Five Significant Trends in the American Church

Sam Rainer

January 9, 2009

In my previous post I briefly discussed a study that revealed five trends in the church from the previous ten years. This post is dedicated to five trends that will affect the church during the next ten years. But I’ll lean upon the greater wisdom of my prognosticating father, Thom Rainer. He gives his thoughts on the more notable trends surfacing today that will help shape the church during the next decade.

Accelerated growth of multi-site churches. In 2000, 5% of all megachurches had multiple sites. By 2007 that number had increased to 25%. Some project that number to be as high as 50% by 2010. Even more amazing, 16% of all U. S. churches (all sizes) are seriously considering the multi-site option.

Corollary #1 of this trend: The campus pastor is one of the most in-demand ministry positions in the American church.

Corollary #2 of this trend: The multi-site trend seems to be replacing denominationalism.

The attraction of biblical depth. The younger generation is attracted to churches that have greater biblical depth. 70% of 18 to 22 year olds drop out of the church. Many of them are crying for deeper biblical teaching and preaching. This will become more pervasive with “Generation We” (those born between 1977 to 1994, who number over 72 million).

Increased means of relational connections. Relational connections have always been important for churches for both reaching and assimilation. That trend is accelerating. Three different studies by LifeWay Research point to this trend. What is fascinating is to see how the digital world is truly a relational world for Generation We (The “We” designates that generation’s relational desires). They live in the world of texting. Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.

A growing chasm between attitudes about Christianity and attitudes about the church. Among unchurched non-Christians: 64% think Christianity is relevant for today . . . but 86% say the church is not where they would connect with Christianity.

The opportunity: an army of relational evangelists. Among the unchurched non-Christians: 78% are willing to talk with someone about their Christian beliefs. That number increases to 89% among 18-29 year olds!

Church organizational issues are becoming more important. In the past two decades church organizational issues (not polity) were not considered relevant topics. That is changing today as churches deal with issues of membership losses, inactive members, and members who are busy at church, but not growing spiritually. The best-selling book on the church the past five years has been Simple Church. Why? Church leaders understand that activity does not always equate to disciple making. Churches have become too busy, too complex, and too activity driven.

Obviously, Dad’s thoughts are not all-inclusive. What other trends in the church do you believe will be prominent during the next ten years? Also, feel free to check out my article in Church Executive magazine on challenges churches will face in 2009.

32 comments on “Five Significant Trends in the American Church”

  1. kdb1411 says:

    Good stuff. Thanks for putting it on your blog. I wished your Dad blogged, but I do enjoy him on Twitter ( as well as you ( Keep up the good work.

  2. Micah Fries says:


    Wouldn’t you agree that the middle three trends, and to a lesser degree the other two, should cause a massive restructuring in our thoughts about evangelism? Instead of event driven, quick response, decisional methodology we are going to have to see a relational, truth based methodology that promotes disciples rather than baptisms, it seems to me. The “downside”, if you want to call it that, is that baptism numbers may actually go down because we’re getting more at authentic evangelism but the upside is actual disciples should go up, or at least that’s how it appears to me.

    Tell your dad this is good stuff!

  3. Ken Lupton says:

    It seems the scorecard for the church is going to have to change. Nickels, Noses, and New members (as our primary measurement of success in church life)is changing. We must go from an internal to an external focus, ending the church as exclusive social club model and from running programs and ministries (which you deal with in “Essential Church”) to developing people as its core activity. We also must go from having “church”-based leadership to community-engaged leadership. Thanks for your work on this! Ken Lupton

  4. Very insightful blog. I can definately relate to the Biblical depth part.

  5. barrydavis says:

    Great insights. The challenge for us has been, “What do we measure?” If, as Ken says and I agree, it’s not nickels and noses, what are some significant markers to look for?

    PS – had your dad for nearly every class in the early days of the Graham School. He was and is very proud of you and your brother.

  6. I’ve been part of two different multi-site churches and have been impressed by how well this can work. Of course, it all goes back to small groups. If you aren’t in a group that offers support and accountability the size of the church or the number of campuses doesn’t really matter.

  7. Sam Rainer says:

    Micah – Great thoughts. Clearly, a methodology that promotes relationships and discipleship is preferable to one that promotes numbers. And, in general, many churches should rethink their strategy for reaching people. In our own denomination, too many churches go an entire year without reaching anyone for Christ.

