Twenty Relics of Church Past

This article will get me in trouble.

It began with a simple and informal poll on social media followed by several direct conversations. The question I asked was basic: “What did you have or do in your church ten years ago that you don’t have or do today?”

The top twenty responses were, for me at least, a fascinating mix of the expected and the surprises. They are ranked in order of frequency.

  1. Sunday evening services. It is amazing how quickly these services have disappeared. Except for Sunday evening services that are an alternative to and replica of the Sunday morning services, there are fewer and fewer churches meeting on Sunday evening.
  2. The stand-and-greet time. A discussion of this issue generated much banter and controversy at this blog several months ago. But the respondents told us it clearly was a practice falling out of favor.
  3. Suit and ties. Ten years ago, church members expected the males on the platform to wear a suit and tie. Casual dress is now the norm in most churches.
  4. The organ. This instrument was a standard in many churches ten years ago. It is now unusual to see an organ still played in worship services.
  5. Print newsletters. The digital world has come to churches. Most church members are fine receiving information digitally today.
  6. Prolonged and frequent business meetings. Many churches decided to limit the amount of time for business meetings because they became a platform for the most negative and contentious members. One church leader called it their “monthly fist fight.”
  7. The name of “Sunday school” for the groups in the church. As the traditional name as fallen out of favor, it has been replaced with community groups, life groups, home groups, and many other names typically ending in “groups.”
  8. Choirs. Many churches have moved from choirs to praise teams and instrumentalists.
  9. The parlor. I didn’t see this one coming. The parlor is a room for special occasions, such as a reception or a bride’s dressing room. One church leader called it “the most unused sacred cow in our church.”
  10. Weekly visitation in homes. Uninvited guests are no longer as welcome in homes as they once were. Several leaders told us the home visitation program did more harm than good.
  11. Hymnals. Hymnals have been replaced with projected words on a screen by many churches.
  12. Wednesday night fellowship meals. Indeed, many churches in the past had paid cooks on staff.
  13. Casual approach to recruiting children’s workers. Today most churches do fairly extensive background checks before they allow someone to work in the children’s ministry.
  14. Program-driven philosophy of ministry. In the past, many churches determined most of their entire schedule by programs resourced by denominations and other providers. The programs drove the ministries and the schedule.
  15. Large pulpits. The big pulpit has been replaced with smaller pulpits or stands.
  16. Special music/anthems. This item was another one that caught me by surprise. But, as I reflect on the many churches I visit, I see why it was a common response.
  17. Food pantry. Many churches have disbanded their food pantries and, instead, contribute to a community food bank. The local church leaders simply did not have the expertise to discern if needs were real.
  18. King James Version. This one was another surprise to me, because I have been in very few KJV churches the past 25 years.
  19. Office hours for ministry staff. Again, I had not expected this response, but it does make sense. If someone wants to meet with a pastor or other staff member, he or she is likely to make an appointment rather than drop by during prescribed office hours.
  20. Land lines. Some churches have done away with them altogether.

Thanks to those who participated in this survey. And now . . . let the discussion begin.

Posted on June 14, 2017

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 I look at this list I have to agree with “almost” all of them. I pastor in a small community, with at pretty thriving church. The one area that the church continues to enjoy, regular attendees and guests, are in home visit. We have a Cookie Brigade that provides cookies to drop off at the homes of individuals and nearly 100 % enjoy and are appreciative of the act. I think in a large city most all of the list is true but in smaller communities there are some things that folks still enjoy and appreciate.

  • Mike Lyons says on

    The only ones we still have:
    • The organ. -But it is used more as a support instrument, and is done very well, I might add. Occasionally our player takes the lead on a song like “A Mighty Fortress”, and I encourage it for variety.
    • Print newsletters. -I think this is on its way out…difficult to throw out because of the older generation that doesn’t use the internet.
    • The name of “Sunday school” for the groups in the church. -Still use this term.
    • Weekly visitation in homes. -We still follow up with visitors this way and it has not been a negative.
    • Program-driven philosophy of ministry. -This is still there, though we have been working away from it for a while now.
    • Land lines. -Still have this, for some reason!

  • Jim Maddox says on

    I think it is a bit sad, that in an effort to try to be relevant, that churches are bending over backwards to appear cool or hip. Yes, some big city churches, need to have a band, and project words on a wall, to reach an audience that may not come to a traditional church , and need a praise worship to reach some folks. But, isn’t there also a need for churches that still practice reverence, solitude and a respite from the outside world?

    I visited my small hometown church recently, and was so disappointed. The beautiful stately sanctuary with the stained-glass windows is now projecting words to songs on the wall, just to the right of the baptistry! It is on a painted background next to a stained glass window depicting a beautiful stream. It looks so ridiculous and out of place. The grand piano and the pipe organ still sit, unused at the front of the church…the pulpit is removed….but, there is a drum set on stage. This is in a town of 5000 people!

