5 Cultural Trends Driving the Growth of Microchurches
Originally published for Outreach Magazine, August 2023.
Microchurches are the primary form of church in the New Testament and in most movements around the world. However, they have often struggled to be recognized as such in the Western world, which includes my homeland of Australia. Given what we see in the early church, it’s clear that “microchurch” is simply a new name for an old idea. It is a form that has existed throughout time in different movements, such as the Moravian Revival and other non-Western church-planting movements that have brought the gospel into new places.
Scripture states the early church met in both homes and in larger gatherings. The apostle Paul is clear that both these gatherings were places of evangelism and discipleship (Acts 5:42). Kwabena Donkor, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, argues the house gatherings in the early church played a key role as bases for reaching cities, unlike our current small-group models that are primarily seen as vehicles of fellowship and discipleship, but not mission. The Western church veered away from the missional purpose of these smaller gatherings during the church growth movement, and placed a stronger missional expectation on the larger gatherings.
Microchurches, missional communities and simple churches have been bubbling under the surface for some time, but experienced wild growth during the pandemic. We might hope that this happened simply because people studied the book of Acts and understood the missional trajectory of Scripture, becoming convinced of the value of smaller communities for discipleship and mission. But I believe there are deeper cultural factors driving the growth of microchurches in the West.
This acceleration is a coming together of the practical circumstances of the church in a post-pandemic world, the theological shifts taking place as we more fully understand missio Dei and engage with Scripture from a missional hermeneutic, and some significant cultural shifts.
While these cultural shifts don’t provide the justification for microchurches—our reading of the New Testament should do that on its own—perhaps they demonstrate the ways God might be at work in our broader culture. In our changing times, microchurches have demonstrated a way of living together as God’s people that offers an alternative that is not only biblical, but is speaking into our cultural moment.
Five significant cultural shifts of note are helping to propel the microchurch movement forward.
1. Increased Desire for Connection and Belonging
One of the biggest issues in our world today is loneliness. Some experts in Australia have even gone as far as suggesting we are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. Research conducted by Patrick Parkinson and Michael Jensen of Publica has drawn links between the reduction in long-term marriages and increased loneliness in Australian society.
Parkinson also has highlighted the growth of loneliness in our digitally connected world. The increase of digital connection seems to have made it possible for more connections, but the depth of these digital connections seems unsatisfying for many. And while the church does not exist to tackle loneliness, we do exist to love our neighbors genuinely and deeply, and help them to know the love of God.
Social psychologist and researcher Hugh Mackay emphasizes the desire we have for belonging, suggesting community provides us with a level of emotional security and moral guidance. In a world where we no longer seek such moral guidance from organizations such as the church, we look for guidance and connection in community. While the overwhelming feeling is loneliness, the underlying desire for many is a place of deep belonging and connection. It is not only about our need to be in relationship with others—and to feel known and loved—but also to know where we belong and to have people who will guide and walk with us through life.
The combination of intimacy and practices in microchurches helps those who connect to find a place of community and belonging. Microchurches often speak of being “families on mission,” and as such they provide a place of community, tapping into the desire for connection and belonging. The smaller size allows people to be known deeply and to develop trust and intimacy in relationships without being so small that they are inaccessible to newcomers. The lived experience of being a family on mission encourages engagement in what might be seen as old-fashioned practices of community, such as dropping off meals to members in need.
2. A Movement to Invest Locally
Recently, a desire for people to invest, shop and attend church in their local community has been on the rise. The movement to go local is fed in part by the desire for community and belonging, but also by climate concerns and a reaction to globalization and multinational organizations.
The pandemic in Australia forced this further as people were locked down. The Victorian Government recognized this shift and began studying it through a new Living Locally survey that seeks to understand what is driving people to move in this direction. The local café is a bellwether of this in Melbourne, Australia. Cafés in local neighborhoods are gaining momentum, where they simply wouldn’t have survived years ago. As people have shifted to live and work locally, especially with the increase in remote work options, these cafés are flourishing.
The same shift to invest locally is happening within churches. Thom Rainer highlights this movement, demonstrating how the attractional church is “yielding” to the local church irrespective of model. People who previously would have driven significant distances to attend a church based on its size, programs or theology are now reconsidering those decisions. Many are opting for local communities where they are seen and known.
As globalization increases, our ability and desire to connect locally also increases.
Microchurches provide a highly local alternative to regional churches with many operating in places where people already live, work or play. This not only makes the microchurch more accessible, but it also increases the ability to connect more frequently, either intentionally or incidentally. This also makes it more accessible for friends and neighbors to participate. Meeting in local spaces, whether that be community buildings, sporting clubs or houses, also reduces the barriers for others to participate, providing a natural affinity and immediate sense of belonging.
3. Decentralization and the Distrust of Institutions
The third shift influencing the rise of microchurches is the broader movement toward decentralization. We have seen this shift in the rise of cryptocurrency, Uber, Airbnb and other platforms that offer to transfer the control and authority away from hierarchical structures and toward local actors.
