Seven Massive Changes Where Churches Must Respond

August 21, 2019

Last week in my webinar about retirement paths for pastors and church staff, I shared about the current collision of two major forces in the church: the significant increase in those headed toward retirement, and massive changes we are seeing in local churches.

Had we talked about these massive changes 20-30 years ago, most people wouldn’t have given them much thought because the concepts were so foreign to how we “did church” a generation or two ago.

Today, these are not just understandable concepts. They are the norm. These seven massive changes are dramatically shaping our churches today.

  1. The Death of Cultural Christianity. When I pastored, there were several members who were not Christians yet were still members of the church. These unregenerate church members used their church affiliation for social status. Now, cultural Christianity is no longer the norm. Churches have seen the exit of 25% or more of their attendees simply because “going to church” is no longer seen as a requirement for social validation.
  2. The Multi Movement. Multi site. Multi venue. Multi service. There are now multiple multis. We have more service times, styles, and locations than ever before. Some of these additions have produced good results. Churches are more relevant to their communities, and we have experienced a more diverse expression of musical worship as well. But in some regards, the multi movement has produced what some refer to as an “ecclesiological buffet” for church goers to graze on.
  3. The Shift in Work Habits. If you were to survey your congregation on whether or not they are required to work regularly on Sundays, you’d probably be surprised at how many are forced to miss corporate worship due to work requirements. Because of this, more churches are exploring alternative worship days and times to reach those unable to make it on Sundays due to work. And while Saturday night services have been around for a few years, Tuesday night services are becoming more common among many churches.
  4. The Decline of Denominations. Denomination offices, especially Protestant ones, traditionally had a large influence in pastor and interim pastor placement. But as denominational funding and participation has declined, so has denominational influence. Now, churches have a much greater say in picking their leader than they have traditionally had in the past.
  5. The Move to Different Staffing Models. The traditional staffing model is Churches are looking to more bi-vocational and part-time staff to cover what they may have hired full-time ministers for in the past. This has led to new types of staff positions and a greater demand for qualified and trained staff.
  6. The Huge Revitalization and Replanting Movement. Church planting dominated much of the leadership conversation over the past decade—often to the detriment or neglect of traditional churches. Now, leaders are course correcting and starting to resource established churches in need of replanting and revitalization. This course correction is one of the main reasons we started a podcast on replanting and revitalization two years ago and why we founded Revitalize Network last fall.
  7. The Closure of 8,000 to 10,000 Churches a Year. This is the unfortunate result of a lack of emphasis on established churches over the past few decades. Far too many churches have closed and far too much ground has been given up in our communities. It’s time once again for gospel advance in communities where we’ve seen these churches close.

These seven massive shifts continue to impact churches in the United States and beyond. And I truly believe God has placed us here for such a time as this.

The church landscape will continue to change and leaders must change with it. That’s why we’ve been talking so much this week and last about Interim Pastor University. This training prepares pastors and church staff to work with and help churches to become healthier while they look for new leadership. Enrollment is still open for those who might be interested. You can find out more here.

But regardless of your role in God’s Kingdom, we need to understand these changes and how they are affecting our churches. Because only then will we truly be able to respond and grow healthy churches…together.

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16 Comments

  • Very insightful Thom. Thank you. I’m wondering what research you found that showed 8,000-10,000 churches closing per year. That’s drastically higher than I had previously heard (approx 3,500 per year). Either way – it’s way too many.

  • Christianity only is relevant when it preaches and teaches a Bible that apples to every aspect of life, including culture and civics. We lost relevance teaching under the IRS’s organizational paradigm of “separation of church and state,” a phrase neither appearing in the Bible nor in the US Constitution, which is based on the Bible. If God wanted his church organized under “separation of church and state,” He never would have drowned Pharaoh’s army in the sea, when He led His state to disobey God!

    This is why we need to promote “The Biblical Basis of The Bill of Rights” viewable at:
    http://libertycf.org/1591-2/ to advocate for a Great Awakening that teaches the Bible’s application to every aspect of life, including our civics!

  • The need for the Associational Missionary died a long time ago.

    It may have been an important office at one time (I have not seen it in my lifetime), but it is time to put that one to rest.

    There doesn’t need to be a “link” between the local churches and the state offices to the cost of an associational office.

    We just have not buried the office.

    A part time person could do what most associations do with 1/4 of the cost.

  • Mason Halacker says on

    This is a crucial message at this juncture in church history. As Pastors we much change our methodologies to reach a changing culture without changing the timeless message of the gospel. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Richard H says on

    As a United Methodist pastor, your #4 seems severely understated for churches like ours. We’re at a point in our denominational conflict that it would do us well to find new ways of thinking of what we UMs call “connectionalism,” not assuming that the “denomination” is the best way to do that.

