40 Years of Church Trends: Part 3

These posts are based on an article by Philip Jenkins “12 Trends That Shaped U.S. Religion Since the ’70s.” Read the full article and then return here for the Church of Christ and my personal slant.

7. Global awareness.

Since the end of WWII, the American church, including the Churches of Christ, initiated a new age of foreign missions. The invention of commercial air travel and the global influence of the United States made travel cheaper and faster and opened doors to American missionaries across the globe. I can’t verify the numbers, but I suspect there are more Church of Christ members outside the US than inside today.

More recently, the influence of Americanism has declined but travel and communication have become easier and cheaper. On the other hand, major mission points are becoming more hostile to American missionaries, especially in Russia and India.

The fall of the Iron Curtain has opened up other areas that were once very difficult to get to. But Islamic extremism makes mission work life threatening in some areas.

Meanwhile, the universities are studying mission efforts to develop best practices to give the missionaries a better chance at being effective, and these studies are revolutionizing how mission work is done in many areas.

And just as much of the world is becoming anti-American, the mission work of prior generations has brought about a generation of native missionaries, so that mission work is no longer necessarily Americans teaching non-Americans. Some churches planted in the 1950s have had multiple generations of their own elders and preachers and are sending out their own missionaries.

On the other hand, American support for foreign missionaries is being severely undercut by a preference for short-term missions by teenagers and college students, often designed primarily with the Americans in mind. That is, the “mission” is considered successful if the Americans learn about foreign poverty and gain a new appreciation for their standard of living, even if no converts are made and little good is done for the people in the nation visited. (This is, of course, not always true.)

8. The vanishing mainline.

The old European denominations are in precipitous decline. Their members seem to largely be transferring to more conservative churches, typically non-denominational community churches. Some have congregations that are as conservative as any evangelical church, but the overall trend is theologically liberal (even denying the resurrection), downward, and continuing so.

However, Christianity as a whole is holding its own in the US, with community and Pentecostal churches especially enjoying rapid growth.

9. The return of tradition.

Traditional and conservative religious forms have grown massively, and in many cases became the mainstream. This is true of evangelical and charismatic Christians, and of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. In both cases, demography accounts for part of the story, but not all.

Orthodoxy is becoming less Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox and more generic or even American Orthodox and so is less tied to immigrant communities. As a result, the Orthodox are finding receptive believers outside their historic immigrant constituencies. Many believers enjoy feeling connected with ancient practices. For similar reasons, many evangelical Protestants are joining conservative Anglican/Episcopalian churches.

“High church” ritual is gaining ground, but not universally. The low-church Pentecostals and evangelicals are enjoying growth as well. The best conclusion is that even though believers increasingly care little about denominational affiliation, different people find different expressions of Christianity preferable. The overall trend is that people have differing needs and tastes, and one size does not fit all. And those who join, say, an Orthodox church likely do not consider the Orthodox as the only saved believers. To them, it’s simply one style of worship among many that God approves. We are united by faith in Jesus, not a common worship style or creedbook.

10. The politics of God.

In the mid-1970s, cross-faith alliances like the Moral Majority and the Religious Right were barely imaginable, but both enjoyed huge power in their day. Arguably, the heyday of conservative religious politics has passed, but on specific issues, it might easily return.

One positive consequence of the “culture wars” has been a radical change in interdenominational attitudes, especially when set against long American precedent.

From the 1970s, conservative Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and Jews found they had common cause on many basic political issues, and that de facto alliance promoted the ongoing quest for cultural and theological common ground.

I did not know that. I did know that a few years ago, many Alabama churches crossed denominational lines to defeat a lottery proposal as taking unfair advantage of the poor. It was unprecedented in this state, but led to no further cooperative efforts that I’ve seen. Old habits are hard to break.

