Churches may start cannibalizing each other's members, with the big getting bigger and the small ones either being merged into the bigger ones (which is another way of saying "acquired") or facing continued pressures for survival.
I'm putting it in bleaker words than the original, but that's the upshot from a recent list of church trends produced by a prominent researcher for the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer recently published "14 Predictions for Churches in 2014" (in two parts, here and here). The Southern Baptist-affiliated agency oversees research and book and media sales.
"Increased church acquisitions. Smaller churches will seek to be acquired by larger churches in increasing numbers. ... Many smaller churches can no longer afford to pay a pastor a salary and benefits, particularly health care benefits. (75% confidence factor)....
"Downsizing of denominational structures. Many denominational structures are becoming smaller because their churches are declining. Others are feeling economic pinches. ...
"Decline in conversion growth. American churches that grow are more likely to get their growth at the expense of other churches. Evangelism is waning in many churches, and fewer non-believers are becoming Christians....
"More megachurches. The data are clear that there are more megachurches (average worship attendance of 2,000 or more) today than a year ago. There is also little doubt the trend will continue....
"More large churches will function like mini-denominations. These churches will have multiple locations. They will have one senior or lead pastor, and several other campus pastors. They are more likely to fund their own missions priorities, even if they are also contributing to a denominational missions fund. Many of them will write their own small group literature.
All of this seems to describe what economists sometimes call "creative destruction," in which new business models grow at the expense of obsolete ones -- which is how some people describe what Walmart has done to the Mom 'n Pops. In church terms, that means bigger churches absorbing members from the smaller ones.
But on a bigger trend, it also underscores the growing stagnation in conversion rates. The nation's two largest denominations, Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist, have seen rates of baptism decline in the past decade, and several Protestant denominations are in steep membership decline. Rainer noted that churches are lagging in both evangelistic effort and success.
In short, it's a secularizing world, and churches seeking to grow in membership will find themselves, wittingly or not, doing so at the expense of others.
One trend may also be that those churches that do remain may get stricter with their members. Mr. Rainer's prediction of an "increased emphasis on high-expectation church membership" refers to congregations emphasizing the internal discipline of members, including their attendance records. That concept has come under some sharp debate elsewhere online recently.
At the same time, Mr. Rainer also refers to another wave of trends -- big churches getting small (no Steve Martin pun intended, even for churches in Colorado) -- small groups, community outreach and smaller worship centers (but more frequent worship). So there may be a trend toward larger congregations even if the sanctuary of the future won't be quite the size of the Grand Canyon.