    You would expect this in an “auditorium church” in a large city…but, in a stately building… looks out of place, odd and quite honestly…a bit foolish.

    When I go to church, I want to go to worship God…. not to rock out…I want to be reverent…I want to sit and pray…I want to sing traditional , respectful songs. I want a respite from the outside world…I want a place of sanctuary….I want a place that is set apart.

    And, I am surprised, that fewer and fewer churches are offering that…and, I believe that is what is needed for most…in our busy, stressful world…..a place of respite…. btw, at 49 years old…I am not that old…..

    Maybe, just maybe, this is why church membership and attendance is declining….imho, churches are looking a bit foolish trying to be so hip and rock out….when maybe people are looking for a place of comfort and peace….separate from what they see in the outside world…..I have a feeling that even the un-churched desires that….if somehow, they are made aware that they are welcome.

    • Well said…

      • Christopher says on

        Which is worse – the guy with the selfish, irrational rant, or the person that agrees with him?

    • Christopher says on

      “I want…I want…I want…I want…I want…I want…I want…” Now tell me again why you think the church is declining.

      BTW, you are the oldest 49 year old I have ever heard of!

  • Thom,
    While I don’t think your list of 20 items will get you in trouble, you might have saved yourself some grief by calling it something like “changes noted in the last 10 years of local church life.” The term “relic” tends to imply that churches who haven’t changed are relics. That’s a bit judgmental sounding and I know you don’t intend to do that so I think you opened a can of worms when you chose that provocative title.
    You have done us a service by compiling the feedback on these changes but I don’t think you should find yourself in trouble for sharing the trends. They are pretty accurate as far as my own observations would confirm. Here’s my two cents worth about a few of the items on the list.
    Number two is what I have begun calling our mandatory friendliness time when for a few brief moments everyone is required to at least appear to be friendly. I find it odd but our congregation does receive high marks in the friendliness category by “secret guests” when they do feedback questionnaires. It works with some personalities and turns other off which makes it about average for all church methods.
    Number eight is an interesting one. Churches with strong music programs attrack people with musical training and gifts which makes it possible to have a choir and often an orchestra. It’s another small group through which people connect with friends. On the other hand, the cost of having a choir and orcherstra is increasing rapidly enough that many churches will have to drop the ministry because it is simply too expensive. That’s sad but it’s real life.
    Number ten continues to surprise me at our church. While I wouldn’t answer my door if a stranger showed up unannounced, our outreach is led by a sweet senior adult in her 80’s who is so innocent looking that guests open the door for her most of the time that she calls on them unannounced at their home. All our guests are going to receive a home visit and a loaf of home baked bread even though that isn’t a method that most people believe has much promise for success.
    Number 19 is going to vary depending on a church’s staffing and size. If a church has property, and averages over 3-4 hundred in worship it will likely be wise to have regular office hours because the administrative load will require it. The schedule of ministry staff needs to be more flexible than support personnel because of the unique demands that accompany fulltime ministry and the variety of staff assignments that characterize churchlife today.

  • What about the recent trend of changing church names to give no clue of their denomination nor beliefs? A couple of years ago, during a search for a home church, we determined to not visit any churches with non-descript names.

    • Jocelyn says on

      Yeah, that bothers me too. It’s a sign that the church is very strongly based on the theology of a particular pastor, and if he leaves, the church may change dramatically.

  • No disagreement on the accuracy of the list but to be clear the reality is that some of the changes are for the wrong reasons. Many of the changes are the marks of a “lukewarm” church. Change is necessary and can be good but must be calibrated by scripture and motive. May the the Holy Spirit guide us as we seek to Glorify the Father!

  • Pastor Tim says on

    Wow! I guess our church is somewhat of a dinosaur. We still have Sunday pm services, Meet and Greet time, I still wear a suit and tie, we have and use the organ, We have Sunday School and call it such, sometimes we organize the choir for special services, special music is a weekly blessing, I have a large pulpit, I use the KJV when preaching, we have a land -line, and I still go on visitation. Our rural church has an average attendance of 85 and about 40% are under the age of 21. This church is the most loving, fruit-bearing, joyful, and Biblically literate I know. Maybe all the modern changes aren’t as important as people think. Maybe God can deal with people’s hearts in any situation, style, or cultural cave. He certainly is big enough to do whatever He pleases.

    • Thom S Rainer says on

      Yes. As I noted above, Tim. This list is not a checklist that churches should do. It represents trends of some churches.

      • Pastor Tim says on

        I understand, Thom. My point was that following trends doesn’t necessarily promise a spiritual result. People tend to look for “some new thing” that appears to have the power to create an immediate result–a spiritual shortcut. I doubt trends can ever accomplish the same results as fervent prayer, fasting, and sound Bible teaching.