Centralized systems have demonstrated they can be high risk, with a single point of failure disrupting the whole system, whereas decentralized structures have demonstrated the ability to diversify this risk. Arman Eshraghi, founder and CEO of Qrvey, suggests that a decentralized system “builds an organization of thinkers instead of followers,” allowing local people to make important local decisions. In an increasingly global world, decentralization allows for local contextualization, while still learning from a global network.
Microchurches demonstrate such local contextualization. Because they are more decentralized, they can speak to the specific needs of the subculture around them, contextualizing the gospel so it can be heard and seen in ways relevant to that subculture.
Many larger churches are often trying to reach across various subcultural groups with a single message or method. Lesslie Newbigin has spoken of the need for a different approach:
“The white middle-class suburban congregations of Birmingham, however devoted they might be, cannot and could not function as sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose or blessing for the immigrants or for the shop-floor workers on the [British] Leyland [Motor Corporation] assembly lines. There have to be communities where these and others can hear and see in terms of their own culture the words and the signs of the gospel. The church is not truly local if it does not take these different situations seriously, and if its forms do not provide for them.”
The decentralized approach of microchurches allows the gospel to be heard and seen in tangible ways for different cultural subgroups.
Around the world, decentralization has increased not only because of the positive opportunities it brings, but also because of a distrust in traditional institutions. Historical abuse, leadership and ethical failures, tribalism and hard boundaries on complex theological issues have caused people to walk away from the church and the community to lose trust in the centralized church as an organization. Australian research suggests that people have more confidence in institutions such as courts (61%) and Parliament (42%) than they do in churches (37%). The number of people who believe religion is good for Australian society has reduced from 39% to 33% from 2016 to 2018.
Microchurches also demonstrate different leadership structures that speak to community concerns. The lack of hierarchical leadership enables them to build trust within the community quickly. Most model team-based leadership that is strongly geared toward empowering the priesthood of all believers, and sees power and control released to the margins rather than held at the center. This leadership is usually in line with Stephen Covey’s argument that “Trust and Inspire” is the new leadership style today rather than “Command and Control,” which further addresses community concerns.
4. A Desire for Positive Impact Through Holistic Mission
Results of the 10th annual Deloitte Global Millennial and Gen Z Survey suggest both Generation Y and Z demonstrate a strong desire to have a positive impact on the world in line with their personal values. Whether that be around areas of creation care, racial justice or more local issues, many believe that their actions can and will have a positive impact, both directly on these issues and through advocacy. They are strongly directed by their values and seek to live them out in the workplace and within their church. These generations are driving a shift in businesses, promoting ethical production, sustainable environmental practices and racial diversity.
Christians in these generations take seriously the call of Scripture to engage in God’s renewing work, address injustice and advocate for the last, least and lost. They are much less likely than previous generations to be content to sit in church and consume; rather, they are driving a desire to see their Christian values expressed in everyday practices that transform their world. Young Christians are looking for ways to live out their values, often with peers. No longer are outreach events with great music and inspirational speakers alone a draw to their Christian friends, but more so opportunities to hear and act together on issues of justice.
Unlike traditional house-church models, many microchurches take a holistic approach to mission, engaging in both gospel proclamation and demonstration. They allow members to contribute toward having a positive community impact in the areas aligned with their Christian values. Many microchurches are organized around serving a need in their local community or with a particular demographic, such as international students or migrant families. Serving these networks, or even neighborhoods, in response to tangible needs is a core part of their gospel ministry, which not only appeals to this cultural shift but opens significant missional opportunities.
5. More Value Placed on Innovation and Risk-Taking
During times of crisis, we are often confronted with significant challenges that afford us the opportunity to think differently and innovate in response to circumstances. Particularly in a post-pandemic world, we have seen an explosion of new technology and innovation. While the Western world has valued innovation and elevated successful entrepreneurs for a long time, the church post-pandemic has also begun to seek out the voices of innovators to address the current challenges.
Microchurches represent one such group of innovators. They provide a unique way forward for local missional leaders to experiment and respond to the needs of the world around them. The size allows them a level of agility that simply wouldn’t be possible in a large context, and the designation of “microchurch” sets new expectations for how they might set rhythms and practices that are different from the prevailing-model church. It provides a permission-giving structure, often under broader permission-giving leadership.
Whereas the prevailing-model church requires change to be introduced slowly and carefully with a clear end in mind, microchurches allow for more rapid experimentation. The disruption of the pandemic forced change onto many churches, and in a post-pandemic Christian context, our churches know that they will never go “back to normal.” Instead, they are looking for those who can demonstrate, at least in part, what our “new normal” might entail. Microchurches are one expression that has been able to demonstrate new possibilities for a new and changing landscape.
None of these five cultural shifts stands alone. They are all integrated in everyday experience as we continue to lead and disciple those God has placed before us. Each one builds to form a picture of a world that is asking the church to be the church in all the fullness Jesus intended for it to be: a local place of belonging and connection, where the radical teachings of Jesus are lived out in a way that demonstrates his love to the world and empowers every disciple to participate. It is clear how the growing movement of microchurches fits into this picture.