Eight Major Changes in Churches the Past Ten Years

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?

Posted on May 10, 2017

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Really appreciate your analysis, Thom. I agree with every single comparison. Unfortunately, many churches are still stuck in 2007. I can think of one particular church who is all about their praise team, increasing Sunday School attendance NUMBERS, and becoming a carbon-copy of a nearby megachurch. If you base your success on becoming the same as a big-name megachurch, your success has been disguised as mere imitation.

    • Tom Harper says on

      Logan I couldn’t agree with you more. All of this is an encouraging and wonderful trend. But, as you correctly pointed out, there are still too many stuck in 2007. I guess these are the dying churches on life support. The saddest thing of all is that most of them don’t know it. I really appreciate the incredible information and analysis that Thom Rainer publishes. I just wish that all churches would hear and heed what the Spirit is saying through it all.

      • kyle dickerson says on

        There are some churches and staff who’d LOVE to be stuck in 2007 but they’re too busy in 1950’s lol. Good article, good comments

      • Ain’t that the truth. I can hardly believe the anachronisms of churches. It is as if the 1950 culture is found in scripture.

      • I’ve visited a few that seemed stuck in 1907 or 1850s.

      • 2007 is modern. Most are stuck in the 1950s. They will be ready if the 50s ever return.

  • I would like to add on to Mr. Walker’s post “I have heard you speak of the trend toward smaller worship gatherings and venues for some time. What are you categorizing as “small”? 200 and less? 500 and less?”

    You mentioned that millenials will most likely join a service that is no more than 300 in attendance – does this trend also apply to cities no more than 25,000 people, or should we expect less due to the rural culture?

  • Another Anonymous Mark says on

    I am “Gen X”. How is it we got ignored? You might say we got “rolled.” What gives?

    • Another Anonymous Mark says on

      More info would help explain my comment. I attended a certain church for 15 years, from when I was 20 to 35. All of that time, the pastor and the other leaders were not interested in help from me. Sure, i could clean the bathroom or usher, but that was it. There was no opportunity to have a teaching position in Sunday School, for example. There was no system to help the next generation prepare to be leaders in the body of Christ. I kept thinking, one day I’ll be old enough to have a role to play.

      One day, after 15 years of this, the pastor brings up an 18 year old and says it is now time to train the next generation. Withing 6 months, several 18-20ish people were given leadership roles.

      I guess my generation wasn’t good enough for him!

      • Tim Aagard says on

        AA Mark – “I guess my generation wasn’t good enough for him!” It’s more complex than this. From my observations, if at any age, you are thinking and talking even just a little bit out of the box of any of the deeply held traditions of church, that will be detected and you will have little trust placed in you. You may actually be avoided. “Leaders” are there to protect every tradition. You must suck up to everything they believe. You must accept the most feeble excuses they might offer, even the twisting of scripture or the ignoring of the 3 scriptures you gave. The worst thing you can do is offer scripture to support any changes you might suggest. If your idea is just an opinion you have with no support from the Word, it’s easy for them to just say they see it differently and there is no threat of truth confronting their tradition. Quite possibility the 18 – 20 year olds were not offering anything outside the box of current practice. If you show the “leaders” their use of scripture is corrupted they will give you an “official warning” to be quiet or else they will need to shun you as “divisive”. There is a very tight protection scheme used to guard the current practice of church life. It’s not your age. If God has taught you something to “rebuke, correct, and instruct in righteousness”, they will not engage in brotherly interaction. It will be strictly an institutional control quality relationship. They consider themselves above you, and between you and Christ. They call it “undershepherd” (assumed into the Word, not present). You may even be practicing the work of shepherding. Anyone can aspire to oversight. “anyone who aspires to the work of oversight…” (1 Tim. 3:1) The Holy Spirit can even make you an overseer (Acts 20:28), or give you the pastor-teacher gifting (Ephesian. 4:11), without any special Bible degree or any alleged calling to never work in the marketplace. You will not be acknowledged as a shepherd without their tradition driven prerequisites. Your walk with Jesus doesn’t matter. (Acts 4:13) They will claim they are “serving” just like Jesus, but they are “exercising authority”, even though Jesus said “exercising authority, not so among you”. The things I have given here with scripture are grounds for me being warned as being “divisive” in a local church. These are systemic realities to pulpit and pew oriented church and present in 99.9% of brand name churches. There may be .01% exceptions somewhere. Keep your eyes on the Chief Shepherd. He is a good shepherd. He gave his life for you.

