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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  • As a child, I was taught to “dress nicely for church”. You know, a dress and a nice pair of shoes. My grandmother seemed to see this as a “give ’em your Sunday Best” kind of thing. So, with that being said, that’s what I did and still do. You’ll never see me in a pair of jeans. However, over the years I’ve gotten married and have children of my own. My mother in law tends to wear jeans to church. GASP! Her response was it’s not what you wear to church but WHY you’re in church. Ok, yes I get it but I’m old school and still hear my grandmother in the back of my head. This is the way I think of it. If Jesus happened to show up at church one Sunday (don’t get crazy on me, I’m giving an example), how would I choose to be dressed? Well, I’d give him my “Sunday Best”. He deserves at least that. There are many who, maybe, cannot afford to dress up for church and there’s nothing wrong with that. I guess, in finalizing it, if you have the ability to dress nicely, do it. You’d do it for a banquet, a child’s graduation, a wedding and a funeral. If you don’t have the ability, dress as you can (respectfully, of course) and come to church anyway.

    • Betty Bonn says on

      Hello BBA:

      What a good phrase: “give ’em your Sunday Best”! I love that! The Lord gave me His very best; surely, I can make an effort to do the same–even if, in the eyes of some, it’s just a little thing.

      I also agree with your observation that we all dress appropriately for special occasions, and church is certainly a special occasion. To add a little bit to your thought, I would dress respectfully to meet the president of a company, the president of the U.S.–the head of anything. After all, Jesus is the head of the Church! The presence of the Lord in a church service draws from me the thanksgiving, praise and worship that are due to Him–from my spirit, soul and body. What kind of a message are we sending to our children when we don’t even care enough to set aside times of worship as special, when we don’t accord the Lord the same courtesies we would to presidents, kings, etc..

      I appreciate your comments on these issues.

      With all Christian love,


  • Betty Bonn says on

    At the moment I am reading this article under a time crunch, so I apologize for not having read all the comments before offering input. Nevertheless, immediately after reading the first few comments for this article, I checked an email from Dwight Hill of “Facts of the Matter.” I thought it interesting that in his article he spoke to some of the issues in your piece. He said, “Fundamentally, we must decide the quality of life we desire and whether we are willing to pay the price in altered priorities and lifestyle to experience it. Conformity to the world’s values and mode of living will ravage our souls.”

    I am saddened and deeply hurt by reports of the disrespect shown to God during times set aside for worshipping Him and in places set aside for worshipping Him. I see no love or respect for God, no love or respect for oneself, no love or respect for others in these behaviors. A believer is often noted by the changes in his life, particularly in his transformation to walk in love toward others. The transformation that begins on the inside works its way to the outside.

    With love and respect to you all,


  • Kenneth Park says on

    I appreciate the viewpoints posted. It aids me as I consider my own walk with the Lord. A word that seems to continue to address our method of worship is “casual”. This strange scenario keeps us less than loving with each other as we each are attempting to settle an age old temptation. Casual is what caused Cain to stumble. Casual is the attitude of the Israelites in Judges. Casual is the trip wire in David and Solomon’s life. Yet casual is never the attitude of the person who found themselves, face to face, with the reality of God. Not Isaiah, Job, Hosea, nor Peter; those who witnessed the storm diminish nor witnessed the casting of Legion were casually considering God. Paul and the Roman soldier were changed reverently. I fear that our desire to make God a friend sends a message to our children that we do not serve a Holy God, but live with a ‘casual’ friend. When we are casual regarding dress and worship, which actually is our outward adoration of God, then could this also telegraph our casualness regarding other details in our lives as well? Are we simply abusing grace casually?

    • Betty Bonn says on

      Dear Kenneth Park,
      You have expressed my feelings on this matter so well! The Scriptural examples you cite are appropriate and cause me to think. I do believe a casual attitude sends a message believers are not intending; the message I get from this “casual” behavior is not edifying at all. Your comment on “abusing grace” brings to mind the whole issue of “cheap grace” that Deitrich Bonhoeffer spoke of. Thank you for a very kind and reasoned response.

      With all Christian love and respect,

  • Very keen observations. Not only has the paradigm of “attractional to incarnational” seen a shift, but I would venture to add another paradigm shift: “Separatist to indigenous.” I think (read: hope) more and more churches and members are learning to be indiginous to the neighborhoods and communities right outside the church. The way a foreign missionary learns the culture, the language, the dress, the etiquette, and the music of that specific people group, so we, too, must take an indigenous approach to our methodology.