    But I believe a shift to a more relational approach in reaching people will actually increase the amount that come to Christ and are baptized in a given church. A church full of authentic believers passionately building relationships and sharing the Truth will see great gospel success.

    As for discipleship, a healthy focus inwardly will produce a greater passion outwardly. And the more a church focuses outwardly, the more healthy it becomes inwardly. Hope all is well up in Missouri! And I hope our paths cross at the SBC this year.

  8. Thank you so much for your insights. I wonder if you would provide from your research a few titles that you believe meet the need for deeper Bible study materials.

  9. Sam Rainer says:

    Ken – I agree. The more a church can engage its community, the more likely it is to reach that community. And the leadership of the church must lead the way in learning and serving the community.

  10. Sam Rainer says:

    Barry – I would not recommend churches stop counting attendance or baptisms, but, as Ken alludes, other markers are important.

    For instance, how well is the leadership of the church connecting with other leaders in the community? How many needs in the community is the church meeting? Is the church even aware of these needs? What is the assimilation rate of new people in the church? How many people have been converted (not just baptized) through the witness of the church? How many new leaders are being developed from within the church? Is the worship guide tri-fold or bi-fold? ok, maybe not that one 🙂

    The point is not to measure just raw numbers but rather the impact on the community and on individual people within the church. Raw numbers tell only part of the story.

  11. Sam Rainer says:

    Kristie – I agree 100%. Accountability through small groups/life groups/community groups (or whatever you call them) is one of the most critical factors to church health.

  12. Sam Rainer says:

    Latayne – There are many good titles, but you should choose a study based on the type of group. Let me offer a few suggestions:

    For an open group Bible study (defined as an ongoing group in which new people can enter) I would recommend Explore the Bible by LifeWay.

    For a closed group study (defined as a study with a specific timeframe with the same people) with newer or less mature Christians I would recommend an overview of the entire Bible, such as Through the Bible in One Year or Henrietta Mears’ classic What the Bible is All About.

    For a closed group with more mature Christians, I would recommend Knowing God by J.I. Packer or a commentary like Polhill’s Acts.

    For a systematic study of the Bible, I would recommend Akin’s Theology for the Church.

    There are many others I like, but these should provide a good start.

  13. In your opinion, what new materials for deeper Bible study are needed? I noticed that many of the books are classics, or would seem so to young adults.

  14. Sam Rainer says:

    Latayne – the Threads materials from LifeWay are some of my favorite newer studies. Ed Stetzer’s Sent and the Tough Sayings of Jesus are great.

  15. Barry…Simple Church, the book mentioned in the original post, refers to some churches adopting a “horizontal” measurement rather just just a “vertical” one. In other words, how are we doing at moving people from the Crowd to the Community then to the Core. Or whatever your “levels” of commitment and participation are. They still look at numbers…but not just how many show up.

    Hope that helps some too. Sorry for barging in. I just found this blog through Tony Morgan’s twitter.

  16. kdb1411 says:

    Let me echo your suggestion about Threads by LifeWay. That material is incredible, and it really hits home with young adults.

  17. I will certainly check those out. Thank you kdb14ll and Sam for the recommendations.

    Sam, I know you’re an author as am I. Years ago I wrote several Bible studies published by Zondervan and others, and am still writing what I consider to be in-depth and challenging Bible-based materials (as well as books on Mormonism, for which I am, admittedly, best known.)

    But at a recent writers’ conference where all of us were well-published professionals, we were cautioned not to waste our time (or that of our agents) in writing and submitting Bible studies because they’re too hard to market–unless you’re Beth Moore — or can write with a denominational slant for small denominational publishing houses. So in essence those of us who are actively writing and publishing were waved off from writing the kinds of books you are saying are so needed.

    Hasn’t stopped me, though. I’ve been called to write some meaty studies and God will get them published when and if He gets around to it. My call is to excellence and service in this area — whether surveys or conference speakers or anyone else thinks the genre is marketable.

    Latayne C Scott

  18. Alex says:

    I could not agree more with what you are saying here. I live in the upstate of South Carolina where there are multi-campus churches popping up everywhere.

