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September 22, 2011

Carol Howard Merritt: Five cultural shifts that should affect the way we do church

Churches aren’t the most culturally savvy places. I know that some congregations are still fighting about whether they should be singing “contemporary” songs, which were written in the 1980s. Or they’re wrestling over the use of PowerPoint, which can be tiresome for people who have endured two decades of PP board meetings.

It’s probably good that most churches aren’t all wrapped up in the latest fads. We don’t have the cash to keep up with most of it, and if we do, we’re probably better off spending that money on feeding the homeless rather than making sure the youth room has the newest flat-screen TV.

But there are cultural shifts that congregations and church leaders need to track and respond to sensibly. Here are five of them.

1) Finances. Younger generations are not faring well in this economy. They didn’t do so well when the rest of the country was booming either. Why? Younger generations face high student loan debt, high housing costs and stagnant wages (if they’re even able to get a job). The shame they bear matches our debt load, and they feel like they need to get their life together before they go to church.

Are people ashamed of their monetary situation in our congregations? Is the first thing that comes out of our mouth at coffee hour, “So, where do you work?” Can we think of another question, like, “So, what keeps you busy these days?” Do we introduce new members by highlighting their shiny resume? Are we realistic in our giving expectations with young adults?

2) Work hours. People who go to mainline churches are wealthier. Or wealthier people go to mainline churches. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. We don’t know what comes first. But young workers know one thing: many people in their 20s and 30s work retail or in the service industry. The blue laws faded long ago, and you don’t get Sunday mornings off unless you’re management.

Do we have opportunities to worship or engage in the community beyond Sunday morning? In the future, is Sunday morning going to be the best time to have worship services? Can we use new technologies to podcast our services so that people can stay connected when they can’t make it on Sunday?

3) Families. People marry and have children later in life. Some people say that adults in their 20s and 30s are just extending adolescence, having fun in their odyssey years, or they’re too commitment-phobic to settle down. Yet, we’re a society that expects financial stability before a couple gets married, and many younger adults can’t manage financial stability.

Does our church leadership operate with rush judgments that condemn the character of emerging generations? Do we expect “young families” to come to our church? Do we have space for single folks or people who don’t have families? Do we expect people to enter our doors two-by-two?

4) The Internet. Church leaders have a lot on their plate. Many don’t think they have any time for Facebook or Twitter. They may still be working with the misconception that the only things people are blogging about are what sort of breakfast they had on Tuesday (although if you’re reading this, you probably realize that blogs are good for more than personal over-sharing). But there’s no way to ignore it any longer. Even if a church leader shies away from the web, people may be talking about you on Google Map reviews or Yelp.

Is your congregation keeping up with its online presence? Are you googling your church and finding out what people are saying? Are you using Facebook for pastoral care? Are you staying in contact with emerging adults who move away for education or jobs?

5) Politics. A new generation is exhausted from the culture wars. Many people growing up in the last few decades had a difficult time keeping “Christian” and “Republican” in two separate boxes. Emerging generations look at poverty, the environment and war as complex issues, and many younger evangelicals are less likely to vote on pro-life credentials alone. Many young Christians who grew up evangelical are trying out mainline congregations.

Is your church leery of evangelicals who grew up non-denominational or without any religious affiliation? Do we expect people to have the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed memorized before they attend worship? Do we make snide comments about people who “don’t even know what it means to be Methodist (or Presbyterian or Lutheran)”?

There are many shifts occurring in our current religious and cultural landscape. Have our churches thought about the larger changes in an emerging generation? We can become much more effective in reaching out to a new generation if we do.

Carol Howard Merritt is pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington DC and author of "Tribal Church" (Alban). She blogs at tribalchurch.org.


What generates commitment?

Thanks for this, Carol. I'm always struck by the complaint that young people are commitment-phobic. I've often thought the question of why young folks lack commitment isn't quite right. They commit to all sorts of things, just perhaps not what previous generations might have. I think the more significant question to ask is what generates commitment in the first place? What makes people want to commit to something?


It's not just the 20- and 30-somethings who are shying away from church. Some of us 40- and 50-somethings (and older and younger) are losing or have lost interest. Why commit to an organization unwilling to commit to you, to listen to you, to understand you, to accept you for who you are instead of who they want you to be? It's not just the socio-economic and generational prejudices, either. It's also the doctrinaire attitude -- even among so-called liberals -- that leads some of us to say, "Why bother with the Church?" It's a shame, really, that I grew up but the Church didn't. I'd like the Church to make room for those of us whose spirituality, theology, and view of scripture matured beyond 5th grade Sunday School. If the Church won't do that, I'm forced to look elsewhere for a faith community.

cross-cultural compatibility of comments

Dear Carol
As a British Methodist Minister (currently contemplating a return to the 'mission field,' teaching in an African Theological College) I am struck anew by the cross-cultural compatibility of some of your comments.

We share your Sunday morning fixation, so fewer of our churches now offer Sunday evening worship than used to be the case. We are suspicious of mid-week services (though Anglicanism records that in its tradition these are the Acts of Worship that are experiencing a moderate increase in attendance, perhaps owing to the changed rhythms of life and employment).

Why do 'established' Church communities seem to value only those whose prosperity will make them worthy donors to the churches coffers? I'm sure that this is not their intention but it can be the effect of their questioning of the small number of strangers/newcomers who darken their doors.

Perhaps as church we could begin with some workshops on 'outreach' that teach conversational opening gambits that are more open!

