Top 10 Church Trends

I am in the process of updating content on the PRISM website and have been researching church trends. The following are my top 10 picks to pay close attention to in these interesting days…

1. Attendance: The average number of people at U.S. Protestant church services has been declining: 1992:102, 1997:100, 1998:95, 1999:90, 2000:90, 2003:89.[1]

2. 68 million 10-35 year-olds are not believers and basically see the Church as meaningless and irrelevant. This is the emergence of the largest generational mission field in over a century. According to research, there are 80 million comprising the “Millennial Generation” (those born between the mid-70’s and early 2000’s). Estimates are that only 15% are Christian. The dominant attitude of this huge generation toward Christianity will be largely indifferent. Only 13% of the Millennials rank any type of spiritual matter as important to their lives. They are not angry at churches and Christians. They simply ignore us because they do not deem us as meaningful or relevant.[2]

3. “Moralistic therapeutic deism.” Having said the above, religion matters to many American teenagers. However, what most American teenagers call faith has been dubbed, “moralistic therapeutic deism, an interpersonal riff on American civil religion that tends to masquerade as Christianity but bears few similarities to the historic teachings of the Christian church and is mostly used to lubricate relationships.”[3]

4. Baby Boomers have tried it “all” and found no joy. The large Boomer generation may become more receptive to the gospel. This trend may counter other trends where adults tend to become less receptive to the gospel as they age.[4]

5. Family will be a key value for both Millennials and Boomers. For the Millennials, family is their most important value. Nearly 80% ranked family as the important issue in their lives. They said they had healthy relationships with their parents who, for the most part, are Boomers. Some churches say they are family friendly, but few actually demonstrate that value. Churches that reach both of these generations will make significant changes to become the type of churches that foster healthy family relationships.[5]

6. Neo-Calvinism, a cousin to the Reformation’s Lutheranism, is making a comeback – where glorifying God fulfills our satisfaction and purpose. In the 1700’s, Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards promoted (his adaptation of) Calvinism, yet in the U.S. it was soon overtaken by movements like Methodism that were more impressed with human will. Evangelicalism suffered a loss of appetite for rigid doctrine – and the triumph of a friendlier, yet fuzzier Jesus.[6]

7. Missional and multi-site. The church of the 21st century will focus on reaching an area for Christ, instead of building a particular church. This makes the size and sometimes the location of a church irrelevant. Because of the changing zoning laws and the cost of construction, churches have more than one location and meet in buildings once used for something else. Stained glass windows, steeples, and pews are shifting from trends to fads.[7]

8. American Christians are biblically illiterate. Although most of them contend that the Bible contains truth and is worth knowing, and most of them argue that they know all of the relevant truths and principles, yet research shows otherwise. And the trend line is frightening: the younger a person is, the less they understand about the Christian faith.[8]

9. Conversion growth will replace transfer growth. Churches with a missional mindset will develop ministries for unchurched people rather than for people who grew up within a churched culture.[9]

10. Moving away from the “bell curve” toward the “well curve.” A Len Sweetism meaning the population is gravitating toward the ends or extremes and is lowest in the middle (the reverse of a bell curve). The well curve helps describe a number of church trends: how the church is moving theologically liberal and conservative, with the disappearance of the moderate; how churchgoers increasingly prefer megachurches and microchurches, but not mid-sized congregations; and how the church is both growing and losing prominence within the larger society. On the local church level, pastors and other church leaders need to pay attention to the well curve for another important reason: it describes how churchgoers participate in the life of a given congregation.[10]


[1] Barna, 2003.

[2] Based on research from LifeWay.

[3] Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell (Oxford University Press: 2009)

[4] Based on research from LifeWay.

[5] Based on research from LifeWay.

[6] Time Magazine – 10 Ideas Changing the World (March 12, 2009)

[7] Bill Easum, 2004.

[8] Barna, 2005.

[9] Bill Easum, 2004.

[10] Leadership Journal, July 2007.

The Question of Orthodoxy

I found this to be an interesting depiction of the various components of Christian orthodoxy in the 21st century (of course everyone THINKS they’re orthodox!). I came across this recently in  a post by C. Michael Patton.

Why the labels? I find it very worthwhile to categorize (even if we don’t get it exactly right). Theology – and defining (and re-defining) orthodoxy –  are important. Having said that, no one is going to arrive at the pearly gates having gotten it right. Therefore it’s important to take theology and orthodoxy seriously, but not ourselves…

So, what is orthodoxy?

Patton says this: Historic Christian orthodoxy refers to the sine qua non (the “without which not”) of Christian belief. This belief is held, to paraphrase Augustine, “by all Christians, of all time, everywhere.” In other words, it is not limited to time or geographical region. Therefore, it would be found very early in some sort of articulated fashion, though not necessarily in formal document, in the early church.

Historic orthodoxy did take a few centuries to articulate in thought and word. It is unthinkable that in the first few centuries Christians would have developed in their understanding beyond a seed form of the basics below. They were too busy trying to stay alive, legitimize themselves to hostile Jews and Romans,  and encourage the local congregations. These basics were handed down in tradition (the regula fide) and Scripture.

Doctrines developed in understanding, people began to part ways in their interpretation of these doctrines. Traditional orthodoxy takes time to develop since it comes primarily as a result of controversy and challenge. There is a Catholic orthodoxy, Protestant/Evangelical orthodoxy, and Eastern Orthodoxy traditional orthodoxy.

Historic Protestant/Evangelical Orthodoxy

  • Deity of Christ
  • Doctrine of the Trinity
  • The Sovereignty of God
  • The historicity of physical death, burial, and resurrection of Christ
  • Hypostatic Union (Christ is fully God and fully man)
  • The sinfulness of man in corrupt nature, imputed guilt, and personal sinfulness
  • The necessity of the vicarious substitutionary atonement on the cross
  • Salvation through grace alone by faith alone on the basis of Christ alone
  • The reality of the body of Christ (the catholic [universal] Church)
  • The authority of the visible local bod[ies] of Christ
  • The infallible, inerrant inspiration of Scripture alone with final authority on all matters of faith.
  • The canon of Scripture made up of the Old (39 books) and New (27 books) Testaments
  • The future second coming

My own studies have led me to believe that we need to critique both modernity (wherein much of current protestant and evangelical orthodoxy was forged) and postmodernity (where much of emergent theology is being forged). (Check out a good article on the differences here.) My thoughts are that we are to be conservative in our theology (that is to conserve the essential elements of orthodox Christianity) and (be) liberal in our practice of that theology. For me that means we are to contextualize the gospel appropriately and actually live out the good news (instead of just talking about it).

I’ve just started reading GK Chesterton‘s Orthodoxy at the gym (it’s free on Kindle). It’s about 100 years old and it speaks fairly specifically to the modern/postmodern dilemma. Chesterton speaks to the “twin insanities of hyper-rationalism and hyper-emotivism.” Matthew Lee Anderson in a blog at First Thoughts says, “Chesterton’s poetic-prose articulates a vision of Christianity that is as artistic as it is analytic, and as such is a more effective antidote to the prevailing post-modern sensibilities than any other book I have found.”

Anderson goes on to say, Chesterson “artistically defends the existence of the truth and grounds Christianity in the pre-rational experience of story without jeopardizing truth’s existence or fallaciously opposing reason and emotion…In sum, [Orthodoxy] remains the single most effective articulation of a Christianity that is intellectually robust, artistically engaged, spiritually sensitive…”