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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  • I believe another big paradigm shift that is occurring is the shift from established church to church plants. Many pastors now coming out of seminary, etc. rather than dealing with an established church are taking the “less challenging” route of planting. Unfortunately many are unaware of the challenge and demand placed and so we see many failures instead of successes.

    • Sometimes the demands of a church plant are easier to overcome than the demands of joining an ongoing church that does not want to change and whose leaders aren’t progressive.

  • One shift that I hope to see is an increase in church variety. There is no “best” model. I’m convinced God wants to use mega-churches, small churches, multi-site cburches, house churches, campus churches, street churches, etc. to reveal his wisdom and his eternal purpose.

  • Thank you for this post, Dr. Rainer. It seems that many of these paradigm shifts are in line with your projections for 2014. I’m thinking of numbers three and seven in particular. Was this intentional? Number seven is entirely positive in my opinion, so it is good to see that it has shifted over recent years and that the trend will likely continue in the near future. I think “I Am a Church Member” will help continue that shift toward a biblical model of church membership.

  • Wayne Burns says on

    Once we got away from Ephesians 4:11, we have had many problems. When there is more than one pastor in a church, why should anyone be surprised when problems increase? I have watched this trend since the 1980’s and it remains in my opinion a major problem. Thanks for your efforts to keep us informed and seeking anwers.

  • Thank you for your contribution and investment to the ministry. I look forward to you unpackaging this post in the following week.

  • This is a good list, and I believe it is accurate. I might add to it that I think more and more small churches will be looking for a “partner” to help them navigate a rapidly changing culture. That may mean reconnecting with a denominational entity (if that entity has something of value to offer them) or connecting with some other larger group that will help them with the immediate needs that small churches have. You touch on that with #3 above, but I’m not sure small churches will follow the lead of larger churches. I think medium sized churches will be more interested in that. Thanks for all you do to help us understand how to reach our culture more effectively.

  • my #1 I mistakenly typed 4th, which should be 5th. Sorry!

  • #1 – Senior to lead is reflective of the cultural attitude toward an older generation. The 4th commandment implies otherwise. I am not saying that some younger folks are ready for leadership, I simply suggest that years of segregated Bible Fellowship (previously – Sunday School) have contributed to this attitude.

    #2 – Anti-hero sentiment reinforces self-esteem. Humanism recognizes that all men are sinful, and celebrates that fact; however, at the same time progressives refuse to look to others for truth. Maybe that’s why existentialism is so prevalent within the church walls.

    #3 – Denominations once stood for certain truth claims (doctrine). Consistent with #2, truth claims are considered dogma, as if that were a bad thing. Opera was once a Baptist, but she says they are too dogmatic. And, according to the current culture there are many ways to heave! 🙁

    #4 – Solo to multiple – mega-churches provide the “entitlement” generation with everything they could ever want. Day-care, wonderful music, sports activities, starbucks, exercise classes, therapy, —— better than the local country club. Maybe the church of the future will have a golf course. Entertainment requires diversity, not that there is anything wrong with alternative speakers, I believe participation is critical to the church, but continuity is important.

    #5 – are you sure? It seems to me that studies indicate mega-churches will thrive in the near future. Bankruptcies are at record levels for small churches, yet large churches are doing very well – financially. I believe the opposite is true – food trucks, 4th of July fire works, popular Christian music concerts, Christmas presentations, sports leagues, and etc. bring them to the church. It seems we are moving more and more into the building it and they will come apostasy.

    #6 – agreed.

    #7 – Absolutely – We live in an entitlement era and while we hold no one in high esteem (other than ourselves) we expect much from others.

    Thanks – I look forward to your expanded thoughts.

  • Heartspeak says on

    With all due respect coupled with some sadness, may I kindly suggest you re-read James 2:1-13. This ‘dress code’ issue is nothing new. Apparently such concerns were a terrible problem in the 1st century where various folk thought clothing was some sort of indicator of the ‘state’ of the attendees.

    • Agreed – in that time and place in history there were many who were poor and they had no clothing. This is another time and place. I pray that if with all the blessings we have received in this great country that should any brother or sister in Christ who sees someone without basic needs that we would step up to the plate and bless them according to our God given ability. I do not pretend to speak for my brother Allen, but I do share his concern for such a casual treatment of our most Holy God.

