Ten Trends Impacting American Churches (Part 1)

October 7, 2011

By Dr. Randy Stone, Associate Professor of Christian Education and Director of the Doctor of Educational Ministry Program at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

The following list was assembled not as a detailed research project, nor was it the product of a survey of the largest churches in America. This list is merely the simple observations of a single staff person. Through conversations with colleagues, countless conventions, and tireless training events, I have surmised that the following are true. You be the real judge. I welcome your opinion.

1. Church Size and Type. Churches are making decisions concerning what type of church they want to be . . . Supersize or Boutique.[1] Churches are mimicking business models. Just as businesses are choosing to specialize only in selected merchandise, a number of churches are directing their focus so that they may be good or the best at a few things.[2] Once refined, they often “franchise” to additional locations. Other churches are choosing “to be all things to all people.” This model requires massive staff, organization, facilities, and of course, money. Both approaches seem to work. Big and small churches are healthy and growing, while at the same time, midsize and neighborhood congregations are disappearing. Incidentally, reports are that . . . 80 percent of Southern Baptists attend churches with more than 1000 in worship each Sunday, about 7 percent of the 45,727 congregations in our denomination.[3]

2. Institutional Internalization. The mission of the church has been lost. For a vast majority of churches, the overwhelming goal of the local congregations seems to be “preservation of the institution,” rather than the “pursuit of the mission.” The energy and resources of the churches have been increasingly directed to staying alive or preserving status quo. In the last 50 years the number of churches has increased by 50 percent while the number of baptisms has plateaued or declined.[4] Church splits and starts seemed to have weakened congregations as the evangelistic zeal has faded.

3. Crisis in the Clergy. There are three sub-trends in most clergy issues.

A. Moral and Ethical Failures. The integrity of pastors, staff, and denominational leaders has eroded with each new scandal in the local or national news. People desire to trust and believe their pastors, but it becomes a challenge with the growing number of moral and ethical failures.

B. Theologians vs. Leaders. I see a growing desire for pastors to be strong theologians rather than strong leaders. I have discovered that you can educate a leader, but you cannot always develop a leader from an educated person. Our Seminaries are producing a great number of excellent theologians who unfortunately do not understand how to direct a local congregation toward spiritual health and vitality.

C. Competence vs. Expectations. Local congregations want pastors like Adrian Rogers, who can evangelize like Billy Graham, who are on call 24 hours a day, and are able to lead the church into dynamic health without changing anything. Pastors can not realistically achieve what most churches believe they want.

4. Dropout, Disillusioned, and Disengaged Christians. I personally know hundreds of people who have withdrawn from the church. Their reasons vary from change, fatigue, irrelevance of sermons, worship wars, group life issues, and spiritual complacency to name a few. Whatever the reason, I see a growing number of people who profess to be committed Christians, but find their church life increasingly unfulfilled. They want to follow Christ personally, but have chosen other options like staying home, starting house churches, and church hopping.

5. Search for the Supernatural. Libraries, book stores, and the internet are experiencing phenomenal growth in topics about the spiritual and supernatural. People are searching to discover meaning and purpose. They desire to find a life that transcends the ordinary ones they live, but rather than engaging a culture and society that is hungry for truth and spiritual realities, the Church is absent and silent. Now is the time to speak to the metaphysical and epistemological vacuum that is evident.

The next five trends will be listed in a forthcoming article .…

[1] Oliver Libaw, “More Americans flock to Mega Churches,” [online]; available at http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93111&page=3; accessed 21 September 2011; Ed Setzer, “Mega Churches keep Growing,” [online]; available at http://www.edstetzer.com/2010/11/megachurches-keep-on-growing.html; accessed 22 November 2011.

[2] Chris W. Tornquist and John B. Aker, “The Shadow of a Megachurch,” [online]; available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/1990/fall/90l4094.html?start=5; accessed 15 September 2011.

[3] Russ Rankin, “Southern Baptists decline in baptisms, membership, attendance” June 09, 2011; available at http://www.lifeway.com/Article/Southern-baptists-decline-in-baptisms-membership-attendance; accessed 21 September 2011.

[4] Bill Day, Leavell Center for Church Growth, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

This article was originally posted in the Pursuing Ministry Excellence blog, and is reposted here by permission of the author.

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Steve Schenewerk

As a veteran, older, pastor (having served 30+ yrs in the Northwest Baptist Convention, and a graduate of Golden Gate and Southern) I am curious about the relationship between number 1 and 2. The church I currently serve is struggling in exactly this area. I am trying to lead but was not educated as leader. My MDiv training- at Golden Gate was academically weak and focused on program implementation. My DMin at Southern focused on leadership and academic work. Any leadership skills I have I have had to develop on my own and by being thrown into circumstances that demand leadership (city, county, and even state issues have caught my attention recently). All that to say, I am intrigued by your trends and am waiting to see the next five.


Very interesting stuff…thanks.

Your comment ” Local congregations want pastors like Adrian Rogers, who can evangelize like Billy Graham, who are on call 24 hours a day, and are able to lead the church into dynamic health without changing anything. Pastors can not realistically achieve what most churches believe they want” is very, very insightful



It is significant that trends indicate that most worshipers wish to attend a larger church. For generations we focused on starting new churches- many who never achieved a level of supporting a staff needed to continue the growth cycle.

Have you surveyed the trend of churches choosing to consolidate? Even if larger churches consolidated with smaller churches as satellites –overhead would be reduced, sharing of staff, training and leadership would benefit all. Additionally it would provide the larger congregation an opportunity to move from the pew into the smaller congregation providing the skill set often missing in the smaller church.

