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


  1. Allen Calkins says

    Thom, One that I would add is ‘From stylish to casual.’ A decade ago the tie was already on the way out in most churches and dresses were not considered necessary for women. But church attenders were still expected to ‘look nice’ in a business casual sort of way. Today, the pastor may be the only one that consistently meets the ‘business casual’ standard of attire consistently. Unfortunately, the more casual attire also seems to affect how people act at church. It is no longer taboo to come late, leave early, slouch or sip on a bottle of water in church. Church behavior standards are much closer now to those of people who go to a movie or attend a ball game. I do not mind casual attire. But I do not like some of the casual behavior that seems to accompany it.

    • Tim Jr says

      “slouch or sip on a bottle of water in church”.

      The nerve of a person like that with the motivation to get up on Sunday morning, skip the early ball games or other activities that usually try to overshadow church, and then have the gall to invade a church and become a proverbial stumbling block by… slouching??… Or even worse, bringing a drink with them!

      “Fortunately”, we have the remedy in ‘guards on the watchtower’ who, when in the service, make sure their attention is on observing others’ “too casual for Jesus” habits so they can show that righteous indignation God so cherishes, staving off His wrath with a premeditated glare to let Jesus know there’s at least one member in the building who takes Biblical dress code seriously.

      Ok, all that aside, and in all seriousness, twenty years from now we may be relieved if we can even *go* to a *real* church without fear of reprisal or persecution, instead of worrying about preconceptions of what a ‘good’ church attender needs to look and act like.

      • Steven Menteer says

        What if I told you that worshipping at church wasn’t about you. That it isn’t about your style, your comfort, or your sense of identity, but about God. And since it is about God His character deserves more than casual.

        • RJW says

          True It all about Him and His name. However that being said He look more at the Heart of worship than the dress code. He Look at the Heart fully dedicated to Him.

          • Steven Menteer says

            But can you really say that a heart concerned with its own comfort is dedicated to God?

        • says

          I think God is more concerned with our hearts than our garments. Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart – and only He knows the true condition of a person’s heart! As far as His character is concerned, it demands my total surrender to Him which may or may not be seen in my attire. Much of how we dress depends on our personal convictions: in my church, some feel best prepared for worship by dressing in suite and tie. Others feel their style of dress is not so important to their expression of worship. The lead pastor (me) usually wears blue jeans and a sports shirt. I even wear a cammo shirt from time to time (our church is located in rural Montana). We’ve decided to have grace towards one another. Our only dress code is that we must dress modestly – no revealing clothing, for example.

      • Ralph says

        You are, in my estimate, too harsh in criticizing Allen’s reference to slouching and sipping on water. These things are still taboo in my part of the country (South). His point was that we can easily become too casual and too removed from holiness.

    • Ken says

      I think we have to be careful about what we define as “casual attire”. Today’s attire is getting so “casual” that it borders on indecency. This is true of both men and women. I get the fact that coats and ties are no longer in vogue, and I’m okay with that. However, I’m disturbed by the dress I see among worship leaders at state and national meetings. Many of them look downright slovenly. What’s next? Droopy britches and exposed underwear?

    • raswhiting says

      I do not understand how sipping a bottle of water is disrespectful of God or of other people. I recently was unable to join in singing the final hymn because my mouth and throat were dry; this church has forced hot air heating and it was a dry, cold day outside. So the next week I brought a water bottle. You seem to desire to set a rule against this. Water bottles are common in meetings in my business (a bank) and this is not a sign of disrespect to the bank’s leadership. Please stop setting your preferences as rules or judging people by your preferences.

    • Hayden Hendrix says

      Also, the passion and practice of reaching those without Christ has been replaced with events to reach the community. I would even dare say that the church in the U.S. are more inward focused. If the lost come great but if not then that’s just too bad. Maybe 10% of people I have led over 20 years of ministry have even attemoted to share Christ 1 on 1. They invite people to church and that is extent of personal evangelism.

    • George B. A. Fountain says

      Thanks Allen… well said. I grow increasingly concerned with this conduct and cannot help but wonder what attitude is being expressed, how will it impact the ministry of the church, and how to be of helpful not hurtful influence.