      If a woman dresses provocatively to come to church should we remain silent. When a man with great wealth dresses down to come to church what say ye? I believe Allen has a valid point. James wrote about the injustice leveled against the poor. It was a stigma that accompanied poverty. Jesus is concerned about the heart, just as you pointed out. Therefore, do not lament over a clothing comment tied to a concern over “casual” attitudes toward an awesome Holy God. I know at the church I attend the number of jeans wearing, coffee yielding, late arriving, so called members who come be-bopping in during the middle of prayer is on the rise and that is a sin.

      Dress code = law and I do not believe anyone is talking about a dress code. I believe we are discussing reverence. What happened to Sunday best? State of mind, heart, and soul, in America, can be traced to dress. Few dress down for a job interview.

      Thanks and have a Christ filled day.

      • the revenant says on

        Thank you for voicing these concerns, Steve (also Allen and Thom). I very much enjoyed reading your posts. If you would allow me, I would like to raise a few concerns myself, in hope that you might further address them (it is not my goal to be argumentative, but rather to glean as much insight as I can from my fellow Christian brothers and sisters)

        1. As a 30 year old man who attends a relatively ‘casual-dress’ church, I am quite concerned with the correlation you raise between attire and reverence. This concerns me because, quite honestly, many in our congregation can not afford a suit (or even a pair of khakis and a few button-downs for that matter). Will our congregation (and people off the street who are debating whether or not to walk in the door) be intimidated by the silent implication that a certain degree of fancy dress is required for acceptance? The other worry in my heart is the fact that this thinking could possibly have Pharisaical overtones. How many times in the Bible are we reminded that it isn’t our outward actions, but rather the condition of our hearts that is important? I truly believe that the LORD deserves our utmost (as a previous poster implied), but at what point does it stop being for the LORD and start being for the respect of those around me? Does the LORD want me in a three piece suit or does he just want ME, and everything that I am? I say this in defense of so many of my brothers and sisters who have nothing but the utmost reverence for our LORD and his bride, the Church, and who arrive to worship in something less than formal dress. You noted that few dress down for a job interview. This is very true. I would submit that this is due an expectation set by the hiring party. Does the LORD have similar expectations? The LORD no longer dwells in the temple, but rather, through the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those who are called by his name. I would submit that every moment of our lives is holy and consecrated, not just a church sanctuary where a weekly service is held. Every moment, every thought, every action is spiritual. Yet, I don’t believe you would have me wear a suit and tie 24 hours a day. I do understand that Sunday worship is a VERY special time, set aside for believers to come together to worship and learn, but is my attire really having an effect on my interaction with the LORD? What about during weekly bible studies? Sunday night service? Worship band practice? So…that’s piece one…the correlation between attire and reverence. I apologize if this is incoherent and babbly…I just want to make sure I get all my questions out, so that you and other brothers and sisters can address everything on my heart.
        2.Should we remain silent when a woman dresses provocatively at church (A question raised by Steve)? I appreciate you brining this up. I think it is absolutely the job of the church to rightly judge the brethren. I think someone who has examined their own life for similar planks should approach the woman alone, then with one or two others, etc. This is of course if the woman is a believer. If a woman were to come into the church rather provocatively dressed who was not a Christian…I would think that the situation would be much more delicate, as our duty to judge rightly (may?) no longer apply.
        3. When a man of great wealth dresses down to come to church, what say ye (a question raised by Steve)? I see the rich man dressing down on Sundays to be not unlike the man who shuts himself in his closet to pray. If anything I would be honored to worship with such a man.

        Thank you all in advance for your considered, prayerful responses. It has been a pleasure reading what you have had to say thus far!


      • Does God expect our best? Is there joy in obedience to God? How do we glorify God with our lives? Can I do all things through Christ Jesus?

        1st I’m certainly not addressing non-Christians who visit our churches. By the power of the Spirit of Christ we meet them right where they are. And, bless you for your willingness to do just that.

        Romans 12 says we should present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is our spiritual worship. We are told not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. And, you are so correct we need to remove the log from our eye so that we do not think more highly of ourselves than we should. We want to show family affection to one another.

