Three Changing Trends in American Churches


StatsI am a trend watcher, particularly among churches in America. I am not particularly insightful or smart; I simply listen and speak to many churches. In fact, through my travels, blog, and other social media, I hear from thousands of church leaders every week.

The three trends I’ve recently noticed are not new. What is new is that a relatively few churches embraced these concepts a few years ago. Today, they are becoming normative. These three approaches have moved from the category of “exception” to the category of “mainstream.”

Changing Trend #1: Entry Point or New Member Classes

When I wrote High Expectations in 1999, I talked about the very early trend of churches requiring a class before granting membership to someone. In other words, a membership class was an emerging facet of expectations for church members.

Today, membership classes are pervasive. In an informal survey I did this year of churches with over 250 in worship attendance, more than 80 percent had some type of entry point class as a requisite for membership. In 1999, that number would have been less than 10 percent.

Changing Trend #2: Churches with Multiple Venues

I have to admit that the growth of multiple venues in churches has caught me by surprise. More and more churches have multiple campuses. More and more churches have multiple venues on the same campus.

One of the studies I am hoping to tackle in the next few months is the growth of larger churches with multiple venues versus the churches with one venue or site. I’ll let you know how that develops.

Changing Trend #3: The Growth of the Executive Pastor Role

Just a few years ago, the executive pastor role was largely reserved for very large churches. Indeed, there was a time when I rarely saw an executive pastor on staff in a church under 3,000 in worship attendance.

If current trends continue, the executive pastor will become the second full time pastor to join a church staff in a majority of churches. That is quite a change from ten years ago! The executive pastor is now seen as a complement to the senior pastor. In other words, the executive pastor is typically gifted and wired in ways that the senior pastor is not.

As a consequence, executive pastors are becoming more common in smaller churches, even churches with less than 200 in attendance. Watch for this new trend to grow.

What do you think of these three new changing trends? Keep in mind, the trend itself is not new; it’s the growth rate of the trend. What would you add?

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About Thom S. Rainer

Thom S. Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources. This column first appeared at

  • Larry Walker

    I think an Administrator is quite different than an Executive Pastor. While the Executive Pastor may have gifts different from the Senior Pastor, he or she must have leadership and speaking gifts that complement the Senior Pastor. Today’s culture causes people to be very demanding of their churches — they want to see “something for everyone.” It is the role of Executive Pastor, as John Aitken II points out here, to pull it all together and bring them to the same altar of Jesus Christ. (This is quite different than paying the bills and getting the furnace serviced.)

  • John Aitken II

    In all of this “diversity” we can loose our focus. I love the idea of multiple “venues” but do not let it be at the expense of UNITY. The reason our pervasive culture loves separate is because our world’s culture doesn’t like to integrate. We seem to love to “carve out our own program”, then we try to make that program about what “we” like rather than working together the differences out and humanizing our age, economic, ethnic, personal difference to be “one” in Christ and working toward that Goal.

    I agree… I have become an Executive pastor even though my church is a mere 570 people. I believe the purpose of an executive pastor would be to bring all of these different galvanized groups together to one altar…God and His Unifying Force for this world. He died on a cross so that we may become “one” with Him. He bridged the gap. We must Work as ministers to bridge the gap between all of our peoples “preferences.” This does not mean letting go of morales…this establishes God’s Morals.

    The World Separates…”categorizes”…we must Unify under God;s Word.
    John II

  • Steve Lawson

    Churches with multiple venues is not a new idea. It is even scriptural! Cast your mind back to the day after Pentecost; Peter wakes up and remembers what happened the day before (over 3,000 converts) and says to the others, “What are we going to do with all these people?”. they were overwhelmed with them, and of course scriptures tell u s that ‘their numbers were added to daily…..!’ So what did they do? They did not have a big church to put them all in; in fact they did not have any churches at all. They met in each others houses in small groups. An early version of what we call ‘cell’ church today. Large churches are expensive and a massive drain on resources, so are many of the sometimes unnecessary paid staff that abound these days (executive Pastors?).

  • Harry Poindexter

    It is too bad that all the changes you listed are only process, not spiritual. Wonder what that means?

  • San

    I would really like to get insight not just for larger congregations, but mid-size and small one s as well.
    There seems to be a trend in congregations getting smaller with a rapid decline in membership.
    Can you shed some insight on this? Also, what can pastors and the congregation due to build their congregation back up with the rapid decline?
    Many thanks.

  • TeeCee

    Used to be called Administrator…what’s the diff?

  • Shane Frederick

    Can you define what is meant by Executive Pastor?

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