  2. Bob Ward says

    Great article and it has helped my awareness of changes that have occurred in churches I have been a member of in my career. It seems that what we see demonstrated for us gets style adjusted and mirrored back home. How close we remain to preaching the Gospel and reaching others around us enables preferences in presentation and style to continue and accelerate our Great Commission efforts. I am sad when I see the message and outreach of the Gospel diminished, I am so glad for any effort to win others for Christ as a result of sheep in service. I am a church member! I am looking forward to learning more.
    Bob Ward

  3. Heartspeak says

    With all due respect coupled with some sadness, may I kindly suggest you re-read James 2:1-13. This ‘dress code’ issue is nothing new. Apparently such concerns were a terrible problem in the 1st century where various folk thought clothing was some sort of indicator of the ‘state’ of the attendees.

    • steve says

      Agreed – in that time and place in history there were many who were poor and they had no clothing. This is another time and place. I pray that if with all the blessings we have received in this great country that should any brother or sister in Christ who sees someone without basic needs that we would step up to the plate and bless them according to our God given ability. I do not pretend to speak for my brother Allen, but I do share his concern for such a casual treatment of our most Holy God.

      If a woman dresses provocatively to come to church should we remain silent. When a man with great wealth dresses down to come to church what say ye? I believe Allen has a valid point. James wrote about the injustice leveled against the poor. It was a stigma that accompanied poverty. Jesus is concerned about the heart, just as you pointed out. Therefore, do not lament over a clothing comment tied to a concern over “casual” attitudes toward an awesome Holy God. I know at the church I attend the number of jeans wearing, coffee yielding, late arriving, so called members who come be-bopping in during the middle of prayer is on the rise and that is a sin.

      Dress code = law and I do not believe anyone is talking about a dress code. I believe we are discussing reverence. What happened to Sunday best? State of mind, heart, and soul, in America, can be traced to dress. Few dress down for a job interview.

      Thanks and have a Christ filled day.

      • the revenant says

        Thank you for voicing these concerns, Steve (also Allen and Thom). I very much enjoyed reading your posts. If you would allow me, I would like to raise a few concerns myself, in hope that you might further address them (it is not my goal to be argumentative, but rather to glean as much insight as I can from my fellow Christian brothers and sisters)

        1. As a 30 year old man who attends a relatively ‘casual-dress’ church, I am quite concerned with the correlation you raise between attire and reverence. This concerns me because, quite honestly, many in our congregation can not afford a suit (or even a pair of khakis and a few button-downs for that matter). Will our congregation (and people off the street who are debating whether or not to walk in the door) be intimidated by the silent implication that a certain degree of fancy dress is required for acceptance? The other worry in my heart is the fact that this thinking could possibly have Pharisaical overtones. How many times in the Bible are we reminded that it isn’t our outward actions, but rather the condition of our hearts that is important? I truly believe that the LORD deserves our utmost (as a previous poster implied), but at what point does it stop being for the LORD and start being for the respect of those around me? Does the LORD want me in a three piece suit or does he just want ME, and everything that I am? I say this in defense of so many of my brothers and sisters who have nothing but the utmost reverence for our LORD and his bride, the Church, and who arrive to worship in something less than formal dress. You noted that few dress down for a job interview. This is very true. I would submit that this is due an expectation set by the hiring party. Does the LORD have similar expectations? The LORD no longer dwells in the temple, but rather, through the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those who are called by his name. I would submit that every moment of our lives is holy and consecrated, not just a church sanctuary where a weekly service is held. Every moment, every thought, every action is spiritual. Yet, I don’t believe you would have me wear a suit and tie 24 hours a day. I do understand that Sunday worship is a VERY special time, set aside for believers to come together to worship and learn, but is my attire really having an effect on my interaction with the LORD? What about during weekly bible studies? Sunday night service? Worship band practice? So…that’s piece one…the correlation between attire and reverence. I apologize if this is incoherent and babbly…I just want to make sure I get all my questions out, so that you and other brothers and sisters can address everything on my heart.
        2.Should we remain silent when a woman dresses provocatively at church (A question raised by Steve)? I appreciate you brining this up. I think it is absolutely the job of the church to rightly judge the brethren. I think someone who has examined their own life for similar planks should approach the woman alone, then with one or two others, etc. This is of course if the woman is a believer. If a woman were to come into the church rather provocatively dressed who was not a Christian…I would think that the situation would be much more delicate, as our duty to judge rightly (may?) no longer apply.
        3. When a man of great wealth dresses down to come to church, what say ye (a question raised by Steve)? I see the rich man dressing down on Sundays to be not unlike the man who shuts himself in his closet to pray. If anything I would be honored to worship with such a man.

