirmation program. The mission of confirmation, at least in the congregations I’ve worked with, has been to equip young people who previously baptized, to take ownership of their baptismal vows. Typically, we’ve done our equipping through Wednesday night or Sunday morning classes that provide snapshots on the history of our faith tradition, important points of theology, a history of our congregation, and some silly games and object lessons. 

We design all these sessions with the expectation that we’re aiding our students in their process of meaning-making through our faith tradition.

But young peoples’ processes for meaning making are much different today than they were a couple decades ago. It’s much more personally informed. It’s quite a bit more interactive. It’s based quite a bit more on experience than on information.

So what if the confirmation process were to take a wiki-type approach that is largely independent of the classroom? In this case, students might learn about church history by independently interviewing long-time church members and then posting their findings in a forum. They can be invited to share resources they found meaningful in understanding baptism. Perhaps the whole class can utilize a shared app that delivers a daily prayer, challenge, theological point of information, and invitation for feedback or response? 

The COVID pandemic presented a unique opportunity to reshape some of the sacred cows of decades past. The vital church in five years will continue to play with altering models of execution while staying focused on the mission of the ministry.

And here we’ll want to heed the warnings of Andrew Root. Because he noted that we are often lured into making innovation the mission, instead of utilizing innovation in pursuit of the mission. If your confirmation program works as it is… that’s OK. You don’t need to change merely for the sake of change. But in too many cases we’ve found ourselves wishing for the opportunity to change long-standing models for the sake of efficacy. Vital churches are going to do that… and then they’re going to do it again.

So now that you’re ready to rattle cages and challenge sacred cows, let me share with you prediction number 4: Vital churches are going to say the hard things.

Today’s culture demands transparency and authenticity. They value it. 

For years, I watched young people leave the churches I was part of not because our churches took too strong of a stance on particular issues, but because our churches didn’t really take stands at all. They wanted to engage with the topics and they wanted to converse with their spiritual mentors about those tough topics. The problem was that our spiritual mentors, often including myself as I was a youth pastor, shied away from addressing controversial topics simply because we feared that announcing our personal views would be a barrier to relationship and might turn some people off.

The irony was that our young people were sometimes turned off simply because we wouldn’t articulate a stance on a hot button topic like LGTBQIA inclusion, social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, or immigration reform. Being silent on controversial topics doesn’t actually help.

Again, the cultural movement is towards transparency and authenticity. And that simply means we should embrace the opportunities that have arisen in the digital age for sharing ourselves with others. We want to make it easy for people to get to know us and our faith communities.

I’ll draw back again to Glendale UMC as an institutional example of how this is done… because you don’t have to surf their feeds too long to see who they are and what they care about. And I’m sure that some of the things they say do turn some people off. But for those looking to be a part of a community sharing those values, what they say makes it very easy to know what Glendale is all about.

And that leads to prediction number 5, because we are transparent, we will be niched.

Both Ryan Panzer and Andy Root alluded to the niches of ministry. If you remember from our conversation, Andy Root talked about his habit of naming people like Seinfeld characters. There was Brown Turtle Neck Guy, Applebee’s Boy, Synod Executive Guy… These characters were actually archetypes that Andy created to help understand messaging and storytelling.

We need to build ministry archetypes: personas with specific characteristics that help us communicate more effectively. In the book writing world, when an author is peddling a book to publishers they are told they need to have an audience in mind. And the more specific the audience is, the better. Publishers immediately dismiss any material with an audience of “anyone.”

In digital spaces, we’re also going to get dismissed when our audiences consist of anyone. Instead, we’re going to grow wide by drilling down to specific people in our audience. And in the case of ministry, the audience can start with the actual real people who are already involved. What characteristics do they have in common? Where do your passions intersect theirs? You can mentally Venn Diagram all this stuff out and then create an archetype based on those shared values, passions and interests. That archetype or archetypes define your niche.

This is one of the reasons we’re able to learn so much from the online gaming ministries we’ve run across. These ministries are very niche-specific. They are people who are spiritually curious and into gaming–often, it means they’re into specific types of games.

Fresh Expressions is a movement that has been preaching to the niche-ing of ministry for years. The use of digital spaces allows us to really pursue relationships with people  based upon interest and passion. And Ryan Panzer noted that through his experience he sees that the more niche a digital community becomes, the more vibrant it is likely to be.

Ready for prediction number 6? We’ll build ministries for people who will never join “big church”.

One of the counter arguments to churches streaming worship is that if we continue to do so… then some people will stop attending worship in-person. 

I’m going to counter with this: they’re probably going to stop attending anyways. The streaming option allows us to continue to engage them during this season of their lives while also allowing us to engage with people who would never otherwise find a seat in our pews.

And if we’re building ministries in digital space with the hope that people are going to start showing up on Sunday mornings and feed the old metric of worship attendance, then we’re going to encounter a lot of disappointment, frustration, and likely alienate our new ministries partners.

