Eight Reasons Many Churches Are Living in the 1980s


Nine out of ten churches in America are either declining, or they are growing so slowly they are not keeping up with the growth rate of the community in which they are located.

It’s a long sentence. Read it again carefully. Soak it in. Across America, 90 percent of the churches are losing ground in their respective communities. Most of them are declining. Many of them will close.

As I have worked with thousands of churches over the past three decades, I have noticed something fascinating, yet disturbing, about many of these churches. They are still acting like it’s the 1980s. The world has passed them by. They are deemed irrelevant by members of their communities. They are frozen in a time warp.

Why has this tragedy fallen on so many churches? Though I don’t want to oversimplify the issue, I see at least eight reasons for this crisis.

  1. They are trying to shelter themselves from culture. In the 1980s, congregations were typically part of the mainstream culture. They were accepted in most places, and embraced in some. That is not the culture of today. Many church members use their churches as a getaway from the realities they don’t want to face.
  2. Programs were easy answers. The vast majority of churches in the 1980s were program-driven. If there was a perceived need, they would order a resource that best solved that need. Many churches today still think they can get quick fixes from programs.
  3. Churches largely catered to the needs of church members in the 1980s. We thus created a culture of membership that is me-driven. Many church members do not want to make the sacrifices necessary to reach our communities and culture today. They are demanding their own needs and preferences to be the priority of their churches.
  4. Change was more incremental. If your church is stuck in the 1980s, it does not have to worry about the rapid pace of change today. Members can pretend like their church does not need to change despite the massive upheavals of change in the world.
  5. Church growth was easier. In the 1980s, a number of people would visit our churches without much effort on the members’ part. One church member told me recently, “If lost people want to come to our church, they know where we are.” Sigh.
  6. Denominations provided solutions. Not all churches in the 1980s belonged to a denomination, but many did. And many members expected the denominational organizations to guide them and resource them. Denominations work best today in partnership with churches, but too many church members want to return to the paradigm of the 1980s.
  7. Others did evangelism for the members in the 1980s. Evangelism was the responsibility of the pastor or the denomination or a few people in a program. Church members paid others to do the work they were supposed to do. Some church members today are more concerned about their worship style preference than lost people who need to hear the gospel.
  8. Some churches would rather die than to get out of the comfort of their 1980’s paradigm. I feel certain they will do just that.

What do you think of these issues of time-warp churches? Let me hear from you.

Posted on October 5, 2015

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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  • I agree with the statement that churches want a quick fix. They want a pastor to come in to preach so that the masses will come to listen. They want the pastor to create programs to cater to their dwindling numbers. They want the pastor to go door to door in the community to “get the members and others in church.” I could go on, but the fact is, everything is the pastors responsibility. Then when business meetings come around and the pastor sees an outlet or change that would be conducive to bring the people he’s trying to reach, it is turned down because of its inconvenience. So the church continues to dwindle in impact and the blame is placed on the pastor.

    I have seen in my ministry that the main issue is vision. People have no vision. We must see things from God’s point of view. It is then, when perspective is right that right process will form, and right process will produce right product. Christ’s vision is to see the world come to a knowledge of Him through the Gospel and He didn’t leave us in the dark about how we should go about accomplishing this vision. His strategy (process) of disciple making will build men and women the way Christ intends them to be built. We have a problem and to fix it we must start afresh and anew in building the next generation of leaders. The process starts slow, but then, once it gains speed, cannot be stopped. Just look at the first century Christians for that example, they turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

    • “…to fix it we must start afresh and anew in building the next generation of leaders. ”

      You have to want the next gen leaders and then be willing to get out of the way a little bit and let them lead. Current leaders also need to meet with the large donors and reassure them that they will not be forgotten. I believe a lot of the fear in letting the young into leadership is that the old, large donors don’t want it because they might lose some control. Now, you also get the next gen as they are, e.g. females, singles, liberals, etc. Too many organizations including churches don’t want anyone but those who meet a very long list of criteria.

