Eight Major Changes in Churches the Past Ten Years

May 10, 2017

Change or die.

Such has been the reality of too many congregations the past ten years as the rate of church closures has accelerated. Many have died; others are on life support.

But what are some of the major changes that have taken place in congregations that are doing relatively well? What are some of the ways these congregations have adapted to new realities? Here is a hint: None of the changes in healthy churches have compromised doctrine, diminished the centrality of preaching, or abandoned sharing the gospel.

So what changes have occurred in healthy churches in the last decade? Here are eight of them:

  1. Today: Smaller worship gatherings.
    Ten years ago: Larger worship gatherings.
    There are several factors impacting this change, among them more multi-site churches, more non-traditional worship times, and a desire among the Millennials to be a part of a smaller gathering rather than a larger gathering.
  1. Today: Smaller church facilities
    Ten years ago: Larger church facilities
    There are three major issues at work here. First, church leaders are more hesitant to spend funds on largely unused facilities. Second, churches are building with less space for adult small groups or Sunday school, and are choosing to have those groups meet off-site or on non-worship days. Third, the smaller worship gathering noted above means smaller worship centers.
  1. Today: First priority staff person hired: children’s minister
    Ten years ago: First priority staff person hired: worship leader
    This shift is largely influenced by the large Millennial generation and their children. Millennials are looking for a church that is safe, sanitary, educational, and fun for their children.
  1. Today: Ministry degree optional for church staff members
    Ten years ago: Ministry degree strongly preferred for church staff
    Churches today are more likely to call someone on staff from within their congregations. That person may not have a Bible college or seminary degree.
  1. Today: Emphasis on congregational singing
    Ten years ago: Emphasis on performance singing
    Healthy churches are seeing an awakening of congregational singing today. Ten years ago, contemporary churches emphasized the performance of the praise team and band, while traditional churches emphasized the performance of the choir and soloists.
  1. Today: Community focus
    Ten years ago: Community myopia
    Too many churches the past two decades all but abandoned their communities and are paying the price for their shorts-sightedness today. Healthy churches realize that the community is their place of ministry, their “Jerusalem” of Acts 1:8.
  1. Today: Vital importance of groups
    Ten years ago: Marginal importance of groups
    Healthy churches today make groups (community groups, home groups, Sunday school, life groups, etc.) a high priority. Ten years ago, many church leaders did not see how groups could enhance the health of the church in discipleship, evangelism, prayer, ministry, and fellowship.
  1. Today: Church leaders are continuous learners
    Ten years ago: Church leaders were “degree and done”
    For several decades, church leaders essentially ended their education process with a college or seminary degree. In today’s ever-changing world, leaders of healthy churches have intentionally established a discipline of continuous learning.

These eight major shifts took place in a relatively brief period.

More are on the way.

Are you ready?

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61 Comments

  • I would take issue with #5. The emphasis of music in “traditional” worship was not “choirs and soloists” but rather a balance of congregational and choral/solo music, or maybe only congregational in smaller churches that didn’t have a choir. The standard was three hymns for the congregation, an anthem or two for a choir or a solo. As a church musician for over 40 years I can say that this is still the norm in many churches where the resources are invested in having worship music for everyone to participate. I do agree that the “contemporary” worship model emphasized (and still does to a large extent) vocalists with a band performing the music from the front. This model is a re-hashing of what was happening prior to the Reformation in Europe, where it was all performance oriented from the chancel and the congregation participated by watching and “maybe” receiving the Eucharist. Martin Luther invested an amazing amount of energy in developing congregational worship music through liturgy and hymns. I am thankful we still do this in the mainline church with a pipe organ to accompany the congregation.

    • “…congregational worship music through liturgy and hymns….we still do this in the mainline church with a pipe organ to accompany the congregation”

      Where is this wonderful, magic place of which you speak? Basically, I am agreeing that I do see #5 taking place – at least around me (Houston, Texas area). The music seems to all be taken from contemporary Christian radio – no hymnals and most certainly no organ. Am I just not visiting the right congregations?

  • Jimmy Garcia says on

    You alluded that a change is having smaller congregations with one or more services. Did you mean different services at different hours? Or multiple simultaneous services with several congregations? I enjoyed reading the article and am seeing signs of the eight changes.

  • Is there anywhere we can find the sources for these observations?? Thanks.

  • Been to many churches. Large and small. None of the churches i have visited do congregational singing. It’s all lights, smoke machines, rock and really really lame words and choruses…and always…..a solo a la “American Idol” or the song isn’t singable….the congregation claps or sways. Remote mics that drown out any sound (if any) from the congregation. Sorryr Mr. Rainer…. I live in the Bible belt of California……performance praise Christianity is sadly alive and well….and still growing.

  • Ron F. Hale says on

    Thanks for your article Dr. Rainer. Our church just called a new Children’s pastor before calling a new worship pastor. This helps confirm that we were on the right path according to #3.

    Blessings!

  • When we return to this – ”And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. – I Corinthians 2:1&3-5

    And return to this – ”And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.” – Acts 4:31

    Then we’ll see this – ”These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.” Acts 17:6

  • Ted Hughes says on

    Our Church is about 500 strong and we also have Home Churches of 15 to 20 that meet on Sunday nights instead of a Sunday night service. Study notes are prepared by the Pastor digging deeper into the morning sermon which helps for continuity. Also there are many ministry opportunities for small groups. We meet in each others houses and therefore get to know each other much better.
    We are now trying to form some small groups around a common activity. Golf, bowling, boating, motorcycle riding, fishing, etc.
    It’s easier to be a church in small groups, but you don’t have to abandon the larger corporate gathering, as it has it’s strength’s also.

  • This is very encouraging to read. I was just asked to become pastor of a dying SBC church here in New England. The retiring pastor has dropped or stopped the things described here as reason millennials are going to smaller churches.
    While going through the process, we discovered that the church has been attracting a number of families, but because there is no children’s ministry, they didn’t return.
    Please pray for First Baptist Church of Sutton as my wife and I and a small team God’s assembled work to get First Sutton back on track.

  • Good post, Thom.

    From your perspective, what do you see regarding denominationalism? Do you see local churches reaching more for denominational help from general councils or geographic help from other local fellowships?

  • Amy Sauerlender says on

    Have you tried printing out any of your own articles? It always cuts off the top of the second page which is often the introduction to the article. Just FYI because it’s always good stuff! 🙂

  • Joshua Daniels says on

    How should medium/large churches handle this? If we like our size and the financial benefits of this size, how should we respond to the smaller, more intimate focus of millennials?

    • I’d recommmend a smaller service for millennials every other Sunday or once a month with a real gospel sermon with real world examples. Also, allow/encourage your clergy or leadership, separately, to have a dinner with the younger (or even ordinary) people some time. Most ordinary people (now the high-ranking already get this) would like a little bit of face time with the clergy and perhaps the church leadership as most organizations’ (civic clubs, political parties, etc, and sadly, churches) leaders have nothing to do with the mere mortals even those with the right pedigrees. Insinuating that you don’t want people runs them right out of Christianity.

  • It seems there was a trend toward bigger churches to support activities like youth sports, day care, singles groups, etc. If there is now a trend away from bigger churches and related facilities, are church-goers going elsewhere for those services? Are schools (especially private schools) and community organizations providing sufficient services so that churches need not branch out into those areas?

    • Thom S Rainer says on

      John –

      For clarity, the trend is not necessarily away from bigger churches; it’s away from larger worship gatherings. Larger churches will have more services and sites.

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