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 belong to a church body that has changed and adapted to the times. We are right next to a harvest field of spreading the gospel, a college campus, two to be exact in the same small city (when school comes our population doubles in size). My point is that the generation out there wants to see the people doing something, they want to be a part of something. Without the leaders or elders of the church actively involved, they will go elsewhere. So your point that tthe members are responsible for spreading the gospel hit a definite nerve and you are right. We cannot sit idol and expect that the people will just show up.

    • Such a great point Charles…people want to belong to something that is making a difference! You give this new gen a purpose and they will respond!

    • “My point is that the generation out there wants to see the people doing something, they want to be a part of something.”

      Do they really? My experience has been that they only want to be part of something fun and exciting. When it comes to the plain old hard work of ministry, all I hear from them are excuses.

      • Ken, my experience is the same as yours.

        I’m glad that Charles seems to be having a different experience.

      • Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy that some churches find millennials so eager to serve. That’s not what I’m finding where I live, though.

  • First, let me say, my message will come off cynical, but so be it. I’m so sad to see what the church has become and what incredible opportunities it misses because of what it has become. The businesses we call churches today are not what being the church really is. Maybe it’s the organization that’s the problem, not the people.

    Re: #1 – Churches today, especially megachurches, offer everything the culture offers, but with their own spin. You don’t have to go to the community gym, you can go to the church gym. You don’t have to go to the Starbucks, you can go to the church coffee shop. There is no need to be a part of culture.

    Re #8 – I really don’t think it would be a bad thing for some of the businesses to cease to exist. They, especially the mega-businesses, suck money away from real needs and channel it to expenses that have no eternal significance like mortgages, power bills, salaries, etc. I find it sad that people will criticize a non-profit charity when their administrative costs are too high, but turn a blind eye to their own church.

    What is the answer? First, people need to realize they have a direct connection with God through the Holy Spirit and to ask Him to guide them in what they do and who they spend time with. If they ask Him, he will show them the needs and who to give their money and time to. Relationship, with God and others, is profoundly important. Second, stop telling people what’s wrong about them and love them in spite of it. We don’t have to condone behavior to love someone through it. We don’t have to support behavior to love someone. Love is a powerful transformational force. We just don’t let it do what it can do. We’d rather withhold love and dole out condemnation instead.

    • I don’t find you cynical. You are just perceptive. Christian culture is becoming largely about business and making money. Much of the modern methodologies are more about selling a product to a consumer that helping churches.

  • Another thing disapeared in the 80’s. That is evangelism. Evangelism I’m speaking of is dirt grit, fire and brimstone; sin and the call to repentance; hell, righteousness and judgement and confessing Jesus as Lord and the Son of God evangelism. Evangelism tours – even Billy Graham style – and evangelism from the pulpit stopped. The preaching of attractive sermons from attractive stages and attractive pulpits replaced pure evangelism. The 6 week Bible study on this or that topic replaced discipleship of the newly born again person that is saved as a result of church evangelism.
    Don’t get me wrong. These Bible studies I mention here; home groups and 6 week religious studies of this topic or that, I have been involved in and have taught myself. The result though… many less people becoming born again… truly saved by the blood of Christ. It is only practical that if there are less truly born again Christians, there will be less church members. Less church members = less churches. Period.
    A sure sign as to the direction churches have gone is to look at many of the new buildings. The church building of old used to have as its center point inside the church none other than the baptismal. The actual tub or pool was always very front and centered in a very visible and profound place. The greatest celebration that brought meaning to the church body – and to the lives of people – was the baptism that happened to the newly born again believer.
    Not so any more. Church buildings are built with the baptismal off to the side in a very obscure place. So has gone the longing to evangelize and preach the gospel in a way that draws people and transforms lives. So has gone the baptismal to its obscure presence to the wayside. So has gone the heart of the church. So then has gone a growing number of Christians, and so goes the growth of churches overall.
    And so here is the answer… EVANGELIZE AGAIN! Vocally, publicly, from the pulpit, from the organized event. However it happens. I am seeing that there is a thirst from our culture for a word of substance. Substance that can only come from outright evangelism, the presentation of the Gospel, the Good News, in a way that hits the individual right between their eyes, right in their gut, their soul, and by it’s sheer nature forces them to make a decision in response to the prompting of the Spirit of God which WILL occur if the Gospel is preached. If it’s not preached, then no response… no new Christians.
    It’s found right here…

