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’m certainly not an expert, but I’m wondering about the premise of this whole criticism – that the church can’t grow unless she ‘keeps pace with the culture’.
    The first decades of the ancient church were characterized by a refusal to cower to the prevailing culture, even if it cost them their lives. And characterized by amazing growth, constant controversy with the culture, and passion to change the world that had been enslaved by that culture.

  • Edward M. says on

    I would generally say, “Some churches would rather die than to get out of their comfort.” I was born in the 1980’s so I don’t really know how church was. Yet, resistance in various ways is what is actually hurting each other as a church and not reaching the community for Christ collectively as we should. This is not solely giving a track, but investing time, and helping a need as well. Sincerely loving people and reaching them for Christ. Reaching out to the community even if they are different “and being prepared for them when they arrive.” I have a phrase, “You can’t do the Great Commission sincerely without first living the Great Commandment.” We have to be intentional and prepared collectively.

  • many if not most churches fail to train people how to speak to people in the current culture. The Engle Scale indicates how far from aeecpting Christ people and cultures are. The culture has moved farther away from a evangelical Christianity than ever. Confrontational tactics might have worked in the past, but rarely do they now.

    Second, it is hard to get churches to analyze the data about members, society, who comes, who stays, who leaves or why do people do anything. We need an analysis of reality and stop living for magical Christianity.

    Some churches are growing!

  • Will Meeks says on

    I think the thing that gives Christianity the most problems is success. It seems to me that the local church was alive until they were successful enough to become the state religion of Rome. Then, and clearly I am generalizing, the spiritual life deteriorated. I think that what is happening now is similar. Church, and churchy people became transcendent in the 80’s. We used that success to become institutionalized, and all institutions are somewhat moribund. When the body of Christ is without prestige or power they do much better than when they begin to feel that they are in safe, normal, and in charge of the culture.

  • I see a rise in nominal Christianity is the reason for the decline. Large churches continue to grow while smaller churches continue to decrease. Many people want to go to a church where the work has already been done instead of helping a church become more relevant in the community. How many large churches have gifted and talented people sitting in their classrooms and nice chairs while other churches struggle to get help in doing the basics?

  • Daniel C says on

    You may summarize your statement by pointing out that most churches in the USA are NOT aligned with the Book of Acts. We don’t need more culture-oriented programs. We need a stronger zeal for the Power of the Holy Spirit, starting with intense prayer to have the right mind, heart, approach, etc., followed by a call to repentance. Whether preaching to ”goody-two-shoes” or homosexuals, we ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Galatians 6 gives us the attitude for restoration and Hebrews 12 states what the deepest longing should be prevalent in our hearts when it states, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith”. Take programs out and bring the Living Jesus, in!!!

    • Amen, Daniel. Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.” Just as Paul says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” And what was he arguing? That man is not anything, but God is everything.

      This is an amazing translation of the scripture in Isaiah above from the Message bible that is very appropriate to this whole discussion:

      “God’s Message, the God who created the cosmos, stretched out the skies, laid out the earth and all that grows from it, Who breathes life into earth’s people, makes them alive with his own life: “I am God. I have called you to live right and well. I have taken responsibility for you, kept you safe. I have set you among my people to bind them to me, and provided you as a lighthouse to the nations, To make a start at bringing people into the open, into light: opening blind eyes, releasing prisoners from dungeons, emptying the dark prisons. I am God. That’s my name. I don’t franchise my glory, don’t endorse the no-god idols. Take note: The earlier predictions of judgment have been fulfilled. I’m announcing the new salvation work. Before it bursts on the scene, I’m telling you all about it.”

  • Walt Murray says on

    In the late 19080s Crawford Loritts said the Church was answering questions that had not been asked since the 1950s. I am not sure we are attempting to answer any questions now. Most of us just show up to get our needs met or check a box and move on.

  • There’s a great podcast at FiveThirtyEight called “The Military is Drowning in Data” about the use of drones- the premise is that our military has become so adept at targeting terrorists, that we’ve mistaken our ability to successfully kill a “bad guy” for a strategy.

    In the church, we mistake “butts in the seats” at our great programming for actually having a strategy to reach people and make disciples.

    And as great as strategy is…Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    A church culture caught in the 1980’s will not reach and make disciples in 2015.

  • I think, also, there’s a tendency to remember “the good old days” as better than they actually were. Someone once said “I can remember things whether they happened or not”.

    It’s an easy leap to attach a lot of worth to 30-year-old plans, when what they really did was to build the church we have today. And if they’d been that good, we wouldn’t be lamenting over the numbers we’re seeing now.

    It’s easy to let programs become the end, rather than the mean to an ends. Our church, f’rinstance, started a Fall Family Festival, as an alternative to conventional Halloween activities. It became quite popular and well-attended as an outreach activity, and now it’s not connected to Halloween any more. It was yesterday, in fact. Which leaves kids no alternative activity to Halloween, any more.

    Look how long it took multi-site churches to catch on, despite the fact that it’s been quite successful for many years.

    When the program becomes the objective, we lose something. We need to look at everything we do with fresh eyes every day, and somebody needs to lead the SBC pack in that.

  • Marshall says on

    I have been a Christian for 23 years. My wife and I have been members of only one church. We felt the call to international missions 16 years ago. There is one important area where the church as a whole has failed….. true discipleship. A non denominational church planter, several years ago, made this statement. “If you have disciples, you always have the church. If you have the church first, rarely do you have disciples.” It was a profound and sobering assessment. We ALL are called to be His witness……. and to make disciples.

  • I have attended several churches like you described. Now my family and I drive 25miles to go to a church that actively seeks to serve the community. The attitude is contagious and people are noticing. It used to be difficult to motivate myself much less my kids to go to church until we found this one. I wish more churches would quit fearing change and start reaching out.

  • I think one of our greatest struggles we face is helping people understand that being a Christian is not just one of many characteristics. All too often we see things that put “Christian” on a list next to things like “Outgoing,” “Father,” “Motorcycle enthusiast” etc. Being a Christian is not just a trait you have, it is central to everything you are! All that you are stems from your identity in Christ…which means that it impacts everything that you do and everything that you say. Witnessing to Christ and His love is a natural part of who we are as Christians, whether that is in our role as employee, father, neighbor, etc. Evangelism, then, should and must be a natural part of us…proclaiming the work of Christ and His love for us by the things that we do and say every day of our lives.

    Evangelism isn’t simply inviting someone to church on Sunday morning; it is so much more than that. I think that helping people to understand this can make a tremendous difference.