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Why Ministry is Harder Than It Was a Decade Ago

Ever feel like ministry is harder than it was a decade ago?

You’re not alone.

I am an eternal optimist when it comes to the church, but I agree that ministry is more challenging than it’s ever been.

Understanding why is key to figuring out what to do and how to respond.

You may or may not like the change in culture you see around you, but the fastest path to ineffectiveness in the church is to ignore the change you see around you.

So why is ministry a little more challenging than it used to be?

Here are 6 reasons…and a beacon of hope to guide us into a better future.

ministry is harder than it used to be

1. The automatic return to church is over

There was an assumption in ministry (it still lingers in certain circles) that although young adults who grew up in the church might walk away for a season, they’ll come back as soon as they have kids.

The research shows that’s just not true.

Ditto the assumption that unchurched people will turn to the church the moment they hit a bit crisis in their lives.

Unchurched people think about church about as much as the average Christian thinks about synagogue—rarely.

Will you occasionally have people who turn to the church in times of crisis? Of course. Or young families who come back? Absolutely.

But if you treat the exception like the rule, you’ll be deeply frustrated with your inability to realize your mission of reaching people with the Gospel.

2. The gap between what Christians believe and the culture believes is bigger

If you’ve sensed that the values many Christians hold are significantly different than the values our culture holds to, you would be right.

What Christians believe about sexuality, money, love, drugs, ethics and compassion are increasingly different from what our neighbours who don’t go to church believe.

So how do you bridge that gap?

Too many preachers just yell at the world for not believing what we believe.  Ditto for Christians on social media.

Not only is that a mistake; it’s a terrible strategy.

Guess what, Christians are supposed to be different than non-Christians. It shouldn’t surprise us that it’s happened.

Sharing why we believe what we believe in love is a far more effective strategy than yelling at the world in hate.

In a few weeks on my Leadership Podcast, I’ll be interviewing David Kinnaman, President of Barna Research, on how Christians should interact with a changing culture.

To make sure you don’t miss the conversation, you can subscribe to the podcast for free.

3. Christians are seen as irrelevant

A few years ago I connected with a news anchor who has worked for the major TV networks in the US and Canada.

He was shocked that anyone under 50 attended church. He had no idea that there were still churches that were actually growing.

That attitude shouldn’t shock Christians, but it does.

I’ve been introducing myself as a pastor for two decades now. At first people seemed either impressed or dismissive. Some people were glad to see a younger leader in ministry. And many were open to checking out a church that was making changes.

There were always a few who showed disdain when I mentioned I was a pastor, often, I suspect, because they had had a negative experience with church.

Today when I introduce myself, I’m more often greeted by bewilderment or confusion than anything.

People just don’t seem to have a category for people who work at churches. It’s like people feel sorry for us.

Irrelevance is more difficult than relevance because there is no common ground. You have to establish it from scratch.

But it also provides opportunity.  Imagine becoming known as the most radically loving group of people anyone has ever met.

4. Fewer gifted people are entering ministry

This one bothers me.

I talk to leaders every week who talk about how hard it is to find great leaders to staff their ministry.

Naturally, you should raise up leaders from within, and we do that.

But the truth is fewer and fewer bright, capable young adults are considering full time church ministry as an option.

That’s heartbreaking.

I’ve written a few posts on the subject.

Some people might say “Well, people just don’t feel called into ministry.” I get that, but I think it might be time rethink what it means to be called into ministry.

Similarly, I think many leaders who could make a huge contribution to ministry are in the business and start up space instead. I’d love to see more entrepreneurs enter ministry.

5. Contemporary churches are less rare than they used to be

In the 90s and early 2000s, churches that switched to better music, more relevant teaching and generally became more effective at what they did were few and far between.

Many early adopters who made changes like this would find themselves as the only church in their town/region/denomination that had adapted to a more contemporary form of church.

That’s not the case anymore.

Many churches that have adapted a contemporary form of worship or even a particular sub-style of church now find themselves in cities with other churches doing exactly the same thing.

When it comes to contemporary churches, what was once unique is now commonplace. What was innovative is now normal.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. And it helps explain that what got you far a decade ago doesn’t take you as far today.

Cool church itself might even be dying, as I argue here. But again, that’s not a bad thing. Something far greater and more effective will emerge.

6. The internet happened

A decade ago, there were no smart phones and a meaningful percentage of people were still on dial-up.

No more.

Today, anyone can listen to any preacher or worship leader any time, anywhere, on any device, pretty much for free.

Courtesy of the internet, the local pastor is not the sole voice in a congregation’s life.

You and I are being compared against people who are often far more talented that we are. And again, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing.

There will always be a role for a local communicator and pastor who knows his or her people and loves them. A powerful role.

But many in your church now have a handful of pastors and leaders they follow. Maybe dozens.

It’s just different.

Why None of This Is Hopeless

So, is it time to lament and console ourselves?

Not at all.

First of all, it’s Jesus’ church, not ours. Jesus has more invested in the future of the church than any of us do.

The church will prevail because it’s His, not ours.

The first step in solving a problem is diagnosing it, and hopefully this helps get us  up the field.

As I outlined in this post, great leaders never make excuses. Instead, they study the reasons things are the way they are, and then they make progress.

Where one leader sees obstacles, another sees opportunities.

I encourage you to see all of these as opportunities.

What does that look like? Well….

If you’re relying on the automatic return to church, stop that. Develop a strategy to reach the unreached.