    “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’ ” (Romans 10:14, 15). “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

    Tens of thousands of preachers and elders and teachers do their appointed duties every week. So many of then are beautiful people with truly beautiful and life changing words of God, doing their duty diligently with great motives, and doing it the best they can. But found in this is a removal of evangelism. Evangelism causes the church to step out of “church” and do something that’s harder, outside of the norm of “church” and exposes them to rejection.
    We have a generation of young adults from the mid twenties or so through their 30’s / 40’s who have lived through and observed and experienced the “80’s” church, and it failed them. All sorts of events… youth events and children’s events were thrown at them. Churches tried, with righteous motives, to give the kids and young people everything they thought would be fun to them. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ was pushed to the side. This generation was left with no tangible spiritual substance that could guide them through life. .Substance and purpose was never to be found in church activities. It is only found in the transforming life changing power of the Gospel of salvation where a person’s life is turned on its head and a clear direction given.
    I think the culture is ripe again for this evangelism message. Loud, resounding, forceful. And it is interesting that this is happening at the same time where Christianity is being marginalized… and marginalized by absolute enemies of the Gospel.
    I think masses of people are open to and even searching for not “church”… church as presented in this article, but the transforming power of something. THE SOMETHING IS THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST AND A TRANSFORMED LIFE. It is time for a return to evangelism.
    Does this following Scripture leave a certain perception:
    “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it (Matthew 11:12, New International Version).
    Now go read that in the context of Matt 11:2-19. These are the words of Christ Himself.
    The church has stopped being forceful. Now it is loosing its force.
    Even some reading this will see the word “force” and flinch.

  • #3 has been one of my pet peeves for years. Alas, we still see that attitude among younger generations. What’s the most common complaint among those that leave churches? In my experience, it’s been some variation of “my needs aren’t being met”. I must also add that – in my congregation anyway – the problem is NOT that young people aren’t being asked to serve. The problem is, too many of them are unwilling to commit themselves, and others are unwilling to stick to the task when the going gets tough.

  • It’s simpler then that.

    Baby boomers and late silent gen’ers became adults and began to have an influence on their church and learn to lead in the 1980’s. Today they are the elders making the decisions.

  • Marv Stapleton says on

    Tom: You make some great points. Have there not always been historical deaths and births of local congregations (for a multitude of reasons)? In the case of “stuck in the 80s” is it local congregations’ lack of vision and willingness to adjust to meet the need? Was that “stuck in the 50s” thirty years ago? What GOOD things about the 80s congregations have been abandoned in today’s “successful” church? (And what good things about the 50s church were abandoned in the 80s? This could go on and on, right? We think that our current definition of “success” is NT, but every generation before us thought the same. Hence, one of the major reasons some people are stuck: They think the current shifting paradigms are incorrect.)

  • Peter Walter says on

    The general thrust of the comments seems to focus on what happened back then and things that happen now that are not so good. That approach can lead us into using the past as an excuse for how we are now. What do we wan’t instead?
    I think we may have lost concern for the lost. Remember the prereqisite for salvation in Christ is that one must be a sinner. (Christ came to call sinners to repentence. We probably need a personal and Kingdom focus rather than a local church focus.

  • Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me . . . If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38).

    Note he said “this adulterous & sinful generation.” Hmm. I guess that takes the wind out of the sails of anyone claiming it is our current state of society to blame for the lack of church growth. Jesus places the responsibility for initiating sharing the Gospel squarely on our shoulders. He takes our little efforts & multiplies them with his power.

    Note he also points out that the root of failure to deny oneself is feeling shame or embarrassment about Jesus or his words. Our natural bent is to act in a way to be accepted by others, not to be seen as different. We deny ourselves every time we speak the name of Jesus, talk about his kingdom, or act in righteousness. When we do these things, we will suffer persecution. It is a promise of Jesus revealed in the Beatitudes. Perhaps some churches do not grow because their members have not fully taken up their crosses. The early Christian church grew despite its culture and despite persecution.

