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.
More from Thom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Thom, how would you compare the topics most often preached today vs the topics most often preached when the average community church on the corner was growing? Don’t know when that actually was…40’s or 50’s maybe?

  • It is the attitude of the heart. Have you come to deny yourself, crucify the flesh, and worship your Holy God in Truth? For the unsaved this is not the question or expectation, but we who are saved are held to a higher accountability. Are we coming with the right intent and attitude before our Holy God? The people who sat with Jesus weren’t concerned about clothes, or as the Sermon on the Mount illustrated, food or drink, they just wanted to hear Jesus. Attitude!

  • Interesting. The comments after are even more so. But what I did not see mentioned at all is relationship. Church, the true church is not about buildings, walls, dress codes, slurping or not slurping water. It is not about the style of worship, who teaches/preaches, or whether the focus in inside or out. True church is about walking out relationship, first with Jesus, (after all we ARE the bride of Christ), then with each other, and last but not least with the community around us.

    Jesus did not choose His followers, nor the people he interacted with by the way they dressed or acted. In fact, the chief criticism leveled at Him by the “establishment church” was that he hung out with publicans and sinners. They were right, although in their religiosity, they could not understand why. He did so because He loved. It was not about what they did or didn’t do, it was not about how qualified they were or what segment of society they came from. It was all about their hearts, and about the Father’s love for His children. (Remember Jesus said He did nothing except He saw it done first by the Father.)

    If we are called to be His bride, and IF we are His body and His representatives here on earth, should we be not focusing not on what people do, but what He is doing? Should we not be looking for His leading and following His prompting? Personally, I would rather belong to a group of ten on fire ragamuffins, than 100 cold, well dressed, and rich pew sitters. It’s all about the heart, not the outside.

    • Amen Kevin!

    • Good words Kevin. This past Sunday, we taught our kids a song in Bible Town Worship about how man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7. Perhaps we should sing it in adult worship as well:)

    • 100000 times YES!!

      I went to a legalistic christian college, what I learned there was all about rules, what type of clothing to wear, music to listen to. they taught me nothing about how to have a relationship with Christ.

      You can have a perfectly sized church with well dressed attendees who never need a sip of water after singing during worship, but if you’re not teaching people about hot to walk with God and have a deeply personal every second of every day in good and bad relationship with him….

      • I’ll agree with the part about legalistic college. They taught nothing about how to live, self-discipline, or anything else necessary for life. I saw bible classes as just something else to be learned. Mandatory religion (chapel) did not teach anyone anything useful.

    • Kevin, It seems to me that you also have decided how on fire for God someone is by the way they dress. The 10 ragamuffins are seen by you as on fire while the 100 well dressed, wealthy people are just pew sitters. you have already judged each persons heart. I pastor a small rural southern church (126 years old). I wear a coat and either a tie or pullover every Sunday. We have members in suits, women in dresses and others in casual dress. Never have I seen anyone look down on any else about their attire. I believe there is a holier than everyone else coming form the so called non-denominational, dress as bad as you can crowd that is just as sinful as the Suit and tie turn the nose up crowd. The command to remove the log from our eye was giving to all of us. Sorry if this seems harsh but contemporary Pharisees come in many forms.

      • Betty Bonn says on

        Well said.

      • “Kevin, It seems to me that you also have decided how on fire for God someone is by the way they dress. The 10 ragamuffins are seen by you as on fire while the 100 well dressed, wealthy people are just pew sitters. you have already judged each persons heart. ”

        No, but rather, my point was that the clothes do not matter, the attitude of the heart does. Please reread my post more carefully:
        “Personally, I would rather belong to a group of ten on fire ragamuffins, than 100 cold, well dressed, and rich pew sitters. It’s all about the heart, not the outside.”
        I was not judging others by their dress in any way, but addressing an attitude that seems to equate spirituality etc. with dress. I am not saying that the “ragamuffins” were more spiritual, or better Christians, but that I would prefer the “On fire” believers regardless of how they dressed.

        BTW, if anyone was wondering, yes, I was very much thinking of both Rich Mullins and Brennan Manning’s book when I chose the word ragamuffin.

