6 Things That Make Ministry 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.

The gap between how quickly things change and how quickly you change is called irrelevance.

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.

1. The automatic return to church is long gone

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. I heard a church leaders say this as recently as last month.

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. They are just as likely to turn to a meditation app or yoga class as they are to a local church.

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 the exception is never the rule. It’s the exception.

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.

Leaders who are waiting for young adults to automatically return to church will wait a long time.

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

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 so much better than yelling at the world in hate.

3. Christians are perceived 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 it’s hard to find immediate common ground. You have to establish it from scratch, and often the easiest way to do that is to be interested in what they’re interested in, rather than asking them to be interested in you.

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 really 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.

A century ago, the best and the brightest flooded into ministry as easily as leaders today float into business, law, engineering, start-ups and medicine.

Today, drop by a top tier school and tell them you’re thinking about ministry and people will stare at you in disbelief. Sadly, sometimes so will your parents.

That’s heartbreaking.

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.

When you get the best leaders in a room, problems become easier to solve.

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

Just over 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.

There’s Plenty of Hope

So, is it time to lament and console ourselves?

Not at all.

First of all, it’s Jesus’ church, not ours. God 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.

Short leaders? Challenge some marketplace 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!


  1. […] 6 Things That Make Ministry Harder Than It Was A Decade Ago by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  2. Ryan on June 5, 2018 at 11:04 am

    I’m curious about the last part of your third point. It is cut off for some reason. How did you mean for the following to end:

    “You have to establish it from scratch, and often the easiest way to do that is to”

    • David on June 5, 2018 at 9:37 pm

      and often the easiest way to do that is to be interested in what they’re interested in, rather than asking them to be interested in you.

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

  3. troy on June 4, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    Really good conversation.

    I lived and studied in Portland for three years and recently caught up with some Kiwi Jesus followers whilst on a Christmas trip to the North Island.

    I’ve been doing mission in Australia for the past 16 years. It’s quite apparent that we have a culture that does not fear death (afterlife) and celebrates ‘sin’ as we might understand it. In our culture guilt and death no longer sit at the head of the table. If they ever did. Most people are just getting on with their lives without these matters occupying their thoughts.

    So what to do when our two ‘levers’ for the good news about Jesus (in the past generations) are by enlarge no longer cultural anxieties?

    Well, down here in our ‘no rules, live how it seems best to you, culture’, we are finding that people are genuinely open ideas about how to make life work…… better. We are finding that many people are hungry to know how flourish as human beings. The lie of western liberalism is coming to roost. Human beings flourish best when ordered. But whose ‘order’? Whose governance? Let me tell you about….Jesus.

    We are also finding that people are open to experiences. Experiences of God’s presence. This is where a reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s engagement with people is totally necessary. If we provide the space, the uninitiated are willing to give things a go. They are more than willing to participate. This is where the Jesus people need to trust that God is at work in his ways, even if they don’t necessarily fit our categories.

    Thirdly, and if we have not heard it enough, in a rather manic and fragmented society, people are still desiring connection. So helping people stick is tantamount. When people stick, we are finding that the Jesus community does much of the discipling by ‘osmosis,’ as one of my older and still not crossed the line, Jesus explorers said to me recently. Mind you, it is clear from our life group discussions that he is following Jesus. He just hasn’t tossed the keys of his life to him yet. Each week he comes with stories in tow about how he didn’t lose his cool at work quite like he used to in the past. That is, before he came to church. He attributes this to………Jesus.

    Funny how rubbing shoulders with Jesus might just end up shaping you into a better human being. Who would have ever thought of that!

    In short what we are finding is that if we can see the good news of Jesus as more than forgiveness of sins or saving ‘souls’ from an afterlife akin to a rubbish heap (Gehenna), then people are open.
    Willing. A blank slate for Jesus to write on.

    When we attempt to speak into the longings of their hearts, we find people muttering words to the effect of, “wow I never knew God was even interested in human beings”, or “gee this Bible stuff helps me be a better human being”, or “I can’t possibly do what Jesus says!” or “I never knew that Jesus could speak to the shame I feel after having experimented with all that stuff in the past.”