        All the way my Savior leads me;
        What have I to ask beside?
        Can I doubt His tender mercy,
        Who through life has been my guide?

      • Thou shalt not think outside of the box. New ideas are generally not well received and the giver is told to stand down at best and condemned to hell at worst. I too was one who was not allowed to do anything but donate money.

      • Jeanette says on

        Well said. My husband and I have been members of the same church for 20 years, always available to help and lead, but were always in wonder at the
        recycling of the same people. There seem to be no room at the inn? One day my husband made the statement..”this is an ownership church first”. That hurts my heart, however, I see why people are gathering in schools, and other facilties, if they receive the same arm length welcome in a building of ownership, look but don’t touch, called church.

      • Christopher says on

        I don’t know what kind of church you guys attend, but every church I’ve been a part of has been desperate for leadership and involvement from people of any age.

      • My experience agrees with Tim. Don’t challenge the powers that be… they have their “sacred cows” and scripture is secondary.

      • I don’t think I have ever been a part of any church that actually wanted me involved or near the leadership. I have even looked at the details of the people who were lucky enough to get a term on the boards or vestry of churches (that use that structure) to see what they had done and see what I am lacking. Those that use deacons/elders are a different kettle of fish as you have to think like the current ones do too.

      • Tim Aagard says on

        Christopher – Yes, 99% of churches in America are desperate for leadership and involvement. There are reasons for that which are the same in every church. It’s not true of churches that don’t have a pulpit and pews and chain-of-command oriented “leadership” (about half of believers around the world where they can’t afford it or there is persecution). The pulpit routine (strict one way communication by only one hired man to believers who have already heard 500-2000 sermons) does not produce leaders. You can’t exposit this narrow practice from “preach the word, in season and out…”. If I’m wrong about that please show me. This routine produces spectators no matter how you lecture them into being good listeners. God designed believers to be fully prepared speakers of the truth when they meet. (Heb. 10:24,25; Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19, etc.) That would be real leadership which increases “love and good works”. But that is not allowed for the worship hour. You can’t reduce one minute of the Pastors sermon time. God has “called” him to this we are told.

      • Amen, it is rooted in envy and jealousy…. along with protection of the little “empire”.

      • Christopher says on

        Your analysis makes no sense, aside from having an obvious ax to grind. If a church has a rigid chain of command then why would it be desperate for leadership from the congregation? Most pastors I know try very hard to raise up lay leadership and would love nothing more than to share the responsibility of the Gospel.

        This is now the second time, that I know of, that you’ve come with this rant on this blog. Why?

        I don’t know what made you so bitter and resentful toward pastors, but it must have been bad.

      • Tim Aagard says on

        Christopher – My analysis makes no sense if you don’t want to examine the system of the current form of church to find where it is corrupted from what the Bible says. If you want to protect the current system, you are left with blaming the lay people. (Per your analysis, I”m just an ax grinding, ranting, bitter, resentful, anti-pastor believer.) I gave you scripture that tells believers what to do when they meet. It is God’s formula for increasing “love and good works”. It is systemically ignored so one man can lecture the Bible – the exact opposite of the instruction. The result is low levels of “love and good works”. If the “major changes” don’t include “throwing off the things that hinder and the sin that so easily entangles”, there will be little power to “run the race” or “fix your eyes on Jesus”.

        I’m trying to “stir you up in one another dynamic for greater “love and good works” . I hear your rejection loud and clear. I will be patient. Just giving you scripture should be enough, but it doesn’t seem to be yet. You are ahead of most pastors because at least you respond with something from your heart. The rest of them have some excuse not to interact at all. Example: If my appeal does not fit their sense of calling, it’s a waste of time. They are unwilling to practice the Berean example.