  • John W. Carlton says on

    I have noticed this in my own personal ministry having crossed denominational lines twice since 2000. The first cross was as the Minister of Music in a UMC church. At first I was only doing the music, but I stayed for 3 years and they elevated me to the Assistant to the Pastor. My preaching stayed the same except for shying away from certain Baptist doctrines such as believers’ baptism. I left UMC because I was “Not at home” there.

    I then pastored a small SBC church until 2011 when I retired due to health issues.

    I am now the interim pastor at a Free Will Baptist Church. Again my preaching has not been altered. I am much more closely aligned with them than I was at the UMC church.

    I have also begun a ministry outside the 4 walls of any church, having a church service for our emergency personnel i.e. Policemen, Sheriff’s Deputies, 911 operators, EMT’s, and firemen. I have been doing this for over a year.

    These shifts are definitely evident. Thank you for you insight and help. BTW I am taking the FWBC through your book, I AM A CHURCH MEMBER.

  • Another shift that I have seen for years is: From a place of ministry to a Christian business.

  • Dan Gmyrek says on

    I grew up in the 60’s and ’70’s with very strict dress code for church. My strongest memories of going to Sunday School when I was 5 or 6 are of “dress” shorts, starched shirt, and uncomfortable clip-on-tie. I would have loved to ware something comfortable. That being said, I still prefer to don a coat and tie when I go to church. Still, there are days I’m either going on duty @ hospital after services or have just come off an overnight shift and I’m in my scrubs. I appreciate the fact that I can attend dressed as I am.

  • A pastor friend of mine shared this on Facebook, so I read the article and comments. The points in the article are a worthy read. The addition of the trend related to casual dress is also quite valid. However, the large volume of comments debating the various aspects reminds me why I got out of church leadership and abhor organized religion. It is truly disappointing how much energy is wasted on the meticulous dissection of points which bring little if any value to a person’s relationship with God.

    • Thank you K. Peck. The haughty, judgmental comments on minutia would rival the Pharisees here, from people no doubt in church leadership in some capacity. It is no small wonder that so many people no longer “revere” pastors and distrust many in church leadership.

      I would not trust many of you around unbelievers as far as I could throw you.

  • Thanks Pastor for your thoughts and insights! I’m not quite sure about the dress code discussion but I would like to ask a question and make a comment on one of your bullets: “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.”

    I’m surrounded by mega in Houston and have seen the attempts to make the shift you speak of. I’ve seen the blue tee shirts and the white ones…that might as well say, “I’m being missional today”. Good motive and often beautiful pure hearts! Observation: still seems that our people are not equipped to engage the culture with more than the proverbial, “will you come to my church service”. Will we see a shift where the church starts to educate and equip and inspire its congregants to engage the culture? It seems the in the world and not of the world passage has been re-translated…..have nothing to do with the world unless it changes first. Hugh Halter speaks of allowing people to belong to us without believing in Jesus; his book, the tangible kingdom. Personally, my experience in a mega baptist for years is great bible teaching…..from the pulpit to SS yet little interest shown by the masses (teaching not translating) in simply being a good neighbor to the guy across the street who might throw out a curse word or drink a beer while he’s changing the oil in his car in his driveway! Shouldn’t incarnational living translate THERE right along side the good act of cleaning up of a neighborhood across town… while sporting my blue shirt? Thank you Pastor.

  • In Sing God a Simple Song: Exploring Music in Worship for the Eighties Betty Carr Pulkingham describes how the pendulum has swung back and forth between participation music and performance music in the history of church music. In the twenty-first century the pendulum has swung in the direction of performance music. We are no longer hearing in churches not just hymns but worships songs of the type that the charismatic, Praise and Worship Movement and the Vineyard movements popularized in the 1980s and 1990s. These simple choruses and songs were accessible to most congregations. Their tunes were easily learned and memorable.

