The Shifting Denominational Trends in the American Church

Have you noticed some of the recent changes within denominations in the United States? It is fascinating to step back and observe the seismic shifts sweeping through many different circles. These trends aren’t bound to any one denomination or church group, but have been increasingly occurring year after year. As the culture changes and church leaders alter their methodology, these shifting denominational trends in the American church will likely continue to shift or pivot down the road.

While all this is occurring, I also notice a high degree of discomfort among church leaders as they wrestle with a few of these trends. Why is that? I think at the root we place too much importance on the forms (i.e. – type of music, etc) of ministry. Rather than embracing the functions (i.e. – worship, etc ) over the forms (contemporary vs. traditional), church leaders struggle to let go of their preferences.

The truth is that I struggle to let go of my preferences.

You struggle to let go of your preferences. It’s a natural struggle we all go through.

We find ourselves in routines and life rhythms that have made us comfortable. “If it isn’t broke, then don’t try to fix it. Right?”

Although it might not be broken or annoying to us, it may present a hurdle to worship for someone else.

These trends usually represent changes in forms rather than functions. Although I certainly have preferences in many of these areas, I’m consistently reminded of the form vs. function debate. With this we must stay open to varying forms within varying contexts, as long as the expression of church in that location maintains the key function present in any church. (Yes, I do realize there is debate around this issue as well).

the shifting denominational trends in the american church

The Shifting Denominational Trends in the American Church

1. Increasing Numbers of Mini-Denominations

Many churches have moved in the direction of multi-site, and with this you start to see a trend. In many ways, these churches are functioning as “mini-denominations.” We could say that multi-site is really nothing new, but a rather a slightly altered expression of what has been known as denominationalism in the past.

When one church finds itself growing and decides to add one or more sites, it almost always exports its DNA, systems, etc, to the additional sites; this reproduces what is working well at the original location. Many might think: “Why reinvent the wheel when you know what works?”

Rather than starting multiple autonomous churches or churches overseen by a presbyter, district superintendent, or other denominational overseer, the original site starts the other sites as outposts or additional expressions of the original site. Usually these are still organizationally part of the original church, and the campus pastor doesn’t preach on the majority of Sundays.

Just like a large denomination would export its DNA to hundreds of locations around the country, a growing church might also export its DNA to other sites, maintain control, share common naming, etc, and do so with only a few differences.

I’m not saying that multi-site and denominations are the same thing; however, they have many things in common that are instructive for us. For those who’s knee-jerk reaction to multi-site is a negative, they would be wise to reconsider how their denominational culture also wrestles with many of the same issues that a multi-site movement would deal with.

2. Large Departures from Mainline Denominations

I realize it isn’t a very popular thing to talk about in certain circles, but the reality is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of churches around the country that have either left mainline denominations for more conservative expressions of that faith (i.e. ELCA to NALC, PCUSA to ECO, etc) or are considering how they might leave. For those who have gotten comfortable in those denominations, this represents a tremendous threat to their existence, their funding, and their particular denominational culture and belief system. For those considering leaving, it represents a tremendous challenge as the process of leaving is nothing short of exceedingly difficult in most cases. But these are in many ways additional symptoms of a growing decline among mainline denominations (see stats on the ELCA, UMC, and PCUSA) as they try to figure out a theological and ecclesiological way forward and in many cases struggle to survive. If these denominations do not make significant changes soon, one Methodist economist writes that the UMC  “will not have enough U.S. churches to pay for its connectional structures.” Some within the PCUSA have noted a reduction in the rate of departure (or dismissal depending on who you ask) is actually declining at the congregational level. Although numerically this reduction is accurate, the feedback I’ve received from many pastors indicates and interest in departure but uncertainty about how to get their without difficult consequences.

Recent reports have included First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio ending what it described as its voluntary affiliation with the PCUSA, in order to affiliate with ECO, a covenant order of evangelical presbyterians. (You can read the session’s letters to the congregation, session minutes, and Mission Presbytery’s response here.) Despite growing numbers of churches actually leaving or attempting to leave mainline denominations, reports vary as to the amount of individuals and churches who desire to leave. (Depending on which side you are on, some say the discrepancies come from a large scale communication strategy meant to dissuade churches from leaving, while others say there are much smaller numbers of those who actually want to leave than have been reported.