    Thanks Thom!

  • Gary, the NBA commissioner requires players to wear suits to try and cover the thug image that the NBA players present when they are everywhere else in society. I’ll leave it at that ;).

  • Great list, Thom! Also excellent discussion from all. Regarding the earlier discussion about the current trend of casual dress at church, I was in the LA airport a few weeks ago when members of an NBA basketball team came into the restuarant I was in. It was about 10pm but they were all dressed in suits! It ocurred to me that while we are moving more toward causal dress at church, other organizations, such as the NBA, actually require their teams to dress up in an effort to raise the level of respect. While we certainly want to make it comfortable for everyone to come to church regardless of their financial ability to dress up, the leaders of our churches need to be dressed better to illustrate a certain level of respect. In many churches I visit the leaders dress down in an effort to identify with the congregation, but often the leaders are just plain sloppy. I always encourage leaders to be dressed a little bit better than those in the audience. It promotes respect for the leaders and for the LORD we serve.

  • I am looking for verses in the bible that show the purpose to meet was to worship. I see in 1 Corinth 14 about a purpose on edifying one another, exhortation and consolation. But is there some that shows that direct worship on the meeting? Thanks

  • Bob Beretta says on

    I feel that the church leaders need to set an example. I go to alot of different church’s the ones were the pastor i. Is in suits the membership is usaly are more formal than In churches that the pastor is in jeans and shirt I noticed that membership is way more casual.

    I personally would rather see a person in the church learning than to stay home because of a dress code. I never make a big deal about a person’s dress or drinking it part of learing to be more christlike.

    • Bob,

      Sounds like in each of your experiences the pastor was setting the example. The question is, what example are we setting and why? I have seen formal churches scorn the man in shorts, t-shirt, and flips… I have seen the casual church goer scorn the man who comes in a suit and tie. Neither felt the other “belonged” there. With the cultural shifts and paradigm shifts that are brought up in the article–the church is in a precarious situation–chose a paradigm–and believe me–you have to–we all innately do–and you alienate someone.
      Even though dress code was not the main focus of the article…it certainly seems to be in the comments. There is rich theology and ecclesiology behind how someone feels about formal vs. casual–even if the majority are driven by tradition vs. anti-tradition–which is another paradigm shift going on over the past decades–which seems according to some studies has already shifted again from anti-tradition, back to tradition. The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. As a non-traditional, low church, casual pastor–I do that intentionally–so that I can lead my church in a certain way…in light of Scripture and our culture…in order to do just what you are speaking of. Paul said that he became all things to all people so that he might save some. In my area, where I lead and pastor, it would be silly for me to wear a suit and tie. If pastors and leaders of churches starting seeing themselves more as missionaries to their communities–I think we would have an even more diverse “dress code” than we already do.

  • Thanks for the article Thom. I look forward to others in the future. As a man who has been a pastor at several churches in different regions of the country I see these shifts throughout different regions and denominations. And there is no more evidence needed of the cultural shifts and paradigms than the reactions and comments left from your article. As the world’s culture shifts, so is our church. And our culture is shifting so fast, some churches are trying to keep up (usually lagging behind 10-20 years), some attempt to keep up, and some reject culture as completely evil and seek to be the anti-culture–which is really just continuing the culture that they are comfortable in. We are all a product of culture. Shifts of paradigms make us uncomfortable…and can be down right scary for some. Most of these comments were to claim their paradigm is right and the other’s is wrong. There are so many paradigm shifts going on…and many that need to happen. As we change and shift, let’s be careful not to forget the past, but rather openly and objectively learn from it–take what is good and build, learn from our mistakes and sin–and grow. Having been on the staff of both large and small churches, I firmly believe God is using both to do great kingdom work. And there are some in both groups that are not doing great work. Let’s make sure WE who are reading this stop defending our own “tribe” and paradigm–seek the whole counsel of God–celebrate unity in diversity when it does not compromise the core of our faith–show love to God because He first loved us– to one another–and then to the world.