        Thank you all in advance for your considered, prayerful responses. It has been a pleasure reading what you have had to say thus far!


        • steve says

          Does God expect our best? Is there joy in obedience to God? How do we glorify God with our lives? Can I do all things through Christ Jesus?

          1st I’m certainly not addressing non-Christians who visit our churches. By the power of the Spirit of Christ we meet them right where they are. And, bless you for your willingness to do just that.

          Romans 12 says we should present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is our spiritual worship. We are told not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. And, you are so correct we need to remove the log from our eye so that we do not think more highly of ourselves than we should. We want to show family affection to one another.

          We humbly seek to be the best at what God has made us for. In times of antiquity the Jews were condemned for not offering their best sacrifices. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.” Jesus demands nothing less than your best. And, Jesus says, “Teach them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” You are so correct that in worship we want to be united in Christ, regardless of attire. So the question is not as much about attire as it is about what the attire represents. Does it represent a heart with all reverence and sincerity?

          It is interesting to observe what some wear at Christmas and at Easter. Why do so many dress formally on those occasions? Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath and we walk with Him every day are we giving Him our best every day?

          Holiness and true worship to God is a privilege and when a person with T-shirt and jeans is holy true in worship God is pleased. So the discussion is not directed at any one individual. I blieve the discussion is about trends in our culture. Casual Friday is becoming casual every day.  I like it, but the question is whether we bring a casual attitude into worship along with that casual dress. This requires a lot of discernment. Discernment requires much prayer and humility and a lot of time in front of the mirror.

          Thanks for the respectful conversation, which by the power of the Spirit and God’s Word, we all might grow closer to Christ Jesus.

          • Mike Driskill says

            But where does it stop? The “dressing nice” is culturally defined, it’s an abstract concept at best. Who’s to say that in order to dress our best, we have to show up in tuxedos?

            Jesus owned nothing but the clothes on his back, but yet went into the temple. I doubt they were dress clothes.

            Now, of course, as Christians we are to transcend culture. However, if someone’s sincerely coming to church and their time at church is a normal extension of the day to day worship and sacrificial living that they do throughout the week, that’s what most important. There’s many people going to liberal churches denying the deity of Christ (for example) that dress in a suit and tie–is God honored by that?

            Are the members of the underground church in China or the Middle East or Russia or Africa not honoring God by not dressing up?

            I’m not suggesting dress is unimportant. And dress should always be modest, not only in church, but the the rest of the week as well. The offense shouldn’t be that someone came to church dressed immodestly, it should be that someone who claims to follow Christ dresses that way at all.

            However, there’s no clear Scriptural indication that dress for the layman should be any different at church than at any other time. It’s manmade standards that dictate dress.

            “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Psalm 51:17

            We should ask for modest dress and otherwise be focused on people sincerely following Christ. The Holy Spirit will deal with the rest, including dress at worship, in His time with each individual believer.

          • the revenant says

            Thank you, Steve, for such a prompt reply! It is very apparent that your responses are carefully and prayerfully considered. I am grateful for this. I appreciate your comments about discernment. I believe that you are absolutely correct. I pray that the LORD grants our Christian leadership the humility and the discernment required to keep the Bride of Christ holy in the eyes of God during these difficult days. Thank you again for your response. I will absolutely spend time reflecting on it.

      • Scott Sheppard says

        I’m wondering though, if Christians all come to church in the best clothes they have, then what happens when someone poor walks in? They feel like they are not good enough, the odd man out, and being judged. No amount of “We’re glad you’re here today” is going to change that part. What did Jesus wear to the Temple? We don’t know but since He was a homeless man, it probably wasn’t that great. What about the Pharisees and all of their beautiful garments? Didn’t that draw attention away from the Lord? I do believe that reverence is something that needs to be taught and displayed, but who gets to determine what is appropriately nice for me to wear? If I wore a suit to church every week, it might come off as showing off to some people who don’t know me. But if I wear some nice jeans and a button up plaid shirt that I like, it’s not going to attract much attention. I think we need to get away from focusing so much on the social club that some make church into. I don’t think the 1st century church was too worried about if they were drinking something at the Jerusalem council. It’s simply not a priority and should not be the determining factor of reverence.

