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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  • According to Jesus there will be “few” true Christians and “many” non-believers, (Matthew 7:13-14). And not everyone who claims to be a “Christian” is a true Christian, (Matthew 7:21-23).

    The thought of living in a “Christian” society, as appealing as it seems, would mean Jesus didn’t know what He was talking about.

    [MAYBE] the “Church” isn’t declining? Maybe the true “Church” is just as strong as it ever was?

    Just a thought.

    • Your thoughts I can agree with! The Bible tells us that in the end times evil will grow like in the days of Noah. We have this today for shure. Also it tells us that the love of most will grow old. This is why you can ask just about any church what are they doing to reach the homes right next door to them and see what they say. I have done this over and over. Nothing is done why? Cold hearts just like the bible tells us. What church today leads it’s folks to read and obey the Bible? I mean read it cover to cover, not many. The focus is on prayer, worship, kids, sermon series, while folks living right next door to them never get contacted that’s the sad truth.

  • Chadash Migdol says on

    Maybe a year ago, I had an interesting dream that I thought was prophetic. In it , I was sitting in a very, very, long line of people to get baptized. As I waited, I realized that I did not need anyone to immerse me. You know, I could go to God myself, in fact, I could immerse in my bathtub. ( realize now the biblical model of baptism is not just for conversion, but there is ritual purity, as well ) I got up , and found other people leaving these ridiculously long lines, as well, all of these people began to find work to do for the Lord. And I sensed that a persecution arose on the church that was sitting around, waiting in lines for man’s approval, and the only church left will be the one without walls, those out there doing the will of God .

  • I think one huge factor in the decline is a loss of credibility. I remember one pastor at a church I was at used the missing days that NASA identified as evidence for Scripture. The only problem is, NASA never identified those days – it was a hoax piece. When I brought it up to the pastor he just shrugged it off. I realized then that he was more interested in being right than knowing truth.

    Linked to this is a reluctance to really lay out a logical case for faith. I am now agnostic/atheist after being unable to build a defensible position for Scriptural authority or the existence of a personal, loving, powerful God. I would be very interested in attending a church that, rather than always defaulting to “because it’s in the Bible”, would take a step back and first really nail down why the Bible is true. Until then churches will have a lack of credibility because they are speaking a totally different language than non-Christians. Ultimately, in a culture that is growing increasingly more evidenced-based (a side effect of the Information Age) I think that churches will need to learn to present faith in that context in order to continue to grow. After all, Doubting Thomas had to touch the holes in the hands before he believed! 😉

  • I wish that some of the churches I work with would move FORWARD into the 1980’s! It’s 1953 in some of them.

  • Thank you, well said Keith – I always thought, and still do, that as the world gets more and more wicked and rebellious, the church will in effect look more irrelevant, “out of touch” and ineffective, etc. Believers are to “go and make disciples” as we go about our daily lives, but not join the world (culture) so that they are more comfortable with us.

  • Thom, would you kindly provide your 2015 response to those 8 reasons please. Thanks.

  • Christoph says on

    Is your church a community center OR a temple

  • I totally agree with this article.I also believe the problem this as well: People (some) are afraid to change/of change, and any implication or movement to change for the better will require sacrifice to some degree. Sometimes it costs everything. Many aren’t willing to do this. It requires that particular body of people both as individuals and as a whole to go deeper in their devotion to God but also in the service and mission of The Church. The Great Commission is a obvious hint. This results in going deeper and moving away from comfort and familiarity. Great post article. God bless you.

  • I’ve always thought it is a mistake for the church to promise to meet anyone’s needs. Jesus will meet your needs. If you start a needs-based ministry, set boundaries. The NT church took care of widows, but Paul said only over the age of 60. And if they have sons & nephews, let them care for them. I worked part-time in a church office where persons would call for help with their groceries or utility bills. If our Benevolent Fund was spent for the month – and we kept a notebook of those registered for help, more added all the time- some of the callers were abusive, entitlement-minded.

  • Like science, Christianity changes one funeral at a time.

    For most people most of the time, church is a cultural and social institution. It provides stability, reassurance, community, networking and meaning. The uncomfortable fact is that If these people were born in India or Iran, which as Christians, we have to believe is entirely possible, they would be devoted to some other local community.

    Worrying that many churches are stuck in a certain era is an important observation, and it tells us important things about human nature. It tells us that people prefer stability and the familiar. The problem, of course, is that Jesus was a radical. So what do you do as a Christian community? Live with constant upheaval or try to create some stability. If you do the latter, though, you are institutionalizing your belief, and that always leads to the kind of stale belief that Jesus opposed. In fact, I would argue that Christianity is fundamentally a function of civilization. It exists as an internal response to the impersonality and alienation of settled, agrarian–and now industrialized–civilizations. Christian communities always institutionalize. If they don’t, they dissipate and disappear. But by institutionalizing, they eventually defy the spirit that Christ gave them. Being stuck in the 1980s was inevitable for many churches because their purpose was always to form a stable community, not change the world. Certainly the Holy Spirit can work within these realities, but they are the realities that have held for 2000 years.

    Evangelicals have a bad habit of skipping Christian history between 79 and 1879 AD. The reality is that the options are clear. Churches can become radical and live with instability and within the surplus and frameworks of civilization. Or they can institutionalize and lose the spirit that animated them. Paul discusses how to live together in community and, to some degree, how to relate to the larger culture, but he is working with existing and new communities. He is explicitly not laying groundwork for an indefinite community. Indeed, he and most other New Testament authors seem to have thought that Christ would return within their lifetimes, so why worry about long-term thinking?

    Being Christ-like for churches is impossible because what we learn from Christ is what to believe and how to love as people. Not how to build communities.

  • Donald Ball says on

    The sad, unfortunate situation that many churches find themselves in a situation that can best be described in the attributed Albert Einstein definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.”

    Sadly, many of today’s “evangelical” churches are conducting services and programs that have been in place since the 1950s and 60s. They do not fit today’s societal and community engagement needs.

    The unsaved will not (or rarely) come to a church building to hear the gospel, so the believers must become the “church” and bring the gospel to the community – by getting out from the security of the building. We must partner with established community agencies where opportunities to show and demonstrate the love of Christ exist.

    I am not suggesting that the we change our core belief system or water down what are the fundamentals of the faith. However, we must be willing to try new and refreshing ideas in order to get out from behind the walls of the sanctuary and engage the community where it is.

    The love of Christ must be demonstrated in areas where the hurting, needy, disillushioned, marginalized, and disenfranchised exist… out where they are.

    It is my belief that we are ALL called to win the lost and to disciple.

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