I have not provided links to these in order to guard the confidentiality of those reporting this information on both sides. (However, reports of both situations may be found online.) Other well known churches such as Highland Park Presbyterian Church have made this same transition from PCUSA to ECO despite a very contentious (and expensive) legal battle that cost the church $7.8 million dollars in a settlement to leave the denomination. It also likely cost the church and Grace Presbytery far more in legal fees than the $80,000 Mission Presbytery had spent in 2015.

(Note: My aim here isn’t to debate the issues that are leading to the schism in the denominations, but to discuss the reality that this is occurring. It really isn’t anything new and the same types of changes were happening years ago when these denominations started.)

Similar departures are also occurring within local churches, and denominational oversight committees, commissions, etc., as they struggle to navigate the complexity of the conflicts that ensue. The issues presented often involve decades of history, millions of dollars of assets, legal discussions like the differing opinions on the trust clause in the PCUSA, and the emotional turmoil of making a decision to stay or leave a denomination. I believe that most of those involved either at the denominational or local church levels are likely attempting to follow their conscience and further their belief system; however, the sad reality is that (as with any conflict) oftentimes many people get hurt in the process and the outside world observes, wondering if Christians will ever learn to get along with one another.

The simple answer is that we will always have conflict, and we would be wise to point people to Jesus and His word rather than to ourselves as the model for how to live. I, like you and your church, will never perfectly live out my faith in the same way that Christ did. Hope is found in Him and not in ourselves. Let’s share that message with the world and try to align our lives with Him as well as we can.

3. Increasing Non-Denominational Collaboration and Accountability

This trend should encourage all of us. Denominations have many challenges, but also many positive ramifications. Churches make for strong entities that can be working together, as they submit to the authority of someone else — rather than operating on their own as an island without accountability.

I’ve been encouraged to see how many non-denominational churches (many of which are already operating as mini-denominations…see point #1 above) are collaborating with one another, joining church planting networks, or voluntarily submitting to the oversight or input of outside networks,  in order to receive the accountability and input that we all need. The truth of the matter is that none of us should isolate ourselves without input from others. The same rings true for churches. We all need input and accountability.

I think we will continue to see more “non-denominational” churches spring up, as a result of the tremendous conflict occurring in many of the mainline denominations around the country. As we see more and more non-denominational churches not only planted but also growing and reproducing, we will also see them continue to partner with one another for mutual learning, accountability, and support.

The core issues here are trust, accountability, and unfortunately sin. None of us are without sin, which leads to the reality that no church, denomination, or network will ever operate in a perfect way. As such, we will continue to wrestle with the conflicts that occur on a local church and denomination/network level, as we strive to serve Him in unity.

4. A Decline and Resurgence of Missional Giving in Denominations

At first glance this trend seems a bit contradictory to itself. Let me explain. Over the years, giving to denominational mission efforts, such as the IMB by the Southern Baptist Convention, has declined consistently. In a recent letter by Pastor David Platt, President of the IMB, to the International Mission Board, he lamented the necessity of reducing their mission personnel by 600-800 over the course of the next few months. This situation faced by the SBC and the IMB is actually part of a large trend affecting many denominations — not only the SBC.

Denominational giving has decreased, largely out of a decreasing trust in “the church” by most generations, but notably the millennial generation. Rather than giving to the local church or denomination, I think millennials often look to projects or specific causes that they can relate to more deeply. (Note: My point here isn’t to affirm or bash this trend in millennials, but report on it as it relates to a larger trend in denominational life in general.)

How can local churches best mobilize their people into missional involvement both in their local community and around the world? Can a local church do this on their own? Or is it a necessity to partner with other churches?

What is the proper response of denominations who have decreased dollars with which to cover the costs of their overseas personnel?

Who should local churches partner with as they engage in mission? Should their primary partner be a larger denomination, or a loosely affiliated network? Or should they partner with an entirely separate organization committed to alleviating poverty, aiding in the refugee crisis by supporting Samaritan’s Purse, or help with some other cause?

These questions and many, many others have arisen as churches, denominations, and networks of churches work to address some of the concerns facing our nation and world.

5. The Need for More Church Adoptions

As many older churches begin decline and wonder what their role will be in the years ahead, church adoptions will only continue to increase. It is staggering to even imagine the total value of all the church buildings, land, and other financial assets held by churches throughout the United States. Just as we will continue to see a massive transfer of wealth from the boomer and builder generations over the next 15-20 years, this same transfer will occur in the local church.