    I don’t think Thom’s articles are for us to debate which shift is better–which is always “our own”. Most churches and church leaders think that they are doing the better ministry and serving God more faithfully than the church down the street–so some are the uncompromised martyr and the “true faith” when we are small–raging against the consumeristic machine of the mega-church. Or some see themselves as the better product–superior leadership, structure, and lack of “religion” that keeps so many small churches small.

    Bottom line, can’t all of us use these articles to better educate ourselves and grow in our leadership and become better tools for the Spirit to use for God’s glory–no matter what paradigm you come from, or generation…or axe you have come to grind? So we see all of these paradigm shifts. What is that saying about our own paradigm? What is that saying about culture? What is that saying about what God is doing in our day and time? And what is that saying about God working in the future?

    I’m looking forward to more!

  • Good article. I cannot believe how an article simply stating seven ways one person has seen the church change over the past decade turned into a debate/discussion over slouching in a chair or drinking a beverage and the alleged relevance these have in loving God with all of one’s heart.

    I am afraid to admit this “sin” considering the comments I have read, but I can’t even remember the last time I wore pants instead of shorts to church. An added “evidence of my sinful nature” is that I also brink a Starbucks drink into church with me, I wonder which commandment that breaks…

    And sin above all sins, when I preach and teach, up in front of all the people, I do all of this at the same time. For Pete’s sake, I am hell bound. Wearing shorts and sipping water all while preaching and teaching God’s Word… “Lord forgive me, for I know not what I do.” WOW! Let’s prioritize what serving God actually means people.


    • Thom Rainer says on

      I’ve been a bit surprised at the direction of the comments myself.

      • the revenant says on

        This is a fascinating article, Dr. Rainer. I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head, as I’ve witnessed many of these shifts happen over the years. I am increasingly interested in the phenomenon you refer to as “attractional to incarnational.” I would absolutely love to see you write about this in more detail (why has this trend started? what are the long and short term implications on attendance/ tithing resources? What are the long and short term implications on the community at large? etc.) My initial thought is that it’s an absolutely amazing thing, as it’s giving Christians convenient opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus’ ministry, but I’m curious to hear someone else’s insights from a “big picture” perspective. Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts in this blog. I am blessed through it on a regular basis!

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Thanks. We’ll see where these trends lead next !

      • As am I, Thom. But it says something about us, doesn’t it? We’re still struggling with age-old hang ups. Two Sundays ago we baptized a homeless guy. I don’t give a flip what he wears. I want him to grow into Christ-likeness, not to be a candidate for GQ.

      • I don’t see why. I’m not surprised at all. Incidentally, one trend I’m seeing–as a religion blogger who keeps up with religious news–is an increased emphasis on bells and whistles over substantive preaching. Churches must be panicking, no doubt about it; bankruptcies, as someone’s mentioned, are still staggeringly high, and many smaller churches are having to merge with larger ones. The megachurches are doing all right, largely because they’re “poaching” believers from those smaller ones or just assimilating them, but even they’re struggling. Donations are now coming more from older Christians than younger ones, who are themselves disengaging from Christianity itself at a rate I can only call eye-popping. So these churches’ solution set appears to be to pack more programs in, drill down harder on in-group marker beliefs like science denial and institutionalized sexism to encourage greater tribalism, and buy more fog machines and high-tech gadgets. I see a lot of fuss over programs and web presence, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and like a lot of stuff churches do, I wonder how much of it is demonstrably improving their attendance and retention stats and how much of it is blind stabbing in the dark. As Matt Pitt’s shown, it doesn’t matter if you can pack thousands of teenagers into a venue and get them screaming and hollering if three-quarters of ’em are out of the religion by age 30.

        I’ve been out of the religion for a couple of decades now, but it’s still just shocking to me when I see videos of sermons and see what passes for church services nowadays. People dressing casually and bringing water bottles to church are churches’ smallest problem–like Titanic passengers yelling at each other over singing hymns off-key while the ship is sinking. Fascinating piece, though, and thanks for writing it. I think you’ve hit upon some interesting points here.

      • Your titanic point made me giggle.

      • Some good points,we too have moved outside the traditional church. That does not mean we are any less dedicated, if anything we spend more time serving the Lord and “being” church than we ever did while we were members of a traditional church. Nor to we pretend to have the answers, we’re still figuring this out, following the Lord the best we can.