  4. steve says

    #1 – Senior to lead is reflective of the cultural attitude toward an older generation. The 4th commandment implies otherwise. I am not saying that some younger folks are ready for leadership, I simply suggest that years of segregated Bible Fellowship (previously – Sunday School) have contributed to this attitude.

    #2 – Anti-hero sentiment reinforces self-esteem. Humanism recognizes that all men are sinful, and celebrates that fact; however, at the same time progressives refuse to look to others for truth. Maybe that’s why existentialism is so prevalent within the church walls.

    #3 – Denominations once stood for certain truth claims (doctrine). Consistent with #2, truth claims are considered dogma, as if that were a bad thing. Opera was once a Baptist, but she says they are too dogmatic. And, according to the current culture there are many ways to heave! :(

    #4 – Solo to multiple – mega-churches provide the “entitlement” generation with everything they could ever want. Day-care, wonderful music, sports activities, starbucks, exercise classes, therapy, —— better than the local country club. Maybe the church of the future will have a golf course. Entertainment requires diversity, not that there is anything wrong with alternative speakers, I believe participation is critical to the church, but continuity is important.

    #5 – are you sure? It seems to me that studies indicate mega-churches will thrive in the near future. Bankruptcies are at record levels for small churches, yet large churches are doing very well – financially. I believe the opposite is true – food trucks, 4th of July fire works, popular Christian music concerts, Christmas presentations, sports leagues, and etc. bring them to the church. It seems we are moving more and more into the building it and they will come apostasy.

    #6 – agreed.

    #7 – Absolutely – We live in an entitlement era and while we hold no one in high esteem (other than ourselves) we expect much from others.

    Thanks – I look forward to your expanded thoughts.

  5. says

    This is a good list, and I believe it is accurate. I might add to it that I think more and more small churches will be looking for a “partner” to help them navigate a rapidly changing culture. That may mean reconnecting with a denominational entity (if that entity has something of value to offer them) or connecting with some other larger group that will help them with the immediate needs that small churches have. You touch on that with #3 above, but I’m not sure small churches will follow the lead of larger churches. I think medium sized churches will be more interested in that. Thanks for all you do to help us understand how to reach our culture more effectively.

  6. Wayne Burns says

    Once we got away from Ephesians 4:11, we have had many problems. When there is more than one pastor in a church, why should anyone be surprised when problems increase? I have watched this trend since the 1980’s and it remains in my opinion a major problem. Thanks for your efforts to keep us informed and seeking anwers.

  7. says

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Rainer. It seems that many of these paradigm shifts are in line with your projections for 2014. I’m thinking of numbers three and seven in particular. Was this intentional? Number seven is entirely positive in my opinion, so it is good to see that it has shifted over recent years and that the trend will likely continue in the near future. I think “I Am a Church Member” will help continue that shift toward a biblical model of church membership.

  8. says

    One shift that I hope to see is an increase in church variety. There is no “best” model. I’m convinced God wants to use mega-churches, small churches, multi-site cburches, house churches, campus churches, street churches, etc. to reveal his wisdom and his eternal purpose.

  9. says

    I believe another big paradigm shift that is occurring is the shift from established church to church plants. Many pastors now coming out of seminary, etc. rather than dealing with an established church are taking the “less challenging” route of planting. Unfortunately many are unaware of the challenge and demand placed and so we see many failures instead of successes.

    • Mark says

      Sometimes the demands of a church plant are easier to overcome than the demands of joining an ongoing church that does not want to change and whose leaders aren’t progressive.

  10. Mark says

    In light of #3, there are many churches that do not agree with their denomination’s stance on issues. Some churches feel that for all they have accomplished, the denomination can ruin that growth with one poorly worded statement and one position on a highly charged topic.