      • I think that speaks to an underlying implied message of the previous generation that are large donors. Giving should not be used as a method of manipulation for how to run the church. If large donors are worried about losing control they were giving for the wrong reason to begin with and it would probably bless the church more in the long run (and hurt more in the short run) to lose someone who views giving to God in that way. Church is not a corporation that whoever gives the most gets the most attention or determines the direction of the church. This ties the hands of the leadership to follow wherever the Lord may be leading them and, instead, be asking permission from a man or woman. If I am giving to support a particular church I should be giving the money free from conditions or is it really giving then? We indirectly forcing the leadership into choosing between God or money.

      • The first rule of any organization dependent on donations is to never upset a large donor. That said, I was taught growing up that the one who pays the piper calls the tune. That meant that if you did not donate decently to a church or charity, do not expect your idea to be considered. If you want to be taken seriously and have a seat at the table, drop a large donation on them every year. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut.

        Also, one need only look at a church’s fixed cost structure to see just how money hungry some churches are. This need for constant donations keeps them beholden to the largest donors.

      • I have a different perspective regarding “large donors”. Church leadership used to cater to the older generation because they had money and were large donors. However, during the 90’s the younger generation saw soaring salaries and suddenly they were the larger donors. Many of the changes in churches have been based on younger members making large donations and becoming the important ones. Sadly, churches are all to often about the money trail.

  • Jim Watson says on

    We have far too many people who won’t even go into their Judea and Samaria (or even their own Jerusalem) to be witnesses for Jesus (let alone to the ends of the earth). We have become very good at throwing money at those areas, but we don’t go out the front doors of the church and into the community.

    Just as an example (and not to cast stones), we have many people who very generously support state missions, North American missions, and world missions financially. But, these same people would not share the gospel with a homeless man at the foot of the steps to the church.

    I don’t have the research to back it up, but it seems to me that the vast majority of Christians no longer think about the fact that the majority of their neighbors are going to hell and that these Christians have a responsibility to get in the way of that. They will agree with the preacher that this is the case, but they don’t give it another thought afterword. It is not that these Christians want their neighbors to go to hell. It seems to be the feeling that someone ELSE will help.

    I have tried to find out who the author is, but I have been unable to do so. But, there is a story that describes most of our churches today. It starts out:

    “This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.”

    In this regard, we have become more conformed to the world than we EVER were supposed to be. In fact, the Bible specifically warned us about this.

    • The article you are referring to was done by the Gospel Tract Society. It is entitled, “Your Neighborhood.”

    • Wow! I had to double check to see who wrote this because my pastor was saying this very thing, almost to the word, to me just a couple of days ago. Sadly, our church is great at talking the talk, but horrible at walking the walk. It’s a very small congregation, so it puts a lot of pressure on the few who “get it” to be effective at local evangelism.

  • gene veltkamp says on

    We are in the midst of serious crisis in the PCUSA today. Having been a recent newcomer to the denomination, it appears that we have lost our way. We have stopped reaching out to the world, and are more interested in looking inward, taking care of the “needs of the congregation.” And then we wonder why the church is dying.

    Another area, one that has not been mentioned. In rural communities, where there is no economic development, this is where you find the churches struggling the most. Show me a city where there is economic opportunities, and I will show you where the church can be alive, if they are outward focused. Show me town where there is no economic opportunities, and I will show you where the churches are struggling and dying.

    On cities or counties where there is little or no opportunity, the church appears to be stuck in the late 1980’s. I believe that this is because as parents we send our children to college (Christian or secular), but they do not come back, and bring their ideas concerning worship back to the local communities. Where there are economic opportunities, children come back and become part of the church, infusing new ideas into the worship services. Parents send their children to the college, but the children come back, settle down, get married and raise a family. So when looking at the conditions of the churches that are in trouble, also look at the economic condition of the communities.

    • “Parents send their children to the college, but the children come back, settle down, get married and raise a family.”

      This is a perfect example of 1980s thinking. Now it’s compete in high school, fight for a slot in a good college, get the degree while doing an internship every summer, graduate and fight for a job, maybe go get a masters while working part time to eat, fight for another job, take an unpaid internship while living with parents, get a low-paying job, live at home or in a “crash pad”, realize that you can’t afford to get married or buy a house, pay on student loans, move away and get a better job but where the cost of living is equal to your take home pay, move in with someone to help pay the rent. This is the modern world.

      • Concerned Christian says on

        Well said. And this constant struggle for occupational security wears down on one’s self esteem/self-image and our outlook on our lives and decisions. All this has an affect on our views on God (whether or not He cares or if we really have a purpose in this world). The church needs to be attentive to these types of needs as well.