I grew up going to the video game arcade. Mine was called The Machine. It was in the back of Crystal Point Mall. That was a place where I could have the experience of playing video games, connect with other gamers, catch some ideas on how to play NBA Jam better by watching others, and discover new games. The Mall is gone. Long before the mall closed down, The Machine closed down. Most of those local mall arcades don’t exist anymore. The few remaining video game arcades are novelties. 

But lots of people are still having the experiences that I had in the video game arcade.They’re just having those experiences in forums like YouTube and Twitch. 

We’re being invited to accept that people can have the same spiritually formative experiences that we’ve enjoyed in the past… but they might just have them in venues that feel foreign to us. 

The video game arcade feels special to me… mostly because of nostalgia. I doubt my teenage son would find it very meaningful. And yet he’s still having those same experiences I had at The Machine. 

I think our expectations that we need to convert people into regular, in-person worship attenders is one based in nostalgia. We can continue to provide portals for spiritual formation and foundational experiences in different ways–ways that aren’t out of comprehension for some of the people we’ll meet through digital ministry. The invitation is for us to bring more ministry to the people as opposed to bringing more people into the ministry.

And prediction 7 is one of the ways we can bring more ministry to people: Ministers of the future are going to be internet trolls.

Let me unpack that statement just a little bit. What mean is that we are going to actively be searching through the internet to get an idea of what questions people have, what issues they face, and, when appropriate, we’re going to point towards the ways our faith speaks into those issues.

We are not going to hijack conversations or bomb every chat with church invitations.

We’re going to seek out opportunities to participate in conversation.

I intentionally cultivated this practice in my own ministerial life for quite a while. I joined a bunch of Facebook groups… mostly centered around my own interests. So I joined dads groups and fitness groups and, yes, record collecting groups. And I spent a dedicated amount of time in those groups each day observing the conversations that were happening therein. Sometimes I participated in those conversations. But more often I used those conversations as a form of social listening. The conversations provide insight and ideas for content that I can build in response. So it’s how I know what spiritual practices might impact a dad’s mental health. Or how fitness feels like a religous experience for some.

These days I’ve become a bit obsessed with TikTok. I’m trying to understand what drives people to consume the content they do on that platform. I want to know what it is about some TikTokers that people really respond to. 

I would simply recommend taking one space… whether that be TikTok… or Reddit… or Discord… or Facebook groups… and spend some time trolling the conversations there. You don’t even have to comment. Just get a sense of what needs are being expressed and then challenge yourself to keep that in mind the next time you’re crafting your spiritually-based content.

And then what you do with that content leads us to prediction number 8: Discipleship and faith formation will be less about imparting info and more about convening conversations.

I’m from the Methodist tradition… and I believe this idea is embedded in our earliest Methodist expressions. The early Methodist cell groups certainly had a form of catechism, but it was built around questions… it wasn’t so much built around presentation.

We’ve moved into an age when this pedagogy is super-valued, because today everyone is accepted as an expert (for better or for worse). Let’s face it, a teenager can have as much spiritual influence through a TikTok channel as a vetted super-pastor can have through a mega-church. For the better, this means that everyone has valuable input to offer. We’re experiencing the joys and pains of learning from one another.

So our jobs as spiritual influencers is twofold. First, we want to provide the venues through which people can ask and respond to spiritual questions. Secondly, we want to ease off the idea that we are voices of authority and invest more in the idea that we are voices of influence. We’re able to lead to sharing the practices, stories, ideas and resources that have spiritually impacted our own experiences. BUT, we do so while we invite others into the process as well.

In a sense, we are switching from an Encyclopedia Britannica approach of faith formation to one of Wikipedia. We get to edit and ask for verification, but we invite users to provide content.

Finally, prediction number 9, the pastors and ministers of the future will take seriously their roles as spiritual development coaches.

Many pastors do this already. Many more pastors WANT to do this… but they’re pulled into the tasks of administration and organizational heads. So this prediction doesn’t come as warning to the individuals in the office of minister or pastor as much as it might come as a point of awareness for those setting the expectations of those roles. 

One of the amazing aspects of digital media is that it provides a personal access to so many people. We want to allow people to get personable with each other through social media. In the social media landscape, people want to be social–they want to interact with each other. We should be aware that the leaders who will find success in the social world will be able to enjoy enough time to be available to relationship building in digital spaces.

Then those leaders can ask questions, provide affirmation, point towards healthy action plans, maybe even imply some accountability–the things a good coach can do. Great coaches are concerned with their players as much as they are the systems of execution. We want to allow the availability for ministerial leaders to engage in concern for their people. That’s all.


  • That’s a wrap on this session and this season!

  • If this podcast is meaningful for you, the best thing you can do is listen to another episode. Choose one from season 4… they all informed this particular episode.

  • I’m Ryan Dunn. I’d like to thank,  the online destination for leaders throughout The United Methodist Church. They make this podcast possible. And of course, they host our website:, where you can find more online resources for ministry.

  • If you want to connect: check out our Pastoring in the Digital Parish group on Facebook. You can also send me questions and ideas for future sessions at [email protected]

  • I’ll be in touch soon about season 5. Look for it towards the beginning of December! Peace!



On this episode

Ryan Dunn, co-host and producer of the Compass Podcast

Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.