    I attended an evangelical church once where the pastor repeatedly ridiculed other people’s methods for sharing the gospel, including street preaching and handing out tracts. He would tell stories about people who felt awkward sharing their faith, and said it was because it was not their gift, including himself! Yet he felt comfortable raising $35,000 for a programmable electronic sign that scrolls cute phrases to “invite” people into the church. These excuses coming from no less than the church leader stifle the gospel message. We are all gifted with the most awesome relationship with our Creator–how could we not want to share that love with others?

    It reminds me of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. I’m not so sure Jesus had money in mind when he shared this little story, but rather how many lost souls we gained for his KIngdom. The servant that buried his talent was called a wicked, lazy, worthless servant, and his excuses didn’t save him from his master’s displeasure. Lord help us! I’m not saying all of us will be street preachers, but rather that the Lord will take each of our efforts in sharing the gosel, no matter how small, & multiply it in his power.

    I saw an excellent video once, where a woman was telling the story of a Christian family that got a new neighbor, one of the first things the wife did was bake a pie for the new neighbor and invite them to church. Every time she saw the neighbor couple, she would invite them to church. Eventually, they did come. They heard the gospel, and became believers. They had children, who went on to college–some became pastors, some married and had more children, and the pattern multiplied. At the end of the film, the woman said because of one apple pie and a simple invitation to church by her great, great grandmother so many years before, more than 100 people had come to Christ. Never underestimate the power of God.

  • 1. I think it’s great that you can say these things and leaders seem to receive the message from you.
    2. LifeWay is being positioned to become the denominational responder for the future.
    3. What will happen to pastors and congregations who see culture engagement as watering down the Gospel? Or even on the verge of being wicked?
    4. Which congregations are doing well with learning how to impact their culture?
    5. Thank you for being a solid voice in the wilderness.

  • As someone that began my Christian life in the church of the 80’s, I am rather perplexed at this article’s idea that the church back then was self-centered and the modern church is more evangelistic. I mean no disrespect to the author, but I can hardly agree. Today’s culture routinely ignores scripture and feels that churches need to change with the times. Some things are not up for negotiation. When God’s Word calls something a sin, it doesn’t matter how someone chooses to “interpret” it. My church has been blessed to grow continually since the 80’s. We have plenty of people, but the commitment is not as strong as my grandparents’ generation. We have “changed” and yet 40 year olds are beginning to see the wisdom of our parents and grandparents (thank God). There are scores of gimmicks for church growth, but nothing builds a church more that prayer, discipleship, and evangelism.

  • Concerned Christian says on

    Great article! The Church needs to wake up.
    For a long time, the church has taken it for granted that people would easily put their trust in its claims. They did not train or disciple its members to work through hard parts in Scripture or life. It would not answer the hard questions or get dirty with people’s daily struggles. The church has made Fellowship out to being about eating together on a Sunday night, but there’s more to it! It’s takes more effort to be involved with people’s lives, to visit them or invite them into your home on a weekly basis, to keep people accountable, and encourage them on a day to-day-basis, to share what Scripture is doing in your life and how you learned to read and understand it. Discipleship is not a priority, not a discipline, and it has no depth.
    A friend asked on Facebook today, “If your pastor came out as a homosexual, would you leave the church?” Most answered that yes bc a pastor should know better ect. On the contrary, we should not run away from a struggling Christian, we should come to their aide and encourage their faith, work through the muddy mess of sin.
    We cannot keep hiding from our work or from this culture. Paul approached the culture and sin of his day head-on. There are no excuses for “hiding out” from our responsibilities.

  • The meeting/service for most conservative churches is a killer. Sunday School, Sunday AM, Sunday PM and Wednesday night, plus other activities. This leads to a “come, sit, listen, leave” mentality that militates against real New Testament ministry.
    There has also been a sinful “majoring on minors,” which you alluded to in your tweet, which has been deadly. Churches split, fight, go to war against each other over ridiculous things.

    Great article, thank yo.