  11. Matt says

    I think another trend is a more passive music-worship time. This is due to use of more songs that are unfamiliar to attenders. The songs, even the ones that point us to God, are less “singable” so people are satisfied with watching the performance. But where the passivity really comes into play is the lack of community prayer. People aren’t used to praying aloud in small groups. As a member of a 3,000 attender church, which draws about 6 people to meetings to pray for a new pastor, this concerns me. I’m afraid we are going to get the pastor we pray for.

  12. says

    In Sing God a Simple Song: Exploring Music in Worship for the Eighties Betty Carr Pulkingham describes how the pendulum has swung back and forth between participation music and performance music in the history of church music. In the twenty-first century the pendulum has swung in the direction of performance music. We are no longer hearing in churches not just hymns but worships songs of the type that the charismatic, Praise and Worship Movement and the Vineyard movements popularized in the 1980s and 1990s. These simple choruses and songs were accessible to most congregations. Their tunes were easily learned and memorable.

    Two things have contributed to this change. One is the professional Christian bands, their concerts, and their music videos are setting the standard for the music in contemporary worship gatherings. The other is the belief that most people are unable to sing and are embarrassed when they sing at a church’s worship gathering, especially when they compare their own singing to that of the vocalists in the band. In order to spare them the embarrassment of hearing themselves, the volume of the amplifiers is turned up so high that they do not have to hear themselves. Guests at worship gatherings are also told that they do not have to sing if they do want to. This is justified on the grounds that it makes worship gatherings more welcoming to people, especially those who do not come from a church background.

    A third contributing factor is that those attending contemporary worship gatherings are treated as consumers, not participants, as an audience, not a worshiping assembly. This may be intentional or unintentional.

    Among the results is a decline in congregational singing. Songs for worship gatherings are no longer chosen with the participation of the congregation in mind. Members of the congregations are not being given an opportunity to learn and master new songs. They are not being given an opportunity to hear their combined voices and otherwise encouraged to sing—essential steps in the process of learning how to sing and to gaining confidence in one’s singing.

    The role of members of the congregation in the music of contemporary worship gatherings has been reduced to singing along with the vocalists in the band or listening to the vocalists in the band as they might if they were watching a music video or listening to their iPod.

    Contemporary worship gatherings fall far short of New Testament standards for worship gatherings. Those who are present should singing together with one voice and each person present should contribute to the worship gathering in some way. This includes joining in song with the others present. To sing together with one voice requires bands to back away from the mike or to abandon their head sets and to turn down the volume of their amplifiers. It also requires choosing songs accessible to the congregation and taking the time to teach them to the congregation and to practice them with the congregation. They may on occasion want to lead the congregation in singing a song without accompaniment. They also need to reappraise their role. Their role is to lead and support the singing of the congregation, not to sing for the congregation.

    As for the issue of casual attire, God looks at our hearts and not outward appearance. The Council at Jerusalem set very few requirements for Gentiles who upon hearing the gospel accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Among the things that they did not require was that the new converts dress like devote Jews. At the Journey we have people attend our worship gatherings in all kind of attire. We welcome all of them. God does not require us to clean up our act before we can become Jesus followers. We become Jesus followers first and then he transforms us. God focuses on our hearts, not our outward appearance. As our hearts are transformed, our outward appearance may be transformed. Or it may not. What matters is not how we dress but how we live our lives as disciples of Jesus.

    • Scott Sheppard says

      One of the greatest things I ever heard about worship is “You can sing a lie as easily as you can say one.” If there is a guest at church who isn’t saved, they shouldn’t being singing “Amazing grace how sweetthe sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see” because they haven’t been saved and they cannot see yet. If we encourage people to sing along without any meaning, all it has come is a song they enjoy rather than a declaration of God’s work in their life.

      I am a fairly musical person. I can play a handful of instruments by ear and grew up going to churches that had hymns sung out of hymnals as well as other songs. With that said, a book with a staff of notes to sing does not help me at all. Having four different harmonies coming from a choir does not help either. Listening to the first verse and chorus of a new song and then getting into the second verse, that helps. Typical hymnals have hundreds of hymns in them and I know only maybe 50 because that is all the churches ever sing. However, I know hundreds of contemporary, worship songs because I get to know them as the church plays them for about a year and then has new songs. I still recall many from when I was a child that if I hear it, BOOM, I remember the words. It’s all about repetition and getting to know the words, understand them and sing them from your heart, not your diaphragm.