Some of the pertinent questions that I think churches need to be asking are:

  • As a growing churches, how can we partner with churches in decline to provide a pathway to becoming a legacy church in the future? Declining churches don’t want to go through a slow death and have no lasting impact. I think most of them would love to have an opportunity to partner with a larger church or be taken over by the larger church in more of an adoption-style transition. Many people cringe at the “take over” language; however, it is really nothing more than an agreement that the healthier church will not only assume debts and obligations of ownership, but also transfer its organizational DNA to the adopted church.
  • How will denominational officials help declining churches to seek out and navigate the process of voluntary adoption by a larger church or network?
  • Which denominations will lead this effort by engaging in systemwide change, in order to salvage the faithfulness and impact of a previous generation?
  • How will churches engaged in this process ensure that they not turn their church into a franchise or McChurch model? How will they export the healthy components of their organizational DNA, while allowing each site to retain what makes its site or church unique in its community.

6. The Growth of Church Planting

Church planting must increase. Church planting is not just something we used to do. Church planting is far from over in the United States, as the United States is becoming increasingly unreached in many locations.

Going forward, I think the denominations, networks, and churches that get very intentional about training church planters and planting churches will be the ones that make the greatest impact. We must not only revitalize dying churches, but also plant new ones. We see this modeled in Scripture and also see the fruit of church planting as these newer churches usually engage their community on a more transformational level than the churches that have been around much longer. (There are obviously a slew of exceptions to this, but in general church plants demonstrate much more flexibility and responsiveness to the needs in their community.)

How will churches that have traditionally sent money to oversees mission efforts reengage in church planting here in our country?

How will denominations not known for church planting reorganize their denominational culture to reemphasize church planting throughout all their denominational structures?

How will those church planting networks who have experienced tremendous growth help church plants to not only affiliate and support one another, but also create cultures of reproduction that lead to more church planting?

7. The Return of a Culture of Discipleship in the Church

For whatever reason, I believe that many, if not most, churches in the US have moved away from embracing a culture of discipleship in the local church. Many have gotten so busy trying to put on all the programs in the local church that they have lost the time and passion for reproducing disciple-making movements. Pastors have invested countless hours in sermon preparation. Volunteers have given innumerable hours to committee after committee and activity after activity.

Churches have gotten so busy with sustaining the church that they’ve forgotten to reproduce disciples as the church.

Does that describe your church? Why or why not?

I believe we have seen a large resurgence in many churches that emphasizes church health over church programs, discipleship over studies, community over committee, missional living over mission trips. These changes represent what has occurred and will continue to occur on a large scale level in most churches that plan to have a significant impact in our culture in the years to come.

Rather than complaining about the decreasing trends in church attendance, I think we need to ask deeper questions of what actually constitutes a disciple and if our “church events” are actually making disciples. We need to ask how or if attendance at another event will actually help a person to become more like Jesus. If we think it will, we should be able to show to what extent and also interact with the question of whether or not there is something else that might help them to grow as a disciple more than what we are currently doing.

The worst thing you could do is read my words as being against corporate worship or church involvement. I’m not against those. It’s actually quite the opposite. I believe it is very difficult, if not impossible, to live a vibrant Christian life without affiliation and commitment to the local church.

But for the local church to create a culture of discipleship, it must rethink the way it does ministry. It must consider what impact its local bake sale is having on the community. It must ask if its “trunk or treat” on Halloween is actually detracting from creating a culture of discipleship or helping. (Many churches are moving to more of a local neighborhood or block party style event that emphasizes missional living rather than an invitational “come and see” type event like trunk or treat at a local church parking lot.)

Has your church defined what it means to be a disciple? What about your denomination?

How does your denomination help you train and deploy disciple-makers and disciple-making movements in your local church?

How might your church reduce its focus on activities and programs, in order to emphasize personal discipleship as its core priority?

How are you growing as a disciple and also intentionally investing in the discipleship of others on a regular basis? It is unlikely that discipleship will occur on a church-wide level if the pastor(s) is not engaged in personal disciple-making on a regular basis.

You likely have seen many trends in your denomination that haven’t been mentioned here. I would love to hear about them and invite your feedback. The purpose of this article isn’t to define all recent trends in denominational life, but to discuss a few of the shifting denominational trends in the American church.