Stability is the focus of most Christian congregations.  Two thousand years of tradition in belief and practices are not easily altered.  The world in which that tradition is sought is in constant flux.  How we followers of Jesus maintain our commitments while adapting to ever-shifting realities is the major challenge of healthy congregational life!  In my experience of study of culture and congregations, there at several primary catalysts most congregations must understand.

1.  The impact of immigration. A major driver of change is the alteration of population characteristics within a neighborhood, city, state or nation.  Birth/death rates and immigration are the two key sources of such change.  The United States has been a country of immigrants throughout its history, but the diversity of immigration sources has shifted dramatically since 1965 when quotas for legal immigration were shifted from primarily European sources to more international ones. The result is a decline of Caucasians in the U.S. from 89.5 percent in 1950 to the following in 2010: 63.7 percent Caucasian, 16.3 percent Hispanic/Latino, 12.2 percent Black, 4.7 percent Asian, and 1.9 percent mixed race/ethnicity.  Current predictions for 2050 indicate Caucasians will be 47 percent, Hispanics 29 percent, Blacks 13 percent, Asians 9 percent, and mixed race/ethnicity 2 percent.

Obviously, there are communities in which the degree of such change is more dramatic-coastal cities, agricultural communities requiring seasonal labor, and border areas.  Since Protestantism is by tradition overwhelmingly Caucasian and African American, such churches in highly transitional settings face the most dramatic impact from changes in demography.  My family lives in such a setting.  We have lived in the same upscale, relatively new suburban community for the past 15 years.  We have only to look at the schools, restaurants, and houses of worship near us to understand how much change has occurred.  Within a 10 mile radius, we can attend houses of worship that are Primitive Baptist, Orthodox Indian (in a former Baptist church facility), Bahai, multiple synagogues, dozens of Korean-speaking churches, neighborhood Mosques, a Hindu Temple, one of the largest mega-churches in the country, and all of the usual denominational groups of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran and others.  In sum, there is a brand of religion for any faith in the world.  My dentist is Chinese, Sue’s dentist is Korean, her eye surgeon Indian, my barber is Vietnamese, her hairdresser is Romanian, our dry cleaner is Indian, the store cashiers are international from all over the globe, and we can enjoy any kind of international food one might want at a nearby restaurant.  Our grandchildren in elementary, middle, and high school have as many non-Caucasian classmates as Caucasian ones.  Doing church in such a setting differs radically from the way it could be done in the typical neighborhood of even twenty years ago.

2. The growth of mega-churches.  Interestingly, the model of most U.S. mega-churches was imported from the ministry of David Yong-gi Cho, retired pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Soul, South Korea.  That model began with multiple weekly worship services with upbeat contemporary music, small group Bible studies, and expansion into satellite locations.  The largest of world-wide mega churches are more like mini denominations than congregations.  There are now at least 1,500 of these congregations with an average of 2,000 or more in weekly attendance in the U.S.  The largest attracts more than 40,000 worshippers each week.  The top 10 percent of churches in size attract more than 45 percent of the weekly participants.  No wonder thousands of small and middle-sized church leaders feel such frustration with their metrics of decline! Only 55 percent of weekly worshippers can be found in 90 percent of the churches.

3. Embracing technology.  The way we receive information, participate in social conversations, communicate events or convey meaningful experiences is changing with mind-bending speed.  Technology is reshaping the willingness of people to participate in the repetitious.  If I can review last week’s worship via video on my phone or tablet, or worship with the sermon on video to thirty locations, the importance of gathering together is diminished.  When only the latest entertainment technique will attract followers, increasing numbers of churches will find themselves living in the past or attracting a small crowd of older adults.

4. A cultural revolution in thought and practice.  Most of institutional Christianity was developed in the last 500 years of an era of Western history we call “modern.” The modern era was built on the power of words that carried the authority of truth, whether in speech or via written words.  Thus, doctrine, belief, and defined practice of what was correct was readily understood by believers of multiple traditions. Each had its own truth– Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and a host of others who fought each other to win the masses.  In today’s “post-modern” world authority is defined by the individual, making consensus on anything difficult.  The young are the first to be impacted by cultural change whether in music, theology, dress, or language.  Thus, the power of generational difference with which all leaders must work becomes a major congregational challenge.

5. The loss of civil speech.  Unfortunately, the bombastic argumentation of talk radio and numerous television programs focusing on politics have replaced dialogue with argument for finding truth.  Division becomes easier than unity and diversity among people more difficult than finding a like-minded group.  The tenor of congregational discussion around issues of controversy become the basis of unhealthy conflict.

These a just a few of the changes today’s leaders must face in doing ministry.  How do we manage them?

By living courageously in a community of Jesus followers who are open to change in all arenas of life by loving interaction with each other and commitment to the Holy Spirit who unites all with a common vision.

Larry McSwain
Larry L. McSwain is a long-time educator at McAfee School of Theology, Shorter College, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He specializes in congregational research and training others in strategy planning processes and conflict ministry. He is a coach and consultant for CHC.