        I did want to make a point as the Boomer parents of adults and grandparents. We have found that if we want to stay in touch with our children, (30 – 40 yo), texting, twitter, Face Book, etc is a must. Chris talks about culture in the next post down, these things are a part of their culture. Their cell phones are integral to their lives. In that context it is not so much gimmicky as it is adapting and responding to culture. The same, I think, can be said of many of the things criticized here. Music, dress, preaching styles, etc. all reflect at least to a degree culture, as they should. Our kids are so widely scattered, we have had opportunities to observe this in a number or regional and other settings, from a big city church with a largely under 40 crowd, to more traditional churches with varying mixtures of older and younger people, to dedicated Houses of Prayer. it has been my observation that each reflects the culture of the members.

      • That’s about all anybody can do, Kevin, the best they can. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what Christians do in the next ten or twenty years in response to the staggering deconversion/disengagement rate and the growing need Christians feel for relevance in the changing modern world. I’m seeing some churches go the old-fashioned Mayberry route and drill down on tradition, and others go the other way and “unchurch” themselves. I think both approaches have their strong points and answer different folks’ needs.

        I have a cell phone, but I’m the pre-FB/Twitter generation myself, so I get it 🙂 Most of my friends know that if they want to get ahold of me, they’d better do it via text, because I don’t even check my email regularly. Peace to you and yours–

  • Bob Porter says on

    Thom, I can identify another trend which I consider to be most damaging. It is the abuse of God’s love. “God loves you no matter how depraved your behavior is”. It has become the excuse for all kinds of perversions of the gospel message. It fosters the idea that all Christians must love and accept the worst sins, loving both the sin and the sinner.
    God calls upon us to bring people to an awareness of their sin and warn them when they are grieving the Spirit. Paul condemned the Pagan’s love for drunken parties and orgies. He warned that people who do these things will never enter the Kingdom of God. This is not a PC attitude! He “offended” many people by condemning their sinful and rebellious behavior.
    Today’s churches are so desperate to expand their shrinking membership, their pastors would never say “repent”. That word has been excised from their vocabulary along with the word “sin”.
    I believe that by doing so, they remove the very reason why anyone would sacrifice time and money to attend church. If there is no meaningful instruction on who God is and what he expects of mankind. What is the point?
    If the way you are living your life is perfectly fine because God loves you so much, why bother going to church?
    The result is a wattered-down version of Christianity which does not respect, venerate or worship God.
    The church may as well be a club like the Elks.or Optimists, or whatever.
    My advice to pastors of a church today would be to counter this “accept everyone and everything” attitude with the truth, even if it may “offend” someone.

    • You need to be careful not to condemn the sinner with the sin. Yes, God loves us all no matter how depraved our behavior might be. That is I believe an absolute. At the same time, He loves you too much to allow you to continue such behavior. We are currently walking that out with a lady we pastor. She has some major “issues.” We have made it very clear that we love her, and God loves her, and that we love her too much to allow her to behave in the way she has in the past. It is not easy, for her or for us, but it is needed if she is to grow, be healed and set free so that she can step into the fullness of what God has for her.

      I agree that we must pursue holiness, but that pursuit must flow from a place of relationship, out of a desire to be pleasing to the Lover of Our Souls if it is to be life giving. If it comes from anywhere less, i.e. a spirit of religiosity, duty, or obedience to the rules, it can only bring death.

  • Karen Villalpando says on

    In our area we have one single-location mega-church and one multi-campus mega-church, both very attractive , effective, and efficiently run. However, our small church seems to be the place people come back to when they need special care, mask-off relationships and low-stress participation. This little neighborhood church has a place in God’s Kingdom as a dispenser of grace to people who would never walk onto a big campus that looks more like a country club or shopping mall than a church. We certainly attract a large number of needy people who need a personal touch. Don’t write our little ‘outpost’ out of the script just yet. The neighborhood churches may just be the comeback kids of the next decade as people become disillusioned with big production church life. “Where two or three are gathered…” Or possible a hundred or two.

    • It’s all about relationship, with God first and then with man … everything else is at best, bling.

    • Karen Villalpando says on

      I failed to complete my thought: As a smaller church we enjoy the denominational relationships and connections. We are more likely to call on our convention leaders for support, to attend trainings, etc. I like knowing we are on the same page doctrinally and in practice, I understand the ‘system’, I know who I am talking with. We need this kind of link more than we need the local mega-church network.