Seven Paradigm Shifts in American Churches


I know I’m not smart enough to have predicted all of these major changes in churches the past decade or so. The changes have been profound in many churches, and they seem to be lasting changes.

For clarity, please understand I am not making qualitative assessments of these paradigm shifts; I am merely noting them. And I understand fully that all of them are not operational in all churches. Nevertheless, they are pervasive on the congregational landscape of American.

  1. From senior pastor to lead pastor. The latter is becoming a more common title in multi-staff churches. The change is not merely semantics. It reflects an expectation of pastors to provide clear and ongoing leadership.
  2. From trust to trials. The pastor was once the most revered person in the church and the community. Today he is often the recipient of harsh and frequent criticisms. I’ll address the reasons for this shift in my post next Monday.
  3. From denominational to quasi-denominational. Churches used to look to denominations for their primary resources. More today are looking to large churches that behave something like a denominational provider.
  4. From solo preacher to multiple teachers. More churches have more than one preacher/teacher, a trend that is growing even among smaller churches. What is significant as well is the increased use of the term “teacher.” It implies a different approach, style, and content than was expected a decade or so ago.
  5. From attractional to incarnational. Not too long ago, churches utilized significant resources to get people to come to the church building. More today are expending resources to move the members to minister in the community.
  6. From geography to affinity. Churches in the past often identified with other church by their denomination and location. Thus we have state denominations, local associations, and regional districts. Today more churches are identifying with other churches that have common precise doctrines and common practices.
  7. From low expectation to high expectation. Churches have been through a long season where leaders were reticent to expect service and ministry of church members. To the contrary, many churches worked hard to make their congregations user-friendly with low expectations. That is shifting, and the high expectation church is becoming more normative.

The implications of these shifts are enormous. I hope to expand on each of them in the weeks ahead. I would love to hear your thoughts.

photo credit: JoshuaDavisPhotography via photopin cc

Posted on January 18, 2014

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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  • Spot on again. I think these are not merely paradigm shifts, but biblical. Jesus is the only Senior Pastor, leadership in the local church is always a plurality, etc. Perhaps these paradigm shifts are just truths that the church is re-learning…

  • I only read a few comments because I wanted to see if I’m the only one who feels the way I do about church these days. I’m not. I love my church, but it’s gotten silly with the way people not only are slouching and nursing a drink but they are bringing their HUGE travel mugs with them, people are getting up in the middle of the sermon to go and either get a drink or refill their drink. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone spill their drink and make a production of getting up and going to the bathroom or kitchen to get paper towels to clean it up.) Seriously? Can they not sit in church from 10:30 until 11:45 (the worship time at my church) without a drink or going to the bathroom? I understand if it’s an emergency and “ya gotta go,” but well, as I said, it’s gotten silly. I understand the casual feel being attractive to those who are looking for a church but don’t have fancy clothes, but I don’t understand the attitude…and you can see it on people’s faces and in their body language…that they really haven’t come thinking about how majestic God is or how worthy Jesus is to be worshiped. I’m thinking it’s more about just being there, and it breaks my heart. I remember when my church was serious about the Lord, but when your pastor shows up (yes, the one who used to be the senior pastor but is now the lead pastor) looking like he slept in his clothes or pulled that old pair of jeans out of the hamper and forgot to tuck in his shirt, what more can you expect? I would think the pastor, and all the staff really, should be examples of how we should approach the throne of God to worship Him. This is the Creator of the universe! This is the One Who could have easily and with great power and display stepped down from the cross but chose to endure it for my sorry self. This is the Holy Spirit, the One Who imbues us with the power to live as we should. The Three in One deserves more from us than a wave as we go to the coffee pot or water fountain. I love these people dearly, but I’m disappointed in how the church is conducting itself now.

  • Josh Carter says on

    Do you think: “from homogeneous to multi-ethnic” could be a trend to be added to the list?

  • Ok, ok, I hear you all and you make some valid points. What if we loved God with all we have–and loved those around us the same way?

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