3 Big Shifts Happening in Churches Right Now | By Karl Vaters
To grow healthy churches, pastors should respond to changing needs (including their own).
Everything beneath our feet feels like it’s shifting right now.
It’s not. But it can feel like it.
As someone who spends a lot of time in churches and with pastors, especially pastors of smaller congregations, I see three very big shifts happening right now. And each one can be seen through a corresponding change in a primary need from three different types of people.
If we don’t pay attention, we are likely to be meeting needs that people don’t necessarily have, or at least that they don’t need as much as we think they do.
1. (For Pastors) The Need for Rest is Bigger than the Need for Resources
I’ve been creating and providing the best resources I can find for small-church pastors for over ten years.
This need remains huge. While there are a lot of people and ministries creating resources from and for big churches, many of which can be adapted to smaller spaces, there are too few resources specifically tailored to the small church environment.
In recent years, one need has slowly been sneaking up on the need for resources — and in the last three tumultuous years it has vaulted to the top.
The need for rest.
Far more than anything else I’m hearing now, pastors need a break. They’re tired. Frustrated. Confused. Afraid. And if they could get a break, even for a short while, they would be feeling less of all of those.
Exhaustion was a big issue before the pandemic, the lockdowns, the constant arguments over masks and vaccines, and so on. But now as something close to “normal” has returned, but one-third to half of many congregations haven’t, the need for pastors to take a break for rest, assessment, and renewal is overwhelming.
When we were in the middle of the pandemic, I and many others predicted a massive wave of pastoral resignations by now. That hasn’t happened. Instead of leaving, many pastors are staying in place physically, but they’re absent emotionally and relationally. They’re exhausted, but they don’t want to leave their churches. Not permanently, anyway. But they could use some serious time away.
Pastors, we need to take this need more seriously than ever before. Stop neglecting our own health and well-being. Re-invest in sabbath. Turn off your phone alerts. Stop feeling guilty for time away from the office.
Purposeful, life-giving time away is not a neglect of your calling, it’s where we find the fuel for it.
2. (For Congregations) The Need for Discipleship is Bigger than the Need for Teaching
Good preaching is often mentioned as one of the main reasons people chose to attend their home church. That’s still important, but it’s not as important as it used to be for one simple reason — online church. People can get any sermon they want from their favorite preacher at any time, any day, from anywhere on the globe.
What people need from their home church now, more than good preaching or teaching, is simple.
Sitting under great preaching and teaching, on its own, does not produce mature believers. Only discipleship does that.
The good news is, of course, is that making disciples is what we’re supposed to do. The five-fold leadership gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) aren’t merely called to impart knowledge.
Ephesians 4:9-11 calls us to equip God’s people:
⦁ for works of service
⦁ to build up the body of Christ
⦁ to be united in the faith
⦁ to know the Son of God
⦁ to become mature
⦁ to be like Jesus
That’s discipleship. Equipping God’s people towards unity, maturity, and service is not just the calling of church leaders, it’s the great longing of every believer.
It’s time to go deeper than teaching and reignite the power of discipleship.
3. (For the Community) The Need for Integrity is Bigger than the Need for Events
For multiple generations, many churches behaved as though the greatest way we could reach the community around us was to conduct compelling events. From weekly worship to once-a-year extravaganzas like Christmas and Easter pageants, concerts, VBS, Trunk-or-treat, and old-school revivals, the event was the thing.
No more. Just like churchgoers can get preaching on their devices, non-churchgoers can do the same with the greatest events ever produced.
Pastors, we need to hear this. No one who is staying away from the church is waiting for us to put on a better event. Stop trying to meet a need that no one — literally no one — is asking for.
What are they looking to the church for? If they think about us at all — which is increasingly unlikely — they want us to have some integrity. To live what we say we believe.
Of all the shortcomings of the church today, there is no greater need than this.
They need us to be people of integrity.
We need to let go of short-term wins, or getting a larger attendance at special events, and invest in the long, hard slog of living what we say we believe over the long haul.
Who cares if the event is great when the character of the people on stage are not just flawed (as we all are), but hypocritical?
We used to call this holiness. Then that term got hijacked by pharisaical extremists, so we’re afraid to use it anymore. So, if you need to fill in that gap with words like character, integrity, or honesty, that’s great! They’re good terms, too.
But maybe we can redeem the true meaning of holiness as well. Separateness unto the Lord.
Whatever you call it, we need to do it. Everything else we say, think, or believe falls or rises on this.