      • It means that the church doesn’t get its most prized members (married people with children). The church gets stuck with transient, unmarried people, which most churches don’t like.

      • “Most prized members”

        That attitude has a lot to do with why there are so many obnoxious, depraved unbelievers out there stirring up trouble.

        I used to be one of those obnoxious unbelievers, and trust me, the world is a better place every time someone like I was repents.

        Maybe some churches should reconsider their priorities… However unlikely that eventuality probably is…

    • Tom from Germany says on

      @gene veltkamp: the Church is dying where there is no opportunity to earn much money? Then reduce the costs for churches. Meet in houses instead of expensive buildings, meet only once instead of every day, then pray (= speaking to the Lord) much, much more than you do today instead of having community with others with a lot of talking to others instead of God. Then replace the word “money” by the word “Jesus” in your mind and your life and the course of the church will change to the better.

    • Christopher says on

      Thought provoking analysis. I would add one more reason why churches struggle in low income areas. Low income people have learned to depend on government instead of God (by design, I might add).

  • Joey Taylor says on

    Great article Thom!

  • My observation has been that in the 1980’s churches did see some significant growth. Unfortunately, they became content with that growth and expected the next generation to keep coming to church and due as they did. This resulted in no real outreach to the up and coming millennials. Now that young enthusiastic church who were once in their 30’s are now in their 60’s, while their pastor is approaching 80! The challenge is going to be for the next pastor to bridge this gap without loosing that older generation while reaching a new one.

  • Rev. Bill Burt says on

    All points completely en point. The church of the 80s, the 70s, the 60s and way before was entirely focused inwardly as were their judicatories. The congregations that survive and thrive have all fixed their gaze outward. Unfortunately, most judicatorial bodies talk a nice talk but don’t walk the walk when it comes to a change of focus.

  • Thom, in the 80’s we were 30 yrs younger. Our churches were center’s of communities that matched us demographically. We didn’t need language ministries. The occupant of the White House had been elected by us and openly supported our morality. It was the greatest time to be alive and vibrant in church life. Look and the total degradation of society today, we don’t know what to do or how to process so yes it’s easy to slip back to a more comfortable time when things made sense.

    • Russ wrote, “Look and [sic] the total degradation of society today, we don’t know what to do or how to process…”

      I find it interesting that in the early days of Christianity, the local morality was that of ancient Athens and Rome. Temples were on every street to Diana, Zeus, and a host of other gods. The activities in Roman bathhouses make a wild fraternity house look like a convent. Yet, Christianity got a start in those cities and grew. The problem might be that we refuse to understand and direct our efforts toward the surrounding culture. You don’t have to have a great moral culture for Christianity to grow.

      • Part of the problem may be that the church is full of people that have one foot in the world and one foot in the church. Seekers have laid a laundry list of conditions for churches to meet in order to gain their approval. Their wants and needs were met, and yet they are starting to flock to liturgical churches that offer services with more depth than the typical “seeker sensitive” church.

        God’s power can be at work in any culture when people truly seek Him and not just how He can bless them.

      • I am one who moved over from Evangelicalism to a liturgical church. The amount of Bible read in the liturgical service is much more than the Evangelicals would read in 3 months. It is also not taken out of context.

      • Christopher says on

        Good point about the culture of the 1st century. I would add that Paul’s emphasis in his letters was not getting the church into the community but getting the community out of the church. Just something to think about.

      • The Gospel always spreads quickly and noticeably where It has never been heard — although with a few exceptions where it is simply too dangerous to accept the Lord. What is new is attractive, but tragically, familiarity breeds contempt, even with Christianity… So when Christianity is established in a culture, it becomes a familiar idea, and the more it is considered an option, the less attractive the option becomes.

        However, once a culture reaches a point of familiarity, options and contempt, and Christianity is far less familiar to the young, Christianity becomes new and strange to the young, and the fire reignites. I say this because Nicky Cruz Ministries has been reporting on a revival in France this past summer, where the French youth were very receptive to this unfamiliar Gospel. Currently, America is in the optional contempt phase, and we’re really feeling the pain of this…

  • Today there is huge apathy on the part of many churches toward their community. Because the churches are not taught to have an outward focus they become inwardly focused, self-centered, drowsy, with no little to no interest in sharing the gospel with their neighbors and the community.

