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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  • Darrel Schick says on

    The term “seeker-sensitive” is now more than 25 years old.

  • Lloyd Wright says on

    No. 13 – too bad we can’t be casual any more, but it is wise to do background checks on those who will work with children and youth. Not just volunteers but paid staff need to be investigated. Church is a target rich environment for pedophiles. More than once a paid staffer has been caught, but the damage was done. True, a background check will not catch all the potential offenders, but it’s a start.

  • Peter N says on

    I pastored a church that was KJV only and was called out to the congregation for ” flippantly” using other language instead of the true text. They also used hymnals form the twentys, little black ones. We had all three services and suits were worn at both on Sunday. Home visits were seen as sacred and expected. This church did not have any internet access nor did they even have a CD player. No new technology and they refused it. They had both a piano and organ. I was finally dischargked for suggesting a Saturday night service for youth with instruments since we had no youth man available. No church secretary either, just my wife and myself.

  • How many of the changes are related to a lower view of worship (due to a lower view of God’s holiness) and to the seeker-sensitive church growth movement? Large pulpits erected high above the congregation reflected the high view of God’s Word, being exposited through preaching. Sunday evening services reflected a high view of the Lord’s Day. While I agree that part of the reason for casual dress is cultural, it is also a part of attracting more “seekers”. Sigh.

  • James Parker says on

    Not sure I was in the survey … but anywho … here are my answers:

    Sunday evening services. In my opinion, if this service time is removed, then the reason to omit the service should fit the congregation. If people are removing it because of the popularity of removing it, then that, I think, is an incorrect reason.

    The stand-and-greet time. We added this back to our services. Positive results for us.

    Suit and ties. Our pastor still puts his on every Sunday. He wants to and the congregation is OK with that.

    The organ. Our church never had one (established in 1854)

    Print newsletters. yes, gone … replaced by a web-site. (that now may be replaced by social media???)

    Prolonged and frequent business meetings. Never had frequent business meetings … one scheduled each month but then only used if needed.

    The name of “Sunday school” for the groups in the church. I think the idea of teaching the truth of God’s word needs to be back … and if the word “school” does that, then I’m all for it. The “groups” I’ve had experience with suffered from opinion-itus. By the end of the session, just “opinions” no truth of God’s word. I’ll leave that there.

    Choirs. Love choirs … people need to sing, not just sit and listen to a concert and light show. That’s a bar, not church. Again … I’ll just leave that there.

    The parlor. never had one

    Weekly visitation in homes. Did them, not anymore.

    Hymnals. Let me just say, all have a place in service (Psalms, hymns, spiritual songs). Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

    Wednesday night fellowship meals. I wish this would come back … getting people food plus getting them to the night service is hard … adulting is hard. Those meals were a load off as a parent.

    A casual approach to recruiting children’s workers. agreed … extensive background checks are a must

    Program-driven philosophy of ministry. Never really did this much … unless Sunday School literature falls into this category.

    Large pulpits. still have the large (and heavy) pulpit … but we move it anytime it doesn’t fit a service so I can’t say it is a sacred cow.

    Special music/anthems. Special music (as in soloists?) yes.

    Food pantry. we contribute to a community food bank. yes … we did not have the expertise to discern if needs were real.

    King James Version. We are a KJV only church … but we do not have a sign that says that anymore. We simply use the KJV when verses are being read to the congregation.

    Office hours for ministry staff. never had office hours …

    Land lines. yep … no land line.

  • Great article Thom. I find it most interesting that nearly every single one of the 20 things listed have more to do with personal preference or American devices (like business meetings) – and none that I can find are tied directly to Scripture.

    I’ve often thought about how boring Christians would be if we were all exactly alike. As believers we should be cautious about placing our personal preference in a such a place that makes us appear “holier than thou”.

  • Sandra Harbarugh says on

    In regards to the question of dress, if you appear before a judge in a courtroom, you must be dressed appropriately, i.e. no shorts, tank tops, halter tops etc. How much more respect should the Creator of the Universe demand than a mere man (no disrespect for judges meant).

    • Rich Lichvar says on

      I think properly dressed in court depends upon the court. Yes, for full-blown criminal trials, divorce/custody hearings and such, but the traffic courts I’ve been in have been very informal, including shorts, tees, and flip-flops during the summer.

  • We still sing from a hymnal, use a piano, and the preacher and elders wear suits and ties. I don’t think these will change anytime soon. Our denomination is publishing a new psalter/hymnal later this year. I prefer to wear the Geneva gown, but sometimes I wear a suit instead.

  • I appreciate the comments which pointed out that many of the things on the list were innovations over the course of church history and not biblically-mandated. That said, I think that many of the items on the list can still be useful if done properly (that is, they are not the focus of the church but support the mission of it).

    Earlier this year, my wife and I were visiting Philadelphia and attended Sunday morning service at Tenth Presbyterian in downtown. That church has several items from the list (i.e. Sunday evening services, suit and ties from those on the platform, organ, choirs, hymnals, a large pulpit and special music). Those things were not the focus. Orderly, reverent worship as well as excellent biblically-based preaching were.

    The whole experience for me seemed to be a small foretaste of heaven, including the service taking place in a beautiful 19th century church building which silently tells those who visit, that serious things for Christ are being done here.

    It was definitely a church counter-cultural experience. Yet, my understanding of the mission of that church in city of Philadelphia is that it is a spiritual powerhouse for Christ. “Relics” don’t necessarily impede the work of the church.

    One commenter noted that it would be interesting to note the trends of what will fall out of church use in ten years that is in fashion today. Perhaps it can be observed that what one generation of the church might consider old and dated becomes “classic” to a later generation.

  • Jacob B says on

    I think these are definitely trends in the Southern Baptist / Evangelical sphere, but I would say that the mainline has been running back to organs, choirs, hymnals, and liturgy recently, when in the early 2000s they might have tried a contemporary or “postmodern” service.

  • I went to a major league game in a brand new stadium last month and the organ was playing loud and proud. I wonder why we love the traditions at ballgames but not in church. I’m truly curious because as a musician, I love many styles and genres!

  • Robin G. Jordan says on

    10 years ago people attended church every Sunday. Denomination like SBC were not experiencing quite the number of church closures that they are today. I am not suggesting that if churches had not abandon these practices, this would not have happened. What I am suggesting is that the same cultural, sociological, and technological changes that account for the disappearance of these practices have also contributed to declining church attendance and increased church closures. Some churches influenced by these changes have decided that such practices belong to the past; some people influenced by the same changes have decided that the church belongs to the past. What we have here is a two-edged sword. It cut both ways.

    Whether we like it or not, churches are also susceptible to fads. Because a practice is no longer popular does not mean it has no value. Hymns, for example, helped to form and nourish the faith of generations of Christians since the eighteenth century and earlier. Because they are no longer popular does not mean that they can no longer serve that purpose. Many of today’s congregations would benefit from the selective use of hymns in their worship. They, after all, embody the testimony of previous generations of Christians. To reject them entirely as some churches have done is to say that the faith of those who have gone before us does not matter. Only the faith of MY generation matters–only MY faith. This, I would hazard, show a real lack of spiritual maturity. Christians are not just members of a particular congregation in a particular place and a particular time. They are part of a great cloud of witnesses, Christ’s Church, His Bride, that goes back to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and other followers of Jesus in the upper room if not further and will continue well into the future until our Lord returns again and takes His Bride to Himself.