Some of the most welcoming churches that I encounter in my current role are those whose numbers are such that any interest in participating is valued.

When 'respectable folk,' like us, no longer grace the church even the slovenly dressed worshipper is welcome and, besides, we might indeed be welcoming angels unawares!

Lord's Day

I am a member (and D.V. a future minister) in a very conservative denomination. I found your article very interesting. My question is what would you say to Conservative Reformed Churches who still believe and practice the Lord's day, that is one day set apart for worship. And this being a theological conviction. I certainly agree with you on the other counts, to a large extent(- though I think the local church ought to help young adults (esp. men) learns the skills they need to grow up faster instead of indulging them- ), but on your second point I cannot help reflecting on the 4th commandment. Any thoughts? Thanks. JPG2

"Lord's Day" and others

in response to one comment, Paul did say (romans 14 throughout) that some consider one day more special than others, another considers all days equally (whether all days are special or no day is special, I think a Christian would opt for the former). Then he says "let each be convinced in their own minds" - and that those who judge one way should not denounce one who decides the other way for, "whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord" (romans 14:5,6)

"You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister[a]? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.(14:10)
"For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit"...(14:17)
We must also remember that "everything that does not come from faith is sin."(14:23)
Quoting from NIV throughout, except where I wrote from memory at the start.

So, if we condemn based on our date, or style of worship, we are hurting another's conscience by our conduct. On the one hand, if, by imposing a new way of worship, we cause another to stumble, that is taking away the option for one to regard one day as special to the Lord. On the other hand, if we say that one day a week is particularly special, an judgement of another, who considers all days equally to the Lord, in righteousnes and thanksgiving, with joy, then are we not condemning another's servant - namely, a servant of Jesus, not of us? (14:4) So, if one is theologically convinced regarding a particular day, is that same person, or group, also theologically convinced, along with Paul, that those in Christ who may have a different conviction regarding days and months are equally to stand before their master, and, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to stay standing?

What a wonderful post. The

What a wonderful post. The question about young families is especially poignant to me. I know many people young women in their mid-to-late 20s who feel pressure to marry, but the men that they're involved with feel pressure to have their financial houses in order before they marry. I have seen relationships where it puts a strain on the relationships to have these pressures battling it out - and when this pressure comes from the church, it certainly doesn't make it feel like a welcome home for these couples.

Hi. I just want to comment

Hi. I just want to comment on what you said about families. The fact is that the nuclear family is just not the norm anymore. Churches need to make a focused effort to include and minister to never married adults, single parents, blended families and grandparents who are raising their grandkids. The churches I've been in haven't necessarily excluded these groups or made them feel un-welcome, but haven't made any effort to really include them either.

Amen to being aware of cultural shifts!

Good article!
In summary; churches must pay attention to the WORLD in which they live. The "community" is larger than it was 50 - 100 years ago where most of the 20th century church's practices were "set in concrete". Be aware that while God is unchanging, mans understandings and interpretations of what HIS WORD & SPIRIT are and HAVE said to us in the past must be reinterpreted by each generation to gain the best guidance GOD has for us in our present culture(S) . . . cultures scattered all up and down several hundred years of change. Change always happens . . . always has, always will; God guides us toward change and through it!


not only is change going to happen but it is imperative that we as individual believers as well as the 'church' (which we are) get on board. Is it easy? Most likely not; however Jesus brought about such radical living that the 'traditionalists' in his time were constantly trying to quiet him. My prayer is that more and more believers will get connected with the living Lord of today and not compromise what He is leading them to do and be-even if that means standing alone, not being populular while loving the marginalized into kingdom living. amen!


Having recently retired, I have been struck by the number of retirees who are not attending regular church services or are not involved with any church. They are C&E worshippers. Their position stated to me on several occasions: 'I'm retired now and do not want to get involved with a church. Been there, done it.' This was related to me many times. These same people are very active in their communities and donate their time and resources to numerous social causes, but it appears that attending church is not on their new agendas. I find this most interesting and perplexing.

Re: to Demographics

Your observation that retirees are C&E worshipers, which I assume means Culture and Education, is connected to why they might not affiliate with a church. If Jesus Christ is not Lord of their lives, then worshiping Him with other believers,is not a priority. "Church" was probably only a social thing to do in their working lives and as retirees, it might not seem culturally relevant.


A church is a place for worship. This is a place of love and respect. Serving the church or God is done in many ways. People have their own opinions on how to do things and i don't think that people have the right to judge others.

Relevant Church

Good comments after a good list of five cultural trends.

I serve in a rural area dominated by small, mostly older congregations (regardless the name on the door). My guess is that the nursing and funeral home will close most of the churches in my area within the next 20 years, several much sooner.

There has been a fracturing/segmenting of the experience of faith beginning perhaps in the 1950's. Church then could be the sports leagues (now defunct), women's, youth or men's groups, Bible studies and an occasional mission group. This made sense when young families were getting established in a post-war, Blue-Law society. Church provided a social community as much as a worship one.

Today there are more effective social offerings, Sunday is now a commercial-friendly business day like any other and church has returned to a primarily religious institution.

What many congregations seem to be missing is a vision that offers a context for all other experiences to operate, a compass-like centering point for life. This does not mean we need to return to the 1950's church model (much as many have tried), but find an earlier one that functioned before the boomers came long.

That center will be independent of music or small groups, grounded instead in a practical theology that informs the ordinary life of people today. Vibrant Churches may have study, mission and social groups but that focus will be how "being church" is lived out, rather than theology trying to find a home in a busy calendar of activities.

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