        We humbly seek to be the best at what God has made us for. In times of antiquity the Jews were condemned for not offering their best sacrifices. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.” Jesus demands nothing less than your best. And, Jesus says, “Teach them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” You are so correct that in worship we want to be united in Christ, regardless of attire. So the question is not as much about attire as it is about what the attire represents. Does it represent a heart with all reverence and sincerity?

        It is interesting to observe what some wear at Christmas and at Easter. Why do so many dress formally on those occasions? Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath and we walk with Him every day are we giving Him our best every day?

        Holiness and true worship to God is a privilege and when a person with T-shirt and jeans is holy true in worship God is pleased. So the discussion is not directed at any one individual. I blieve the discussion is about trends in our culture. Casual Friday is becoming casual every day.  I like it, but the question is whether we bring a casual attitude into worship along with that casual dress. This requires a lot of discernment. Discernment requires much prayer and humility and a lot of time in front of the mirror.

        Thanks for the respectful conversation, which by the power of the Spirit and God’s Word, we all might grow closer to Christ Jesus.

      • Mike Driskill says on

        But where does it stop? The “dressing nice” is culturally defined, it’s an abstract concept at best. Who’s to say that in order to dress our best, we have to show up in tuxedos?

        Jesus owned nothing but the clothes on his back, but yet went into the temple. I doubt they were dress clothes.

        Now, of course, as Christians we are to transcend culture. However, if someone’s sincerely coming to church and their time at church is a normal extension of the day to day worship and sacrificial living that they do throughout the week, that’s what most important. There’s many people going to liberal churches denying the deity of Christ (for example) that dress in a suit and tie–is God honored by that?

        Are the members of the underground church in China or the Middle East or Russia or Africa not honoring God by not dressing up?

        I’m not suggesting dress is unimportant. And dress should always be modest, not only in church, but the the rest of the week as well. The offense shouldn’t be that someone came to church dressed immodestly, it should be that someone who claims to follow Christ dresses that way at all.

        However, there’s no clear Scriptural indication that dress for the layman should be any different at church than at any other time. It’s manmade standards that dictate dress.

        “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Psalm 51:17

        We should ask for modest dress and otherwise be focused on people sincerely following Christ. The Holy Spirit will deal with the rest, including dress at worship, in His time with each individual believer.

      • the revenant says on

        Thank you, Steve, for such a prompt reply! It is very apparent that your responses are carefully and prayerfully considered. I am grateful for this. I appreciate your comments about discernment. I believe that you are absolutely correct. I pray that the LORD grants our Christian leadership the humility and the discernment required to keep the Bride of Christ holy in the eyes of God during these difficult days. Thank you again for your response. I will absolutely spend time reflecting on it.

      • Scott Sheppard says on

        I’m wondering though, if Christians all come to church in the best clothes they have, then what happens when someone poor walks in? They feel like they are not good enough, the odd man out, and being judged. No amount of “We’re glad you’re here today” is going to change that part. What did Jesus wear to the Temple? We don’t know but since He was a homeless man, it probably wasn’t that great. What about the Pharisees and all of their beautiful garments? Didn’t that draw attention away from the Lord? I do believe that reverence is something that needs to be taught and displayed, but who gets to determine what is appropriately nice for me to wear? If I wore a suit to church every week, it might come off as showing off to some people who don’t know me. But if I wear some nice jeans and a button up plaid shirt that I like, it’s not going to attract much attention. I think we need to get away from focusing so much on the social club that some make church into. I don’t think the 1st century church was too worried about if they were drinking something at the Jerusalem council. It’s simply not a priority and should not be the determining factor of reverence.

      • Excellent way to summarize the thoughts a few of us were also trying to express in our own ways. Very well put.