    What role do you think the internet and new, emerging media will play in this scheme of relationships that people are now longing for? Mediums by nature mediate between people, effectively putting something between them and blocking a full connection. Do you think people will continue to connect themselves so much to other that their over-mediated connections make up for the lack of real, personal connections or do you think people will revert to older but more truly personal forms of communication?

  19. Sam Rainer says:

    Latayne – I appreciate your passion. I’m no marketing expert, but I know that deep Bible studies will always be needed.

  20. Sam Rainer says:

    Alex –

    Great question. I don’t believe the church will have to choose between face-to-face communication and communication through emerging mediums. I believe the latter enhances the former. Nothing will ever truly replace a personal conversation. But social media can add a layer of connectedness that was not previously present. A case in point is how my family communicates.

    We all live hundreds of miles apart.

    The best times are the ones we spend together, with my two bros, all our wives, and mom and dad. But I also talk to them via cell phone at least 3x per week. Additionally, we all Twitter regularly. Without the texts, tweets, emails, and quick cell conversations, I would not know nearly as much about their daily lives. Of course, nothing compares to visiting them in person, which is why we travel all those miles even if it’s just for a few hours with each other.

    In short, social media enhances personal communication in the church. Some will use it to hide from personal face-to-face communication. Others will use it excessively and annoy everyone around them. And others will see it as a tool and use it on mission for God.

  21. Micah Fries says:


    I guess I should have been a bit more clear. I think that the transition will cause a decrease in those numbers initially. As the transition begins to occur, the change in “easy believism” would logically result in reduced numbers initially, but as an appropriate understanding of the Gospel takes hold, the number will then increase and be legitimate.

    This is fresh in my mind because we’re making just such a transition in my church and have seen this happen.

  22. Sam Rainer says:

    Micah – Yes, churches that use pragmatism for the sake of numbers would clearly see an initial decline in those numbers if they switched to an authentic, relational style of reaching people. Of course, my ideal side hopes that these churches are few, and there are more leaders such as yourself leading churches to health. I’ll be praying for FB this weekend. Hope it’s not too cold up there 🙂

  23. Jermayn says:

    Great to see the young people actually wanting biblical teaching and not just motivational talking…

    That has brighten my day 😀

  24. Alex says:

    Very good point, I appreciate the response! Thanks

  25. Marty Joplin says:

    A couple of things.
    #1 Certainly our typical Sunday School organization has needed to be retooled for some time because many of them have become some form of reading from a quarterly. However, I’m not sure that what people from the We generation are searching for is Biblical depth. Many of them want to “feel” like they are doing something significant, but what they search for is an “aha!” moment in their Bible teaching. Something that makes them feel like the 12 minute sermon that the emerging churches specialize in actually take them deeper because it lit up some formerly dark area of their understanding. I’m not sure they actually want to GO deeper or lese the old MasterLife program and other discipleship methods like it would be revitalized.
    #2 I’d love to see a accountability group leader resource come together in the form of an organizer / day planner. It could have materials written and supplied for the “facilitator” to use in his group meetings. These items could even be available via download. To recover costs – it could be a fee based service. As long as the content that was supplied was really … what did we call it….deeper, then I believe many of us would use that tool in their churches. Do any of you old youth leaders rememebr the Sunday School curriculum that the old SSB (now LifeWay) used to produce called WordData?? Once you bought the notebook, your quarterly materials were siumply inserts that went behind certain tabs.

  26. Jimmie D. says:

    When are we going to wake up and smell the coffee? 70% of 18-22 year olds are abandoning the church and we think the primary reason is they are searching for more in-depth/deeper study and understanding. The primary reason is that most of them are not saved. They have been subjected to an easy-believism gospel and believe themselves to be saved because they said a prayer, or maybe even just repeated one after someone else. Most of their hearts and lives have not been changed! Jesus said His sheep hear His voice and they follow Him. The problem among “Christians” (not just youth) is not lack of depth, but lack of Christ.

  27. Jermayn says:

    What Jimmie D says is true. Church kids need salvation just as much as the unchurched, however most churches fail to realise this…

    I also think however that young people do actually want biblical teaching and not just motivational talks. If they want motivational talks, you can get them at half time playing football on Sunday instead.

    Balance is the key.

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