    Leaders must learn to take the attitude of the lepers who found the treasure: “This is a day of good news. We are not doing right to keep it to ourselves” (2 Kings 7). They must understand, “either we grow or we die” and then set out to teach the need for evangelism in every sermon, at every meeting, and in every discussion. They must hold brainstorming sessions where everyone has a voice in providing ideas about how to evangelize, and they must begin giving tools to their congregation that help them spread the word and invite people (church business cards, special printouts to handout to neighbors, flash drives of a particular sermon, etc.).

    I attend a half full church that has a half built building so we meet in a school, as they have for 17 years. There is a huge emphasis on “discipleship” but nothing on evangelism whatsoever. The other day one of the members said to me, “yes, it is a great church; we’re not trying to be some megachurch we just come and hear the word.” Sigh…

    The church must begin taking the role of evangelism seriously, or it will die.

    • Boom! Intentional evangelism.

    • Christopher says on

      I don’t understand the seemingly disdainful attitude toward discipleship and hearing the Word. Evangelism is the beginning of discipleship and both are impossible without the Word. Furthermore, our mission, as stated by Jesus, is to “make disciples…teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded.” How can we do that if we ourselves are not disciples and don’t know what Jesus commanded?

      • I don’t think anyone here is saying don’t disciple…but the verse begins with…”As You Are Going”. it is like having a one legged dog. If we aren’t working to be well rounded then we aren’t going…making…teaching…! We are just being! Disciplining isn’t bad it is just one part of any amazing equation! Without going, caring, loving and telling there will eventually be no teaching, because there will be no one to teach.

      • Christopher says on

        I respectfully disagree with your assessment. Discipleship is not “one part,” it’s the whole mission, as stated by Jesus. The other things you mentioned (going, caring, teaching, evangelism) are part of discipleship. As a church we can “go” and do anything, but if we are not making disciples then we are not fulfilling our mission.

      • And if we aren’t making disciples who practice intentional evangelism then we need to reassess our disciple-making. Right?!

      • One major reason discipleship isn’t easily done is that different people communicate and think differently. Churches and individuals may try a one size fits all approach, but it’s not that simple. Understandably, a well meaning person may try to help someone else, only to have the communication factor break down frustrating everyone involved.

        I am sorry, I don’t have an easy answer to this. Everything has been tried, but often newcomers to church environments find established members standoffish, and this may be why. When a Christian tries to witness or disciple, chances are that the communication didn’t go well, and the Christian blamed themselves and felt like a failure. This has happened someone trying to witness to me vefore I became a Christian, and it has happened to me as a Christian trying to help someone else. Yet, in both aspects, I had someone able to reach me and lead me to Christ in spite of my weird questions, and I have been able to help someone grow in Christ in spite of that person’s challenging issues.

        I think encouragement, openness and honesty are our best hope. That, and most importantly, prayer. Not everything we try as individuals is going to succeed, but when we do succeed, the victory will be eternal, and that is what matters…

    • I agree with one exception. I share with people regularly, I just find most services loud, boring and non engaging so don’t want to invite non believers to them.

  • Christina says on

    I agree on the leadership points. Catering to families – definitely. I think the issues of gender roles and the church being so inner focused is intensified when a school is attached. If you want to lead/share testimony (as a woman) you need to be 2 things at my local church – staff w/ husband in leadership or a relation to leadership. If you aren’t those you’re preached at about getting involved but yet you don’t fit in the cliche to do so.
    Unspoken requirements of course – but heartbreaking.

    I recently attended a different church where every person no matter age, gender etc. is a minister – just as we should be. You feel included from the get go. This church also has huge altar calls – they wait for people and aren’t stiffened by routine. I want to be at the new church all the time – because I feel welcomed. Almost 5 years at the old place and I felt like a new comer every time I entered the place.

  • Steve Cokeman says on

    Wow! I would add.
    1. People over programs.
    2. Church leave the building and go into the community. Matthew 5:16
    3. Demonstrate beliefs and not what you are against.
    4. Be real and keep it real by being Jesus to all.
    Too many times we as the church try to package what we are to do. Can’t package genuine relationships. First is with Christ and then with others. To miss the first one will mean failure in the second one.