  • In our attempt of transitioning a church I see these observations being lived out
    Thank you for sharing this

  • Great article and it has helped my awareness of changes that have occurred in churches I have been a member of in my career. It seems that what we see demonstrated for us gets style adjusted and mirrored back home. How close we remain to preaching the Gospel and reaching others around us enables preferences in presentation and style to continue and accelerate our Great Commission efforts. I am sad when I see the message and outreach of the Gospel diminished, I am so glad for any effort to win others for Christ as a result of sheep in service. I am a church member! I am looking forward to learning more.
    Bob Ward

  • Allen Calkins says on

    Thom, One that I would add is ‘From stylish to casual.’ A decade ago the tie was already on the way out in most churches and dresses were not considered necessary for women. But church attenders were still expected to ‘look nice’ in a business casual sort of way. Today, the pastor may be the only one that consistently meets the ‘business casual’ standard of attire consistently. Unfortunately, the more casual attire also seems to affect how people act at church. It is no longer taboo to come late, leave early, slouch or sip on a bottle of water in church. Church behavior standards are much closer now to those of people who go to a movie or attend a ball game. I do not mind casual attire. But I do not like some of the casual behavior that seems to accompany it.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That’s an excellent observation and addition Allen.

    • “slouch or sip on a bottle of water in church”.

      The nerve of a person like that with the motivation to get up on Sunday morning, skip the early ball games or other activities that usually try to overshadow church, and then have the gall to invade a church and become a proverbial stumbling block by… slouching??… Or even worse, bringing a drink with them!

      “Fortunately”, we have the remedy in ‘guards on the watchtower’ who, when in the service, make sure their attention is on observing others’ “too casual for Jesus” habits so they can show that righteous indignation God so cherishes, staving off His wrath with a premeditated glare to let Jesus know there’s at least one member in the building who takes Biblical dress code seriously.

      Ok, all that aside, and in all seriousness, twenty years from now we may be relieved if we can even *go* to a *real* church without fear of reprisal or persecution, instead of worrying about preconceptions of what a ‘good’ church attender needs to look and act like.

      • Steven Menteer says on

        What if I told you that worshipping at church wasn’t about you. That it isn’t about your style, your comfort, or your sense of identity, but about God. And since it is about God His character deserves more than casual.

      • True It all about Him and His name. However that being said He look more at the Heart of worship than the dress code. He Look at the Heart fully dedicated to Him.

      • Steven Menteer says on

        But can you really say that a heart concerned with its own comfort is dedicated to God?

      • I think God is more concerned with our hearts than our garments. Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart – and only He knows the true condition of a person’s heart! As far as His character is concerned, it demands my total surrender to Him which may or may not be seen in my attire. Much of how we dress depends on our personal convictions: in my church, some feel best prepared for worship by dressing in suite and tie. Others feel their style of dress is not so important to their expression of worship. The lead pastor (me) usually wears blue jeans and a sports shirt. I even wear a cammo shirt from time to time (our church is located in rural Montana). We’ve decided to have grace towards one another. Our only dress code is that we must dress modestly – no revealing clothing, for example.

      • Tim,
        You are, in my estimate, too harsh in criticizing Allen’s reference to slouching and sipping on water. These things are still taboo in my part of the country (South). His point was that we can easily become too casual and too removed from holiness.

    • I think we have to be careful about what we define as “casual attire”. Today’s attire is getting so “casual” that it borders on indecency. This is true of both men and women. I get the fact that coats and ties are no longer in vogue, and I’m okay with that. However, I’m disturbed by the dress I see among worship leaders at state and national meetings. Many of them look downright slovenly. What’s next? Droopy britches and exposed underwear?

    • raswhiting says on

      I do not understand how sipping a bottle of water is disrespectful of God or of other people. I recently was unable to join in singing the final hymn because my mouth and throat were dry; this church has forced hot air heating and it was a dry, cold day outside. So the next week I brought a water bottle. You seem to desire to set a rule against this. Water bottles are common in meetings in my business (a bank) and this is not a sign of disrespect to the bank’s leadership. Please stop setting your preferences as rules or judging people by your preferences.

    • Hayden Hendrix says on

      Also, the passion and practice of reaching those without Christ has been replaced with events to reach the community. I would even dare say that the church in the U.S. are more inward focused. If the lost come great but if not then that’s just too bad. Maybe 10% of people I have led over 20 years of ministry have even attemoted to share Christ 1 on 1. They invite people to church and that is extent of personal evangelism.

    • George B. A. Fountain says on

      Thanks Allen… well said. I grow increasingly concerned with this conduct and cannot help but wonder what attitude is being expressed, how will it impact the ministry of the church, and how to be of helpful not hurtful influence.

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