  13. says

    Thanks Pastor for your thoughts and insights! I’m not quite sure about the dress code discussion but I would like to ask a question and make a comment on one of your bullets: “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.”

    I’m surrounded by mega in Houston and have seen the attempts to make the shift you speak of. I’ve seen the blue tee shirts and the white ones…that might as well say, “I’m being missional today”. Good motive and often beautiful pure hearts! Observation: still seems that our people are not equipped to engage the culture with more than the proverbial, “will you come to my church service”. Will we see a shift where the church starts to educate and equip and inspire its congregants to engage the culture? It seems the in the world and not of the world passage has been re-translated…..have nothing to do with the world unless it changes first. Hugh Halter speaks of allowing people to belong to us without believing in Jesus; his book, the tangible kingdom. Personally, my experience in a mega baptist for years is great bible teaching…..from the pulpit to SS yet little interest shown by the masses (teaching not translating) in simply being a good neighbor to the guy across the street who might throw out a curse word or drink a beer while he’s changing the oil in his car in his driveway! Shouldn’t incarnational living translate THERE right along side the good act of cleaning up of a neighborhood across town… while sporting my blue shirt? Thank you Pastor.

  14. K Peck says

    A pastor friend of mine shared this on Facebook, so I read the article and comments. The points in the article are a worthy read. The addition of the trend related to casual dress is also quite valid. However, the large volume of comments debating the various aspects reminds me why I got out of church leadership and abhor organized religion. It is truly disappointing how much energy is wasted on the meticulous dissection of points which bring little if any value to a person’s relationship with God.

    • Renee says

      Thank you K. Peck. The haughty, judgmental comments on minutia would rival the Pharisees here, from people no doubt in church leadership in some capacity. It is no small wonder that so many people no longer “revere” pastors and distrust many in church leadership.

      I would not trust many of you around unbelievers as far as I could throw you.

  15. Dan Gmyrek says

    I grew up in the 60’s and ’70’s with very strict dress code for church. My strongest memories of going to Sunday School when I was 5 or 6 are of “dress” shorts, starched shirt, and uncomfortable clip-on-tie. I would have loved to ware something comfortable. That being said, I still prefer to don a coat and tie when I go to church. Still, there are days I’m either going on duty @ hospital after services or have just come off an overnight shift and I’m in my scrubs. I appreciate the fact that I can attend dressed as I am.

  16. John W. Carlton says

    I have noticed this in my own personal ministry having crossed denominational lines twice since 2000. The first cross was as the Minister of Music in a UMC church. At first I was only doing the music, but I stayed for 3 years and they elevated me to the Assistant to the Pastor. My preaching stayed the same except for shying away from certain Baptist doctrines such as believers’ baptism. I left UMC because I was “Not at home” there.

    I then pastored a small SBC church until 2011 when I retired due to health issues.

    I am now the interim pastor at a Free Will Baptist Church. Again my preaching has not been altered. I am much more closely aligned with them than I was at the UMC church.

    I have also begun a ministry outside the 4 walls of any church, having a church service for our emergency personnel i.e. Policemen, Sheriff’s Deputies, 911 operators, EMT’s, and firemen. I have been doing this for over a year.

    These shifts are definitely evident. Thank you for you insight and help. BTW I am taking the FWBC through your book, I AM A CHURCH MEMBER.

  17. Kevin says

    Interesting. The comments after are even more so. But what I did not see mentioned at all is relationship. Church, the true church is not about buildings, walls, dress codes, slurping or not slurping water. It is not about the style of worship, who teaches/preaches, or whether the focus in inside or out. True church is about walking out relationship, first with Jesus, (after all we ARE the bride of Christ), then with each other, and last but not least with the community around us.

    Jesus did not choose His followers, nor the people he interacted with by the way they dressed or acted. In fact, the chief criticism leveled at Him by the “establishment church” was that he hung out with publicans and sinners. They were right, although in their religiosity, they could not understand why. He did so because He loved. It was not about what they did or didn’t do, it was not about how qualified they were or what segment of society they came from. It was all about their hearts, and about the Father’s love for His children. (Remember Jesus said He did nothing except He saw it done first by the Father.)