  • The assembly (church) has lost its evangelical calling. I find it highly disingenuous for congregations who just a few years ago bashed the word evangelical and now all of a sudden now want to be that. And they are doing it only so they do not die as an organization. They are in a panic and running around redoing all they have wasted their time on for years. All along they should have been paying attention to what the scriptures taught. I suppose doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is better than nothing.

    • Having been a part of a church that had the same survival mindset, let me say that it doesn’t work long-term. Huge question pastors need to be posing to their congregations is “Why do we want to grow”? Is it because we as individuals have a God-driven desire to see the Lord’s glory proclaimed and then take on the responsibility of discipleship of new believers or is it because we want “bigger and better” programs, facilities and music? Cheap thrills over heavenly celebrations…..

  • I am in no way a traditionalist, but does anyone else see that the movement of constant change becomes a detriment unto itself. For example, small church “A” planted in a community 25 years ago. Church “B” Planted last year. Church “B” becomes the model for relevency due to not having the hurdle of historical context. So while church “A” slowly begins to adopt the model of church “B”, people leave the established church for the modern model of church B. Pulling people from their local context to a church 25-35 mins across town at no fault of church “B”. Church “A” finally implements the model of Church “B”. Only for both Church “A” and “B” to be replaced by up-and-coming Church “C”. making both churches “A” and “B” less viable. This is not a matter of competition, but rather a question of sustainability? How can the church successfully maintain a model of constant change that results in healthy churches despite this constant shift? Again, this is not a competition question, but let’s face it baptisms are down meaning that we have defined church growth in most cases by transfer of membership and not Gospel-saving conversion. This is not to say we are not seeing truly “new growth” but rather most of what we label growth comes from other churches that have not yet changed. Has change become the model of success? If so, then why are baptisms down?

    I suggest to you that we have used “change” like a bandaid in many cases to fix our broken evangelism problem. Our people are by-in-large are not sharing their faith.

    • Brett…I like the way you have stated the issue. Too many cases of the fire of evangelism not being in the iron. Donald McGavran was very clear that “discipleship” is at the root and sequence in the Great Commission – evangelism based. Your church “A”, “B” and especially “C” is right on target my Brother! John Vaughan, Church Growth Today and the Megachurch Research Center.

  • Jeff Hook says on

    We know we become what we measure because we measure what we value. Unfortunately, churches continue to measure as KPIs attendance and offering. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for metrics and processes; however, these are lag metrics that is like driving using the rearview mirror. Churches need to be concerned about leading/serving their congregations and measure community impact and familial outcomes.

    People come to church with hope in their hearts, mostly hoping to live a better (more functional) life. Pew Research says people mostly come to church to get “closer to God.” Perhaps we should ask why they want to get closer to God? Most people’s timespan of concern can not contemplate beyond this week, let alone be worried about all of eternity. That is much too long of timeframe when their marriage lacks fulfillment, or their kids are suffering from depression, or their elderly parents are suffering from Alzheimer’s. Jesus not only helped the people of His time understand the eternal nature of their living souls; He also healed them, fed them and taught them how to be better people. He emphasized that better behavior is easier when the heart desires the best for all.

    Can the Church start measuring what matters within people’s lives instead of measuring ‘nickels and noses?’ Why are people coming to church? Are they getting the results? Are their lives better? Do they have better marriages? Are they better parents, and thus are their children better adjusted? This is what God wants for us, not simply a way to get to heaven – He could have come up with any kind of plan within His power if that is what Christ’s purpose was.

    Thom, Keep up the good work!

  • On the 8,000 to 10,000 church closures, I wonder how many of those closed simply because the congregation (or those in control) refused to change?

    People were dying and few new people were coming in, but this is how we do church here. And they refused to change.

    More people passed away and no new people were coming in, but this is how we do church here. And they refused to change.

    Soon, hardly anyone was left and so the church had to close its doors. But they did so on their terms.

  • Marc Fennimore says on

    Unfortunately, too many dying churches contribute to their own demise by not being willing to change their ways and means to reach and positively influence their community for Christ.

    It simply may be easier to start a new work free of all of the baggage brought by the stubborn, archaic mindset of remaining members of a comatose church.

  • Jerry Watts says on

    Thom – This is an extraordinary blog. Each one of these 7 could be an article unto itself. One truth to glean from it is this: With the advent of the Church Planting Movement (which was desperately needed), many began to give up on the established churches and thus, 20 years later, are faced with the reality of #7.
    The landscape, both outside and inside of the church, is seeing a new day. Some of it is incredibly exciting, while other parts – kind of make you scratch your head.

    • You are so right, Jerry.

    • Hal Hunter says on

      Not sure “gave up on the established churches” is a correct observation. In some measure, it might have been misplaced confidence in the long term health and stability of those churches, based on the collective failure to predict the dramatic cultural changes Thom describes here and elsewhere.

  • You also have the two generations who are missing from most congregations. Had someone told a congregation in the 1990s how many people sitting there in the pews would not be there in 2019, they would have thought the speaker was crazy.