3 Major Paradigm Shifts and Cultural Changes for Church Leaders
We are now over three years from the outbreak of “the pandemic.” These years brought a whirlwind of economic, geopolitical, and local cultural change. The onslaught of the pandemic smashed the gas pedal to the floor on changes that had already begun (such as the increasing digitization of our lives). Political tensions, already high, reached even higher peaks. Some industries crashed while others boomed (we’re looking at you, videoconferencing). In both dramatic and subtle ways, the world we’re in now is strikingly different from the one we knew when the 2020s began.
As culture in the US has shifted, so have feelings toward the church. Several studies show that people of all ages attend church less frequently while others have left their faith altogether. At the same time, we’ve witnessed sparks of revival and more than a few newcomers. The more I talk with leaders, the church of this moment feels different for all of us, even if we can’t quite articulate how.
As a church communications consultant, I enjoy hearing what church leaders across the country are experiencing while digging into what people in their communities (inside and outside the church) are saying about and asking of the church. While reflecting on my own conversations, I regularly digest the latest reports and research from Barna, The Gospel Coalition, Alpha, Intervarsity, and others. In particular, let me commend the work of Barna’s “Spiritually Open” series and The Great Dechurching by Jim Davis and Michael Graham.
From generation to generation, the church’s calling has remained the same—to be a prophetic and beautiful witness to the beauty and the brokenness of the cultural currents of its time. In the ever-hectic pace of modern life, it’s all too easy to get caught up in that current. But when we patiently reflect on what we see unfolding, we have the chance to take note of that current, of the “water we swim in,” to notice how it has shaped (for better and worse) our modes of “doing church,” and adjust accordingly.
In my conversations with churches, three realities have risen to the top as clear open doors for the church today. As church leaders seek to shepherd people better, this includes sensitively attending to people’s real felt longings and winsomely guiding them through our time’s unique idols and adversities. Besides the potential to make a remarkable pastoral impact, these paradigm shifts constitute the groundwork for reigniting the resonance of our outreach with both the flock and the mission field.
Paradigm 1: From pep rally to sabbath
There was perhaps a moment, particularly in American church culture, when most Christians’ next step in discipleship was simply to “get in the game.” When Christian culture is mainstream (and Sunday attendance is high), many confess the creeds, but few take the radical path of genuine discipleship. In a cultural moment where Christianity is popular, perhaps it’s fitting for a pep rally style of church with a posture of energy and “things are happening here.” An enthusiastic invitation to “get in the game” may make sense. Yes, this image is oversimplified (and certainly not characteristic of the entire church). Still, it’s a not-too-exaggerated description of how Sunday gatherings have felt for some time at many churches across North America.
While pep rally Sundays may have fit well into previous cultural seasons, we now find ourselves in a different cultural moment.
No longer is the average Sunday attender assuming they’ll go to a church, simply shopping for the best Sunday “pick-me-up” in town.
No longer is the average congregant well-rested, at peace with life, and merely looking forward to a social church gathering where they’ll say hi to all their friends before going out for lunch.
(Perhaps this was never truly the case for most, but that’s another conversation.)
Today, it’s far more likely that someone walking through the doors is sleep-deprived, anxious about finances, and feeling alone. On top of this, over the past several years, even the most committed church member almost certainly had more than one good friend begin vocally belittling or over-politicizing Christianity. They’ve likely listened to critiques of the church, heard news of scandals within it, and found themselves sitting with questions they’ve never wrestled with before.
More and more, this describes the average individual walking through the church doors—especially those under 40.
Consider this person I described—it may even be you (I am often one of these people). Consider walking through the doors with that weight, those lingering questions, the simple fatigue of a tough week and perplexing season. What do you want? What do you need?
If I may be so bold, let me gently suggest this person—or, more likely, the flock—doesn’t need a pep rally, a motivational talk, or a boost of high-energy hype. Those people who just filed into pews, sleepy-eyed and distracted, may not immediately be ready to lift their hands and shout. More and more, they (myself included) simply need space to breathe. We need to remember real rest. We need a moment to pause, silence the week’s rush, and simply, gently, and honestly come alongside brothers and sisters before our Good Father.
We don’t need a show but a Sabbath.
With this in mind, how might we ask less, “How do we drum up energy or motivation?” and more, “How do we invite people into real rest? How do we help them breathe, be still, and listen? How do we invite them not to muster up energy but to intentionally, gently, bring all that’s consumed them this week authentically before God?” For so many people in our congregations, this weekend’s gathering might be the only time to do so all week.