The involvement of the Alabama churches in politics has largely been a net negative, associating white churches with the Republican Party and black churches with the Democratic Party, and neither group making the least effort to find common ground, even on matters they agree on. Each group serves its political masters in search of power. That is, given a choice between biblical truth and supporting the party platform, both groups will support the party platform because a failure to do so means risking the loss of political power. (And Jesus is all about worldly power, right? </sarcasm font>)

11. The age of the megachurch.

A “megachurch” is a church of 2,000 or more members. And there are more megachurches every year. Despite criticisms of particular congregations, on the whole, megachurches measure as well as smaller churches, if not better, in terms of how effectively they disciple their members and evangelize the lost.

And in the age of superstores in a highly capitalistic country, many people like the advantages of a large church — the higher quality of worship music, excellent sermons, well-run small groups, etc. And most megachurches aren’t shy about requiring members to volunteer and be active. In fact, in some studies, megachurches do better than smaller churches in terms of members who volunteer for active participation in the work of the congregation.

They’re not for everyone, but much of the growth of Christianity in the US is being generated by megachurches — and much of that growth is evangelistic growth.

Again, there are plenty of big churches that can be fairly criticized for many things — which is also true of smaller churches. But as a whole, they stand up well to scrutiny. In fact, they are beginning to replace denominations as drivers of innovation and programming. Many congregations have been more influenced by Saddleback or Willow Creek than their entire denominational structure. For example, Saddleback created the Celebrate Recovery ministry that has been adopted by countless congregations across the country. I know of no similar ministry that came from a traditional denominational structure.

12. Language.

So much of today’s familiar church-speak would need a lot of explanation to our visitor from the past. Look at a typical mission statement or bulletin, and see how many words or phrases might fall into that category. Inclusiveness, yes – but what else?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to 40 Years of Church Trends: Part 3

  1. John says:

    “The overall trend is that people have differing needs and tastes, and one size does not fit all.”

    That’s the key statement for what’s happening now. And that being so, I believe that the Church of Christ can remain a cappella and still be a positive draw, that is if it’s taken out of its 2 songs, a prayer and a song context, as well as adopting a more spiritual and beautiful song list. The problem is not a cappella itself…its the dry way the singing is often performed as a duty. Though I doubt it will ever happen, I still believe that getting away from a visible song director directing time and having the hymns started from the pew brings more of a spiritual warmth and mystique. But that’s just me.

  2. John says:

    Just a little note to my comment above. When I think of the beautiful hymn, Nearer My God To Thee, a song director is totally distracting…all I desire is the prayer of the hymn.

  3. Dwight says:

    John, I would add to that, getting away from the pews to chairs that can be shaped into a circle for singing.

  4. Jay F Guin says:


    I find that a song leader with a praise team of 8 practiced voices can do wonders for an a cappella song service. The impact is dramatic when done well. It also creates opportunities for “special music,” such as solos or a soprano descant sung over the four-part harmony. I’ve heard some truly beautiful, moving arrangements — and some that made me want to crawl under my chair. And they can lead without a song leader once the congregation gets used to singing without someone waving his arm in 4/4 time.

    In fact, I personally prefer a well-led a cappella service with a well-rehearsed praise team more than an instrumental service, but both are better than the slow, dutiful, mournful song leading so often imposed on the church. Even the best song leaders can’t lead as well as a praise team.

  5. Mark says:

    I have heard some beautiful a capella singing even in churches with pipe organs. The psalms can all be sung to various settings. It just takes practice and someone with musical talent to make the selection. Also necessary is no opposition to said music.

  6. Dwight says:

    Some of the best singing I have heard is gathered around a camp-fire, not because it was exceptionally beautiful in sound, but because it was spontaneous worship. Well-rehearsed, praise teams are over rated, simply because they are often professional sounding and not very organic, which is probably why I like less instrumental involvement…not that there is anything wrong with IM.
    One thing I would like to see is some investment in singing of the Psalms as a Hebrew would have sung them or in another form, after all the words are inspired.

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