  • I don’t know what chuch life was like in the 80’s but now people seem to want to blame the culture for the it’s lack of growth. This totally lays the church’s problem on the shoulders of people who aren’t even members. Thanks for the article Thom another helpful and insightful piece that practically helps.

  • In the 1980s:
    Families attended church together. Today, a lot more single people attend but the church is still trying to cater to and attract families.

    Formation of a youth group was all the rage. Today, there are many blog postings about the youth groups’ culpability in the shrinking membership numbers.

    The young were not allowed to talk to leadership or the pastor except to shake their hands like politicians. Today, if they are in attendance at all, want to see transparency from both pastor and leadership.

    A man was to wait his turn (be older than the magical age of 55) to take a leadership position. Today, both men and women don’t see why gender, age, etc. should keep them out of leadership. Besides, Jesus was dead at age 33.

    Theology and facts were not questioned. Today, facts can quickly be checked and blogs from all sides offer information that most pastors don’t.

    • Mark –

      Those are excellent additions. Thank you.

    • Frankey G says on

      The church was accepted for what it was, today normal is not easily accepted. Everything is challenged even in today’s church.

      • Well said, Frankey

      • Sadly, even things that are clear in scripture are questioned by “enlightened” minds.

      • There is a particular moment in my past that stands out to me today and truly shaped my opinion on how we treat others who have a different view of a particular scripture. My son was about 4 years old at the time and we attended a very small, country church in rural MS. On this particular Sunday morning our preacher started on a rant about a “doctrine” within our group and how it was just beyond him that other people didn’t understand it the way we did. He then said that it was so clear and simple that even Daniel (referring to my 4 year old son) could understand it. It was at that moment that I realized just how poorly and un-Christlike we were treating people. What he was saying, and what I had said in different ways in the past, was that if you don’t believe the “clear and simple” meaning of (fill in the blank) scripture then you are obviously a simple minded person who can not reason beyond the logic of a 4 year old.

        Sadly, we assume that because we have a certain understanding of scripture we think it should be “clear” to everyone. That is not always the case. And when we use words like “enlightened” we are showing a desire to define a separation between those with the “clear” truth (obviously us) and those that are just trying to find a different meaning of scripture to fit their particular agenda (obviously anyone that disagrees with us).

        I will answer to God Almighty for the way I live my life and follow His word, not for the amount of knowledge I have. I do not believe it is necessary to have a full understanding of every “jot and tiddle” that is in scripture. It seems that another group already tried that and it didn’t work out so well for them. May God bless each and every person who earnestly seeks to understand Him through His word, whether we agree or not.

      • Mary M. Roberts says on

        Thank you, David, for an outstanding post!

      • David, I appreciate what you’ve shared, but you and I are talking about two different things. There is always room for interpretation, except when statements are plain. I work in higher education. My environment is full of people that think anything even remotely related to the Bible is “irrelevant”. They claim to be more “enlightened” than the mere mortals that surround them. The liberal element ignores reality in order to hold fast to the agenda before them. Sadly, there is an element of that kind of thinking in the modern church. On some matters, the Word is very clear, even though modern society chooses to ignore it.

        I’m sorry for the experience that you had with the pastor’s statement, although I don’t know that he meant any disrespect to your son or you. Perception is the cruelest form of reality, so if you were hurt by his action, I’m truly sorry.

        My dissenting opinion with SOME of what Dr. Rainer said in his article will surely not make me popular in the comment section, but as I said, we are talking about two different things here–or at least from different perspectives.

        Respectfully yours

      • Jim Milleville says on

        If the “jot and tittle” are in a “book of order” or a policy manual then we can and will have problems. The trouble was with following rabbinical laws. In the Scriptures – we should desire to know EVERY jot and tittle, every word means something good. It is important to know all we can, every jot and tittle. We should want to know every jot and tittle

    • Christina Glotfelter says on

      10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

      18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. – Ephesians 6: 10-20

      Let’s not criticize one another but build one another up in love. Let’s remember that we are not fighting against one another.

    • FYI…Jesus was also ALIVE at 33.
      And his most difficult people were the Temple Leaders. Jesus wants “His church” (ie: Christians) to reach the unchurched.

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