    Randy Stone

    Thanks for reading my article. A study of “church consolidation” would be an interesting endeavor. My observation is that most churches would rather die hanging on to what they have rather than surrender control to another church or organization. Perhaps someone will take the challenge to find out for certain.
    R Stone

      Tim Rogers

      Dr. Stone,

      Not trying to be picky, but you have a date in your footnotes that may call for your attention. You show in footnote #1 that you accessed the online information 22 November 2011. Either I am Rip Van Winkle still asleep or this date is a typo. Could you help a brother out? :)

      Great article. I especially enjoyed Part 2.


Alan Cross


Thanks for these two articles. I agree with what you have said here. We are seeing consolidation in churches in the SBC informally for sure, if not formally. People are leaving smaller and mid-sized churches in droves and are attaching themselves to large churches. That is the consolidation I see. In ten years, cities of 150,000-300,000 people in the South are going to see 10 or less churches in them, with a smattering of small congregations. And, we are going to call it success because we have more “big” churches than we used to who are doing “big” things for the gospel. I think that it is a major step back for the Body of Christ, however, but few seem to be sounding the alarm.

But, I am interested in this quote: “80 percent of Southern Baptists attend churches with more than 1000 in worship each Sunday, about 7 percent of the 45,727 congregations in our denomination.” I followed the link but did not see this statistic. Do you have this anywhere? Where is this from? If this is true, we are in major trouble, in my opinion.

Randy Stone

We are seeing similar types of consolation in almost every faction of our society. Just this week…Realignment of NCAA football teams, little Banks being swallowed by the bigger ones, regional schools supplanting neighborhood schools, county hospitals turning into regional medical centers and urgent care, mom and pop stores going out of business being replaced by super markets and convenience stores.
We do have to decide how we will not only survive but thrive in the coming decades.
R Stone

Brian Prucey


Thanks for your insights, most of which reflect my own. I would add under your #3, Crisis in Clergy, a reference to short clergy tenure (which perhaps is a reflection of your other sub points). Perhaps Forced Termination vs. Mediation. My NOBTS D.Min. project studied this phenomenon and showed that the average pastorate lasts about 3 years. A 2008 article by David Roach for SBCLife.net quoted Thom Rainer as stating that the average pastorate is a little over 2 years (http://www.sbclife.net/Articles/2008/02/SLA10.asp). My research showed that the vast majority of dismissals were not as a result of moral failure, but conflict with a small group within the church over mission, vision or direction. It is nigh unto impossible for any pastor to lead a church toward any meaningful mission in such an unstable environment.

Matsy Moxie

Reasons Churches are shrinking:

1. Spheres of both hope of influencing others and being influence have gone from neighborhood to

global. It is not just congretation members, that are lured by the bright lights elsewhere. In the

90s, pastors were told they were not successful unless they, grew to congregation (physically, not

spiritually), wrote the book, got the mega salary and the weekly telecast to millions). As a result,

many gave up spiritual growth of their congregation for physical growth because it was easier to

measure. In smaller spheres of influence, they focused on their community and the community on

their care.

2. The speed of #1 above is 100s of times faster. Thank computing, database measures of

performance, and instant judgements by others not allowing pastors time to mature their ministries.

3. The politicizing of religion, taking “positions” in the press, and generally being an equal

opportunity offender on issues that are really generational opinions rather than biblical principles.

Would you tell your friend Christ will accept you as you are, when it seems their deciples will not?

4. The level of distraction is infinitely larger and populations have a shorter attention span. They are

physically, financially and psychologically exhausted by the time they get to church, so pastors have

to be succinct in their sermons.

6. The continued lack of acknowledgement of the schedules of working women. (most women

programs at church are timed for stay at home moms and the retired). Im not stating a philosophy,

but a scheduling issue. I dont think the church puts them down, they just dont consider and attend

to their needs.

7. If members feel they have influence in the process, they tend to get involved; if they dont, they

seek to be entertained by the staff or they leave. In recent history, churches shifted from church

member votes to “elders” usually recommended by the pastor. This provides organization and

pastor stability, but removes new incoming energy as needs change and they are soon out of touch

with the congregation.

The good news is that at the heart of people worldwide, their basic spiritual needs still are the same.

1. While congregations are initially infatuated with the pastor with the degree, the best selling book,

and the pop-success philosophy (and I still listen to their TV show for life’s encouragement), we still

need and want a community shepherd for the long-term. Psychology with your theology helps, but

listening, directing those in need to community resources, and visiting your congregation as well as

organizing others that can help you still counts more than most all else.

2. If you show you care about their concerns with action as well as kind words is the path to a

believers spiritual heart.

3. 1 part legalism, 3 empathy, 5 parts exhortation and encouragement is the right formula for any

sermon from the pulpit. Most of the ones I hear today are the inverse.

4. People really dont need as much political guidance on who to vote for, as much as they need

guidance on how to respond to that boss at work that wants them to lie on that report, that will save

the layoff of 30 of their neighbors. (i.e. the difficult ethical questions).

5. For the majority of lay members, Sunday morning is the only time they have to concentrate on

their own morality, ethics, etc. Many of theme are exhausted in the pew, so be succinict.

6. They need to people to care and to be involved in caring for others. If a church does not have a

volunteer coordinator, it is not seeking the involvement of their members.

7. I have seen an increasing need to meet the program requirements of the SBC programs at the

sacrifice of ministering to the individual congregation by the local pastor. — they should change this!

The checklist is not as important as peoples needs being met!

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