Speak into the gap between what you believe and the culture believe with love, not with judgment.

If you’re seen as irrelevant, develop some common ground and even friendships with people who don’t understand why you do what you do.

If you have a leader crisis, challenge some leaders to leave what they’re doing and serve full time in church leadership.

If lots of churches are doing what you’re doing and what you’re doing isn’t working for you, change what you’re doing.

Instead of feeling threatened by the internet, use it. We just completely redesigned our website at Connexus Church to become mobile optimal, added an online campus and made many more changes to reach the unchurched. Everyone who’s not in church is online. Go to them if they haven’t come to you.

That’s what I’m learning these days about some of the challenges facing all church leaders.

I address numerous practical solutions in my book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow if you want more.

In the meantime, what are you seeing and how are you responding?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

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  • HoosierConservative

    I’m a young person right on the edge between Gen X and Millennials. Many of my friends are young adults with a college degree, bright, talented, with lots of extra time. None of them are in ministers.

    The number one reason why they don’t get involved in ministry? It’s way too difficult for no observable impact. Too many people inside of the church are rebellious, unteachable, and functionally illiterate. They don’t want a challenging Bible study group, they won’t submit to advice they disagree with, they never want to do a project someone else’s way, and their feelings get hurt when you sniff at them wrong.

    Also, Christians absolutely will not defend or protect each other in public. Most times, you can’t even start to speak disagreement in love; before the first sentence is halfway out of your mouth, another Christian rushes to defend the unbeliever.

    Most of us have a core group of three or four Christian friends who minister to each other.

  • Garin Hill

    Hey Carey – it’s my first time posting, though I have been reading your articles for a long time. I really like them, and I really like what churches like yours, NorthPoint, City Church, NewSpring, Life Church, etc. bring to the table. In fact, I listen to a sermon preached from a pastor of one of those churches about 5 days out of 7 every week. I did want to post today, though, because I feel like sometime there seems to be this competition between the kinds of churches you pastor and the kinds of churches I pastor.

    Above, you mentioned, “In the 90s and early 2000s, churches that switched to better music, more relevant teaching and generally became more effective…” I guess I will admit I am struggling to read that as something other than your way of doing it is “better” and “more effective” than our way of doing it. Maybe you don’t mean that, but it comes across to me that way. And following on the heals of Andy’s comments about taking your kids to small churches, this especially feeds that “we do it better” conversation. (To be sure, he apologized, and in my mind he is completely forgiven… but the idea of our churches being in competition is still in the water as a result of his comments). Some things you undoubtedly ARE doing better, with technology and the like probably being near the top of that list. But we preach, heave meaningful music, and connect in effective ways, too. Different ways, but the words “better” and “more effective” need not creep into the conversation. Anyway, for what it is worth, I thought I would share.

    As I said, I really like you, and I will continue to read your articles for years into the future (hopefully you will write them that long)! Preachers (and in my mind you can use the word ‘preach’ in these blogs, by the way – your target audience seems to be church people), musicians, and other ministers around the world/North America may be doing it differently than you guys, but that may or may not be “better.” My goal as a pastor was never to be better or more effective than you. I need you to be the best you can be. We are on the same team. I just want to make sure we talk in a way that communicates that. Thanks for all you do…

    • Garin…thanks for commenting. Great hearing from you. And I couldn’t agree more. My goal is not to be better than the other churches, but to be the most effective I can be in helping the mission of the church advance. Thanks man!

      • Garin Hill

        …And I definitely believe that you are doing that. Thanks for making great content. I am sure it is difficult to churn out all the teaching and writing that you do week in and week out. Please keep it up. Glad we are in this together…

  • You say 7 reasons at the top, but there are only 6. I feel robbed.

    • I will give you your money back…and fix the typo. 🙂

  • I would say 6 and 2 are definately linked. I can control my newsfeed, podcasts, and most forms of media to re-enforce and repeat what i want to hear. We live in a day when middle ground is shrinking. As the middle ground shrinks, so does the isthmus of cultural christianity. I say this with a sense of pity and compassion.

  • Re: #4

    I’m a worship pastor and one thing that continues to bug me is the number of churches that hire good musicians, but not good worship pastors. Because there’s a difference, right? There are so many good musicians who are only looking for a gig and the church will pay them pennies, but they are not leaders who are creating spaces for people to respond to God; rather, they’re perpetuating a consumer culture and end up either as personality cults or pointing people in other wrong directions from stage. It’s not all of them, but it’s a trend that bothers me a lot.

    I feel like I’ve seen this in other pastoral circles too. It’s not just a lack of good leaders, it’s also a lot of bad leaders taking their place.

    Have you noticed this? What do you suggest (especially for those of us in the trenches who want to try to lead upwards)?

  • Great overview Carey,
    In the last 30 years of ministry I’ve noticed how much the world has changed and how much the church has remain the same. On the other hand, I’ve also seen where many churches have tried to be so relevant that they’ve become almost identical as the world.
    I’m currently teaching a series at our church of “Why Church?” in relationship as to why the church is still relevant in the 21st century. Here are just three subheadings of one of the lessons:

    It Moves Us From Speculation to Certainty
    It Moves Us From Diversity to Unity
    It Moves Us From Weakness to Strength

    If we can relate this message with a 21st century flavor without compromising our convictions and values, we can lead this world again.

    Thanks again bro, for a good post.