Paradigm 2: From relevant to real
Beginning in the 1980s and reaching its height in the 90s, many of America’s largest churches owned a contemporary style and language, popularly called the seeker-sensitive movement. Under this approach, church leaders creatively explored ways of doing and talking about church that strove to be more culturally relevant to better connect with those non-committed yet curious about church, or the “seeker.” Contemporary styles of worship music, eye-catching sermon series graphics, event-heavy calendars, and intentionally accessible or “relevant” sermons are hallmarks of this approach. In time, the seeker-sensitive style shaped how many of us still do church today, and for fair reason. By many measures, this approach bore fruit.
Churches like Saddleback, Northpoint, Hillsong, Bethel, and Elevation saw massive congregations grow. Countless people encountered and responded to God’s Word, were baptized, and joined small groups.
The seeker-sensitive movement was particularly attractive for those who grew up within Christian contexts where the church felt irrelevant, overly stoic, or out of touch with the world. Contemporary worship and an accessible sermon from a witty and personable preacher with a charismatic personality were a welcome change from the somber, “holier-than-thou” atmosphere they associated with the church.
Here again, times have changed.
Particularly for Protestant millennials and those younger, the seeker-sensitive style of church is now the most familiar. The dominant negative stereotype of the Christian church has shifted from stoic to shallow. A familiar feeling about Christian churches today is not that they forget to be down to earth but that in trying too hard to be down to earth, they’ve forgotten their heavenly source.
As an effect of the media age, our present generation is hyper-sensitive to inauthentic posturing. We’ve all seen behind the curtain of catchy advertising, flashy production, and “engaging” environments. We’ve seen an oil company greenwash its branding only to cause ecological disaster soon thereafter. We’ve seen over-hyped festivals scandalously under-deliver. Closer to home, we’ve witnessed hidden corruption in the most trusted institutions, the church being no exception. Seeing all this has shaped us, significantly the younger of us. Far from winsome, creative attempts at so-called relevance are increasingly red flags—overt attempts at relevance reek of inauthenticity.
A standard critique from the modern skeptic (even the one in your pews) goes like this, “If the church truly believes what it offers is of such depth and value, why is it trying so hard to make it palatable?”
After growing up in a world saturated with sloganeering and flashy but shallow entertainment, Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha are starving for honesty and substance. If they are, in fact, the “seeker” of our time, then the once attractive seeker-sensitive style is seeker-sensitive no more.
Most people we would now call seekers prefer an unashamedly not cool church that admits Christianity is counter-cultural and is comfortable with living in the uncomfortable space. They’re not looking for an entertaining, overly-accessible new experience. In an era where Christianity is no longer the cultural norm, people exploring faith today desire a genuine, undiluted invitation to something of depth and substance. They’re not looking for the next cool thing but something different than all the contemporary fads—something more timeless and genuine. They’re looking for something transformative and know it won’t all be easy, natural, or quick.
Thirty years ago, many people left traditional, liturgical churches to join their more contemporary counterparts. Now, among millennials and those younger, we see an increasing movement from the contemporary churches of their parents back to traditional and liturgical congregations. Whenever I ask someone why they made this shift, I hear them say, “Something about my church’s production, polish, programming, or tone felt shallow. The theologically-rich hymns, the creeds that connect us with the historic church, and the reverent but unashamedly awkward-at-first liturgy where I am now just feels more in touch with something deeper, older, and richer than the trends of our time.”
Here’s the good news: the church, of every denominational stripe, has something deeper, older, and richer than cultural shifts. And the hunger of our time, from seekers and skeptics, is to embrace it—how freeing! We have opportunities to move the needle from relevant to real—and, by the way, what’s more relevant than the timeless truths of the gospel?
We don’t all have to adopt liturgically-driven, sacrament-heavy Sunday gatherings, but each of us has unique opportunities to re-embrace our counter-cultural reality. In this season ahead, let’s lean less into the supposedly attractive flash and jargon of the marketing world (this comes from a marketer, mind you). Let’s lean more into language and communal rhythms that go deeper, even when they may initially feel awkward. Let’s embrace the opportunity to make our “next steps” actual invitations into the realities of radical discipleship. In 2023, the person walking into a church for the first time genuinely searches for something of weight and significance. They don’t want an invitation to a shallow-feeling first step. They want the whole thing, the full story of what you believe and what it looks like to follow Jesus. They’re more ready than you think to participate in a service of unfamiliar prayers and liturgy. They’re not looking for entertaining but edifying, not shiny but sacred, not relevant but authentic.
From Sunday service to neighborhood outreach to next-step invitations for our members, the people of our time are not looking for a culturally relevant church but one confidently rooted in something counterculturally real.