    • Biblical literacy has declined substantially in the past generation with the introduction of modern versions. The KJV was out of date when it was published. It was published at the apex of the English language with purpose to raise the standards of people’s understanding of English. I wonder why Shakespeare is not modernized?

      • Dennis S. says on

        Actually, Shakespeare IS modernized. Look up the original some time.,

      • The same with the KJV, what is often called 1611 is eighteenth century (1769). It is mostly the spelling, since most things were spelled phonetically.

    • Jocelyn says on

      Pastor Tim, if your church has 85 in attendance, I bet you know everyone’s name. You probably know everyone enough to know about their needs and wishes. I visited a church once, and by the time I left it, I’d decided it wasn’t for me (the call from the pulpit for the MEN of the church to stay afterwards to pray for the healing of a man in the congregation pretty much did it for me. ) And later that week, I opened my door to find two men about 20-30 years older than I was, wanting to come in and witness to me. If a church doesn’t realize that sending men to visit a single woman might make her a little uneasy, they’re not paying attention to the realities of our world. Why not send someone who’d be able to introduce the newcomer into the activities of the church- so send a woman who can talk about the women’s activities in the church. Send someone who can tell the visitor about the Sunday School class she’d be likely to attend. Maybe even send representatives of the music ministries. I think most people are uneasy about having someone come to their home, because they fear someone’s checking up on them (do they think I’m a bad parent? Are they casing my home to decide if my giving is proportionate to my possessions? And don’t laugh, I’ve heard of that happening!). But having a pre-selected decision about how the person will fit in (female, thus unsuited to pray for a man) and not thinking about security and safety issues is a big sign a church is gonna miss the boat.

  • Our church still does all of these, except Wednesday night dinner. Ultra traditional church format with resistance to change. Contemporary is the new traditional. Traditionalism and modernism are both bad if a church forgets their mission to reach the lost for Christ.

  • Another Anonymous Mark says on

    Just because something is a “reality” does not make it right. Can you address that?

    It is a fact that divorce is rampant. We don’t accept that. It is a fact people don’t read like they used to. Is that acceptable? It is a fact that people watch porn in ridiculous amounts. We don’t accept that.

    My point is you have these observations. Are you implying they are all good and need to be embraced? It seems that you are.

    • Robbie Norman says on

      This is a summary of the current cultural situation in many churches today. I don’t believe the post is implying that the removal of the 20 items is a must, or the reality that many of these items on the list may be disappearing in church culture is a good thing.

      Think about this. The way we like to do church services today in our culture is radically different than the first century church. We even do it differently than churches in the 1800’s and even early 1900’s in America. It’s also radically different than today’s churches in other countries. I’ve been on international mission trips where there is no power or running water, no organ or piano, no hymnals, no choir robes, no projector or screen, none of the things we have here. BUT the people gathered to sing LOUDLY to the Lord and to hear the preaching of the Word in a building that would make an architect and inspector in the USA cringe. The services and environment were completely different than what we’re used to here in the states. However, they were worshipping in spirit and truth. That right there is the mandate from Scripture…and God was there.

      What makes us think we’re doing it “right” just because it’s what we grew up with, it’s what we’re most comfortable with, or it happens to be our preference?

  • Very interesting. I pastor what I think is a semi-progressive church, but I was surprised to see that we only have #’s 2, 17, & 20. We have intentionally abandoned some of these things over the past few years, but I realize that most have simply faded away without much thought or discussion. For example, five years ago we used to have “Sunday Specials” during morning worship on a fairly regular basis. However, as our worship ministry has evolved those specials have slowly become a thing of the past, and we never had any meeting or prolonged discussion about making that change. It just happened. Change is hard for churches, but I wonder how intentional or unintentional other church leaders have been in seeing these changes become the norm in their churches.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Don McCutcheon says on

    Again, your research and conclusions strike the bull’s eye of reality. I still enjoy the way you express your surprise at new or unusual findings. Thanks for all you do and for the impact you have made on my life and ministry and on thousands of others. Blessings!

  • THERESA says on

    I wish churches wouldn’t do away with hymns. With the popularity of social media and communication being in quick snippets, we have lost some of the beauty that hymns profess in their words. At my church, I encouraged our minister of music to sing all verses of the hymns we do sing, as they tell a story. To me, hymns are not a gimmick used to entertain me or garner my attention. I do like some modern music too. A good balance is best, imo.

    • Charles says on

      Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16). It seems as though all that is song anymore are spiritual songs, if they can be called that. Are psalms and hymns relics? And if so what other parts of the Bible will be begin to ignore?
      Our worship leader insists that we sing modern hymns in our church and it seems so by the definition of “hymn” but I don’t remember the last year we song or recited a psalm.