    When Jesus followers learn to see him as the fully human one, the fully alive one, the rescuer from our current circumstances one, and seek to live it corporately, outsiders are genuinely interested.
    It is attractive. When they see it and feel it, they are in turn open to it. Open to experience prayer, practice his life, and over time come to understand that to become a fully human and alive person like God intended, they need Jesus. They need his spirit. They need his power. They need his forgiveness. They need his wisdom. They need him. And that sounds a lot like the good news Paul scattered around the Empire.

    There is a new king! His name is Jesus of Nazareth. He is ruling the heavens and earth right now. We saw him come back to life. He is the author of life. We will all stand before him one day to give an account. But right now I tell you this, you will find the life your looking for in him, under him, and with him. That’s not a threat. It’s a promise. So turn to him and make him your king.

    (sorry, just got to preaching)

    • A.Grove on June 4, 2018 at 9:13 pm

      Yes agree with you just one question in your 16 years have you seen God move more in community or Sunday service kids here in NZ are eating up the story oh Jesus and that he loves them for real and that he wants a real relationship thats Church for them but they don’t come to Sunday though we have had a lot more youth come than this church has ever seen. Why is it though that people still don’t seemed interested me and my wife do the kids stuff the church stuff the youth and people are seeing God move as people are coming to Christ as well this has very rarely happened here for years

      we do have a couple who help out but the rest are not interested invite them encourage them tell them to spend time with God to seek him for what he wants them to do still no movement God is doing all this amazing work but still no one is stepping up as we try to step back what’s your guys thoughts

      • troy on June 5, 2018 at 1:01 am

        Broadly speaking, I find that people are relating to the church in differing ways. It seems that whilst the Sunday experience (or gathered space) is still of vital importance, people are relating to it in a variety of ways. It’s about where they most feel connected relationally. This might be on a Sunday, or through smaller groups, or more broadly via looser networks. This raises obvious challenges for the process of discipleship. I think it is really important to introduce people exploring faith to the wider body whilst its happenning. This way as they come to faith they will see the obvious connection with the wider Christian body. This may not be through the main gathered space on Sunday initially. It might be that they build relationships and connections in other places before attending a Sunday morning. If peopel come to faith outside of a visible church family, it usually requires alot of hard work to win them again to the body to Christ.

    • Mike on June 4, 2018 at 11:31 pm

      Troy, bless you for your mission service. No apology necessary for preaching. Understand I mean no disrespect but I noticed one glaring thing of note in your post. “We and “I”. The text preached and taught, rightly dividing law and gospel, does not contain “we” or “I”. Dont misunderstand, I truly enjoyed your post and please accept my sincere western apology for our liberalism but try to understand we’re sinners and that’s what we do. What do you do with sinners who cant live a better life? What if they can’t or won’t thrive as human beings? Christ makes it clear the Law will not save us. We as sinners long for order. We want so badly to be justified in the Law. Paul explains this. Justified by faith in Christ alone as an inheritance is where our struggle begins. I think if you look closely, people dont long for a connection but rather search for an answer to suffering. Only the text in context can ferret this out. If Jesus is somehow more than forgiveness of sins and saving for an afterlife, I’m curious of what Jesus you speak. The text points out that Christ came to fulfill the Law. That would be the good news pertinent to us today. Freedom in Christ is what the entire text is trying to explain. If anyone is seeking to live anything corporately, they are sinning and sin is attractive to others. Our works will not save us as made clear in the text. Works without faith is as dead as its darkened heart. Just to close, I would like to ask you why anyone would need to turn to Him? He needs nothing from us. He is God. If someone does turn to him, it is a result of His doing, not ours. His free gift to us. Again, thank you for your service. Just offering some food for thought and personally, I constantly require it and thank God for it. Grace and peace to you.