    If we are called to be His bride, and IF we are His body and His representatives here on earth, should we be not focusing not on what people do, but what He is doing? Should we not be looking for His leading and following His prompting? Personally, I would rather belong to a group of ten on fire ragamuffins, than 100 cold, well dressed, and rich pew sitters. It’s all about the heart, not the outside.

    • Karyn says

      Good words Kevin. This past Sunday, we taught our kids a song in Bible Town Worship about how man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7. Perhaps we should sing it in adult worship as well:)

    • says

      100000 times YES!!

      I went to a legalistic christian college, what I learned there was all about rules, what type of clothing to wear, music to listen to. they taught me nothing about how to have a relationship with Christ.

      You can have a perfectly sized church with well dressed attendees who never need a sip of water after singing during worship, but if you’re not teaching people about hot to walk with God and have a deeply personal every second of every day in good and bad relationship with him….

      • Mark says

        I’ll agree with the part about legalistic college. They taught nothing about how to live, self-discipline, or anything else necessary for life. I saw bible classes as just something else to be learned. Mandatory religion (chapel) did not teach anyone anything useful.

    • Johnny M says

      Kevin, It seems to me that you also have decided how on fire for God someone is by the way they dress. The 10 ragamuffins are seen by you as on fire while the 100 well dressed, wealthy people are just pew sitters. you have already judged each persons heart. I pastor a small rural southern church (126 years old). I wear a coat and either a tie or pullover every Sunday. We have members in suits, women in dresses and others in casual dress. Never have I seen anyone look down on any else about their attire. I believe there is a holier than everyone else coming form the so called non-denominational, dress as bad as you can crowd that is just as sinful as the Suit and tie turn the nose up crowd. The command to remove the log from our eye was giving to all of us. Sorry if this seems harsh but contemporary Pharisees come in many forms.

      • Kevin says

        “Kevin, It seems to me that you also have decided how on fire for God someone is by the way they dress. The 10 ragamuffins are seen by you as on fire while the 100 well dressed, wealthy people are just pew sitters. you have already judged each persons heart. ”

        No, but rather, my point was that the clothes do not matter, the attitude of the heart does. Please reread my post more carefully:
        “Personally, I would rather belong to a group of ten on fire ragamuffins, than 100 cold, well dressed, and rich pew sitters. It’s all about the heart, not the outside.”
        I was not judging others by their dress in any way, but addressing an attitude that seems to equate spirituality etc. with dress. I am not saying that the “ragamuffins” were more spiritual, or better Christians, but that I would prefer the “On fire” believers regardless of how they dressed.

        BTW, if anyone was wondering, yes, I was very much thinking of both Rich Mullins and Brennan Manning’s book when I chose the word ragamuffin.

  18. Tracy says

    It is the attitude of the heart. Have you come to deny yourself, crucify the flesh, and worship your Holy God in Truth? For the unsaved this is not the question or expectation, but we who are saved are held to a higher accountability. Are we coming with the right intent and attitude before our Holy God? The people who sat with Jesus weren’t concerned about clothes, or as the Sermon on the Mount illustrated, food or drink, they just wanted to hear Jesus. Attitude!

  19. Bobby says

    Thom, how would you compare the topics most often preached today vs the topics most often preached when the average community church on the corner was growing? Don’t know when that actually was…40’s or 50’s maybe?

  20. Karen Villalpando says

    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.

    • Karen Villalpando says

      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.

  21. Bob Porter says

    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.

    • Kevin says

      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.

  22. says

    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.


      • the revenant says

        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!

      • says

        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.

      • says

        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.

        • Kevin says

          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.

          • says

            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–

  23. Chris says

    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!

  24. Bob Beretta says

    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.

    • Chris says


      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.

  25. Fabio says

    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

  26. says

    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.

  27. Andrew says

    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 ;).

  28. says

    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!

  29. Kenneth Park says

    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

      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,

  30. Betty Bonn says

    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,


  31. BBA says

    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

      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,


  32. Lenny says

    Ok, ok, I hear you all and you make some valid points. What if we loved God with all we have–and loved those around us the same way?

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