Paradigm 3: From scholar to shepherd
Before you stop reading and send me hate mail, don’t worry. I have nothing against Biblical scholarship—quite the opposite. The nudge I hope to make here is not against biblical scholarship but simply a nudge to remember scholarship should exist in service to the role of shepherd. It shouldn’t supersede it.
Amidst the pandemic, everyone faced more time at home and indoors than ever before. Many started listening to and engaging with a new abundance of online content while stuck at home. Besides streaming Sunday service from their home church, many began streaming additional services from larger churches in town or the church of their favorite pastoral author. Many became new listeners to the Bible Project and other incredible teaching podcasts. In short, a surprise gift of the pandemic was that many Christians began engaging with more Biblical and pastoral teaching than ever before.
An unintended consequence, however, is that many began to prefer their newfound online teachers over the weekly gathering with their local church. I imagine you can think of someone in this bucket, who has mostly stopped attending church services in person, though they still listen to various sermon podcasts all the time. I confess—this is sometimes me.
But the local church gathering is more than a good lecture series.
You, the local church leader (whether that’s the role of senior pastor or administrative assistant), have something to offer that the best online teacher cannot. You can be their shepherd. You know the sheep of a particular flock and tread the same fields. While hundreds of teachers may be online with more education, polish, or charisma, they don’t have your address. They don’t stand, week after week, in front of the familiar faces of your congregation. They don’t get the face-to-face time to meet their families, learn about their jobs, and hear and see their struggles. Tim Mackie, N.T. Wright, or John Stott have probably already delivered a better teaching on Paul’s epistles than most of us could, but they could never write an epistle to your congregation. They don’t know your community. Like the epistles, a sermon can be much more than scholarly teaching. None of Paul’s letters remain in the abstract. Each comes to a point of pastoral care and guidance. Paul knows the realities of those he’s writing to and speaks directly to them, lending a particular flock attentive and unique encouragement and challenge based on their specific realities.
The rich young ruler called Jesus “Good Teacher,” but Jesus more often chose the title “Good Shepherd.” In Peter’s reinstatement and the creation of the church in John 21:15, he extends this metaphor to us:
“...Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’
‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’”
Jesus did not root his designs for the church in the gifts of a scholar but in the service of a shepherd.
Here again is good news. Because we now live in a world where incredible teachers are more accessible than ever (and individuals more fluent in finding them), the demand for a scholar is less, and the need for the shepherd is increasingly apparent. Let us hear this with relief. Sunday morning need not compete with TEDx, the Bible Project, or Tim Keller’s sermon archive. Instead, let’s re-embrace what only the local church offers: pastors as shepherds. Instead of impressive intellect, let’s re-prioritize knowing our small flock well.
As a good shepherd knows his sheep, let us re-learn our local congregation’s unique joys, temptations, longings, burdens, and gifts.
It will look a million different ways, but in the fallout of the past three years, the need is more evident than ever for the local church to stop trying to impress and rediscover how to shepherd.
Our congregations don’t need (and no longer want) one more hour of solid content. They desperately need (and increasingly want) shepherds who know the green pastures well and, with loving and attentive presence, will lead and guard this flock in the unique place and time they wander.
Of course, few lead pastors can eat dinner with everyone in their congregation. That’s a small reason that every leadership role in the church should see themselves as leaders—to know their particular group of people well. Only when we spend time in the fields with the flock and get to know the sheep of our ministries well will we learn to be real shepherds.
Let me add one final layer here (which adds depth to each shift discussed in this piece). It’s well-documented that the Western world is facing an epidemic of loneliness. Despite quicker access online to anyone anywhere in the world, people of every generation are lonelier than ever—some studies show one-third of Americans have zero close friends.
In a time as lonely as ours, life-changing vulnerability is just one good listener away for many people in our community. In this particular moment in history and our specific part of the world, the people we serve are hungrier than ever for an authentic community.
Imagine if, instead of asking those who show up Sunday morning to rally enthusiasm, we first offered our Father’s tired and distracted children a moment to breathe, space to rest, room to gently take stock of all that’s distracting and perplexing, and bring it all before God. Imagine if our weekly gatherings became a more holistic invitation into the sabbath.
Imagine if the jaded, spin-saturated people of our time encountered a church unashamed of its ancient, paradoxical, confronting yet inviting, brutally honest yet infinitely gracious, really hard but radically beautiful, deeply rooted, often awkward self.
Imagine if the lonely, all-too-often fatherless (in more sense than one) people of our time, so constantly categorized and diminished into data points, found shepherds in the church who led them with a compassionate leadership rooted in loving knowledge and presence.