      • I know I would love to have millennials involved in my church. I would also love to see them take on positions of leadership. Yet when they’re approached about taking on such responsibilities, they gave a dozen excuses why they can’t. If they do take on any leadership, they bail out at the first sign of hardship.

        No, it’s not fair to say all millennials are like that, but that has been my experience with far too many of them. I must also add that I’ve seen this problem in generations other than millennials.

      • I love the commentary on this article. I have been part of churches where they welcomed my help with open arms, and other churches where I’ve been a part for several years and given only little “token” things to do. I think it’s a spirit thing, personally. Those who are led by the spirit, seek like minded, spirit led workers. Those who are led by power/money seek the same. They highly dislike those that operate in the spirit, because it’s like flesh and spirit don’t work well together; they oppose each other. I’ve done things from clean toilets, nursery, praise and worship leader, piano player, vocalist, children’s church music/artwork, youth leader for middle school and high school, VBS, church secretary, church receptionist, organist, keyboardist, helped with landscaping, marriage enrichment facilitator, etc. I was raised in church, was saved at 6 yrs. old, started playing piano at 2 different churches on Sunday by the age of 12, attended a Christian university with a degree in psychology/communications/religion, and 3 years of music. I just find it interesting what some churches value. I think that your relationship with Jesus is most important. Some think it’s more important to have someone who will support their “personal agendas,” someone who will party outside of church with them and CONDONE their behavior, someone who will only sing songs THEY want to sing, someone who will agree with all their ideas, or “yes men” as I like to call them, etc. The political world of church is a sad, but real thing. 🙁 The great thing though, is God can be seen thru the person cleaning the toilets just like he can be seen in the pastor, so we have to remember that, if that is our mission-and it is. 🙂

      • I have to agree with A.A. Mark about Generation X. I’m the youngest child in my family, but the more I read of these studies on church growth, the more I see things from the perspective of the middle child. When I was in seminary, all the emphasis was on Baby Boomers. Somewhere along the line, the emphasis moved directly from Boomers to millennials. What happened to the generation in between? In my opinion, Generation X ought to be renamed “Generation Middle Child.”

  • Dr. Rainer, where can I go to see the research stats on the high rate of church closings in America? Does your research include mostly Southern Baptist congregations or does it reflect other groups as well?

    • Thom S. Rainer says on

      Keith –

      Two percent of SBC churches close annually (just under 1.000). If you extrapolate that percentage to all 344,000 Protestant churches, there would be about 7,000 closures currently per year. I see that number increasing.

  • Thank you Dr. Rainer for this and all of your articles. I am a bit concerned with churches emphasizing number 4. Personally, I feel that a good education is imperative for staff members especially in the current climate with all its complexities, particularly in the arena of theological doctrine. Now, with schools like Midwestern Seminary (yes, I gave a shameless plug to one of your sponsors…lol) and my alma mater, Liberty University, offering programs online, there are no excuses for someone not to take advantage of the wonderful degree and certificate programs that are offered. Individuals will receive an excellent education at schools such as these.

    While I had reservations with number 4, I am highly encouraged to see number 8. Every Christian should be devoted to continuous, ongoing learning as we seek to love the Lord with our minds. In addition, I like the smaller group emphasis.

    As always, thank you for what you do, Dr. Rainer.

    Brian Chilton

    • Another Anonymous Mark says on

      Couldn’t agree more, Brian.

    • Thom S. Rainer says on

      Great input, Brian. Thank you.

      • I would agree that a formal education is good, is it possible that your emphasis on it is greater than Jesus’s? The pharisees often referred to Jesus as unlearned or questioned where he got his doctrine. The disciples were called unlearned (which was correct) but could not be rebutted because “they had been with Jesus”.
        While we need to hire the right people, qualified for the job, it shouldn’t be viewed as an absolute or dictated by the level of formal education.