    Two things have contributed to this change. One is the professional Christian bands, their concerts, and their music videos are setting the standard for the music in contemporary worship gatherings. The other is the belief that most people are unable to sing and are embarrassed when they sing at a church’s worship gathering, especially when they compare their own singing to that of the vocalists in the band. In order to spare them the embarrassment of hearing themselves, the volume of the amplifiers is turned up so high that they do not have to hear themselves. Guests at worship gatherings are also told that they do not have to sing if they do want to. This is justified on the grounds that it makes worship gatherings more welcoming to people, especially those who do not come from a church background.

    A third contributing factor is that those attending contemporary worship gatherings are treated as consumers, not participants, as an audience, not a worshiping assembly. This may be intentional or unintentional.

    Among the results is a decline in congregational singing. Songs for worship gatherings are no longer chosen with the participation of the congregation in mind. Members of the congregations are not being given an opportunity to learn and master new songs. They are not being given an opportunity to hear their combined voices and otherwise encouraged to sing—essential steps in the process of learning how to sing and to gaining confidence in one’s singing.

    The role of members of the congregation in the music of contemporary worship gatherings has been reduced to singing along with the vocalists in the band or listening to the vocalists in the band as they might if they were watching a music video or listening to their iPod.

    Contemporary worship gatherings fall far short of New Testament standards for worship gatherings. Those who are present should singing together with one voice and each person present should contribute to the worship gathering in some way. This includes joining in song with the others present. To sing together with one voice requires bands to back away from the mike or to abandon their head sets and to turn down the volume of their amplifiers. It also requires choosing songs accessible to the congregation and taking the time to teach them to the congregation and to practice them with the congregation. They may on occasion want to lead the congregation in singing a song without accompaniment. They also need to reappraise their role. Their role is to lead and support the singing of the congregation, not to sing for the congregation.

    As for the issue of casual attire, God looks at our hearts and not outward appearance. The Council at Jerusalem set very few requirements for Gentiles who upon hearing the gospel accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Among the things that they did not require was that the new converts dress like devote Jews. At the Journey we have people attend our worship gatherings in all kind of attire. We welcome all of them. God does not require us to clean up our act before we can become Jesus followers. We become Jesus followers first and then he transforms us. God focuses on our hearts, not our outward appearance. As our hearts are transformed, our outward appearance may be transformed. Or it may not. What matters is not how we dress but how we live our lives as disciples of Jesus.

    • Jerry deBin says on

      Robin, excellent points about music.

    • Scott Sheppard says on

      One of the greatest things I ever heard about worship is “You can sing a lie as easily as you can say one.” If there is a guest at church who isn’t saved, they shouldn’t being singing “Amazing grace how sweetthe sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see” because they haven’t been saved and they cannot see yet. If we encourage people to sing along without any meaning, all it has come is a song they enjoy rather than a declaration of God’s work in their life.

      I am a fairly musical person. I can play a handful of instruments by ear and grew up going to churches that had hymns sung out of hymnals as well as other songs. With that said, a book with a staff of notes to sing does not help me at all. Having four different harmonies coming from a choir does not help either. Listening to the first verse and chorus of a new song and then getting into the second verse, that helps. Typical hymnals have hundreds of hymns in them and I know only maybe 50 because that is all the churches ever sing. However, I know hundreds of contemporary, worship songs because I get to know them as the church plays them for about a year and then has new songs. I still recall many from when I was a child that if I hear it, BOOM, I remember the words. It’s all about repetition and getting to know the words, understand them and sing them from your heart, not your diaphragm.

  • Curtis Russell says on

    My response in two words … SIMPLE CHURCH … oh, two more words … SIMPLE LIFE !!

  • I think another trend is a more passive music-worship time. This is due to use of more songs that are unfamiliar to attenders. The songs, even the ones that point us to God, are less “singable” so people are satisfied with watching the performance. But where the passivity really comes into play is the lack of community prayer. People aren’t used to praying aloud in small groups. As a member of a 3,000 attender church, which draws about 6 people to meetings to pray for a new pastor, this concerns me. I’m afraid we are going to get the pastor we pray for.

  • In light of #3, there are many churches that do not agree with their denomination’s stance on issues. Some churches feel that for all they have accomplished, the denomination can ruin that growth with one poorly worded statement and one position on a highly charged topic.