      • Jackson, I don’t think it is. I think Jesus strongly emphasized education as he spent three and a half years, at least, training his disciples. He chose Paul the apostle who had the level comparable of a Ph.D. in the Hebrew Bible. So, no. I think Jesus emphasized learning. And, I fully agree with Dr. Rainer that learning should continue past the M.Div. or even a Ph.D. The text in Acts that called the disciples “unlearned” simply meant that they had not been trained in the traditional Jewish schools. I don’t take that to mean that they were ignorant. Historical studies indicate that fishermen would have had a decent education as they would need to know how to engage in the business world. They were akin to what we would equivocate as the “middle class.” To stay atop of the questions that people have now in church and abroad, the church leader needs to have some training in historical studies, certainly the Bible, theology, and I would even say philosophy.

  • What about the additional component of online church? This could be live services that people participate in with church members or staff engaging them. It could also include other online tools that build community or provide teaching on a variety of topics. Is this just not that important to church survival or is it not considered a “major change”?

  • I can strongly oppose your number 1 and 2 above.
    Today’s churches dreams and seek for larger worship gatherings unlike before when you have less than 50 worshipers in a gathering. Today, you can agree with me that many churches have more than 50,000 members who gather in a single place for a worship.

    Churches today buys higher and larger church facilities unlike before when horn-speaker small bos-speakers are use in the church.
    Many churches are now using larger facilities in their churches.

    • Thom S. Rainer says on

      I respectfully disagree. There are not many churches with a single gathering of 50,000. I do not know of one such church in America.

      • Michael Stubblefield says on

        I also respectfully disagree Believe. Some of the healthiest churches around are meeting in schools, restaurants, movie theaters etc.. and are abandoning the “church facility” all together.

  • Excellent Observations! Your opening paragraph may well serve as a ‘wake-up’ call – “Many have died and others are on life-support”. I am re-posting this blog to reach some who perhaps are not receivers of your writing. Grace.

  • It seems to me that perhaps churches are becoming more biblical and less of a business in many ways (though we still need to be smart with the business aspect of ministry). Also seems churches are investing more in the personal development of believers whereas the focus used to be walking an isle and saying a prayer (for my denomination). It created a lot of shallow casual Christians with a carnal view of ministry.

    Of course it could also just be that I’m an older millennial and I’ve got the benefit of hind sight. But I’m optimistic that even though churches are lower in attendance, they are slowly becoming more healthy or being replaced with healthier churches. And many boomers and gen xers are leading the charge of this revolution! I believe we will turn a corner soon and see revival in our churches and an awakening among the lost. I’m excited to see what God does in our country in this generation!

  • I have heard you speak of the trend toward smaller worship gatherings and venues for some time. What are you categorizing as “small”? 200 and less? 500 and less?

  • Vernon Woodard says on

    I love the last one. Continuing education is just as important for the minister or lay leader as it is for the public school educator. A BA is not enough, nor is a highly regarded MDiv. The world is continuously changing, the educational attainment of our members is growing and advanced. For the leadership to just be at the level needed for the job is underrated. Seminaries and colleges have program and certificates for everything now. No need to be left behind or out in the cold. As a former Youth Pastor, I appreciate the need for churches to invest in a children’s or youth pastor. At the church I served at the director of music, because he wasn’t licensed and therefore wasn’t a minister of music, made considerably more than I did and worked considerably less with less education and no extra (licenses or certifications). No knock to him, but there has to be more than music to keep members coming and something to “catch” new converts. If this doesn’t continue than the statistical group known as the “nones” will continue to grow. Which is not good for the church overall.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Vernon. You get it!

    • When I graduated from seminary with an M. Div., we were told that our degree would be good for 5 years and were encouraged to continue to learn. And that was in 1979! I would think that this is even more important now.

    • CH Spurgeon I was wondering how many degrees he had. Oh wait none. He was learning all his life. I question whether the educational complex is nessacarily the only learning option.

  • Jenny H says on

    It is exciting to hear the positive changes happening in churches! I am so used to hearing such negative views on the church today, and especially about us “millennials”. Thank you for sharing. It is easier to put your whole heart into something when you can see first hand hope for its future.

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