  4. A.Grove on June 4, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    Hi Carey

    You have been in ministry much longer than me it it may be a bit different here in NZ but i think and have seen and correct me if i am wrong that we as Christians make way more impact in the community i work at a few schools and i am a pastor im 33 years old and laughed at your bit about people looking at you funny when you say that i had so many people say i look to young which is funny because only 20-30 years ago I’ve read many books about Church leaders that started when they were in there early 20’s. Anyway what i found hard is getting people to even think about ministry we still have the older ones serving but doing mission together is the problem what i see is it is harder and what i have observed is that people are happy to serve in the church AKA sundays but trying to get people to help in other time is really hard now this is my Question sorry to draw this out could it be that Church’s have become so much about getting people to one day a week over the 100 year history that people will never come to your service so is it that we no longer see mission as important as the disciples did is it that all people really look at is Sunday and the complaining from the church body that people would be put off. I do understand and had a young guy leave for university this year and was exploring ministry but his father told him not to go do that get a degree or masters then do that i think it is also seen as not such a great thing to do or as i have heard people say your job i don’t see it as a job it is life hope you understand this sorry i not the best writer but would love your feedback.

  5. Patrick on June 4, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    When I told friends of mine I was making a transition to a new ministry role rather than to continue in a “secular” corporate job I’ve held the last several years, they responded, “I don’t know anyone in ministry that is happy.” Or, “Why would anyone want to do that with their life?”

    There’s little money, the hours are often long, but there’s nothing else that influences other people so deeply as Jesus!

  6. David Ewing on June 4, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    Mike, I largely agree with both your premise and conclusion. I would add, however, that a (perhaps very large) part of the problem is somehow being missed, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because I live in extremely secular Portland, though I don’t think it’s just that, but I see more and more that the larger issue is indeed, as Corey states, one of relevance. What I mean is this: our difficulty, and our mission as disciples (clergy and laity both) is to find a way to reach the ears, minds and hearts of people who: a) don’t believe in any kind of deity, let alone the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–particularly those who find any follower of any of the Abrahamic religions to be ridiculous fools; b) have no concept of sin; c) don’t see any reason to subscribe to anything not connected to their finances or the legal system that makes demands on their lives; and d), are so turned off by some believers’ poor witness to the faith that they’ll never consider paying serious attention to the message. Fortunately, as you said so well, it’s His church, not ours, and by the Father’s grace and mercy, and the Spirit’s power, the church will indeed triumph–NOT any particular charismatic (in the social sense) preacher, nor any particular missionary, nor any lay believer. It is the Blessed Trinity who will prevail. Blessed be God forever.

    • Mike on June 4, 2018 at 4:51 pm

      David I believe I understand your premise and plight. Believe me when I say it’s the same in indiana. I just have to simply ask why in the world we would ever compromise Christ as displayed in the text to become relevant? When did we somehow become the pinnacle of Christianity? It’s been going on for millennia. Modern day reformers such as Wesley lead us to believe that the great commission was somehow up to us. That denies the very God we serve. It is actually semi pelagianism which was ruled heresy a little more than a century after completion of the canon. Church history tells all we need to know as we look at modern day. The cycle continues. As sinners saved by the blood of Christ, why would we ever want to be considered relevant? The return to sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratis is gradually taking hold in many areas of the world. Preaching and teaching the text in context rightly dividing law and gospel is going to soon have its day. Let’s face it. Pagans know the bait and switch scheme of making Christ relevant. Their prince is not stupid.
      Great speaking with you David. Much grace and peace to you..

  7. Aaron on June 4, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    Irrelevance is more difficult than relevance because it’s hard to find immediate common ground. You have to establish it from scratch, and often the easiest way to do that is to….?
    Could you update the blog? – I was interested in this answer.

  8. Aaron on June 4, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    Irrelevance is more difficult than relevance because it’s hard to find immediate common ground. You have to establish it from scratch, and often the easiest way to do that is to….. ?
    (Can you update the blog so we know?) please?

  9. Marivic on June 4, 2018 at 10:31 am

    What’s the easiest way to estsblish a common ground from a scartch?

    • Mike on June 4, 2018 at 11:01 am

      Very simple. The text preached and taught. Great question.

  10. Jared on June 4, 2018 at 9:51 am

    Thanks for the thoughts, Carey! Great post here. When it comes to a lack of leaders in the ministry, perhaps we could also teach business leaders to lead in the church bi-vocationally. I know a lot of churches that need leadership like you get with a full time pastor, but do not have the finances to be able to pay them a livable wage. Perhaps calling these people in the business sector to re-think what they are doing in the business world to “make room” for ministry would be a benefit as well. This way the church is not overburdened with spending so much of their budget on salaries and the pastor can provide for his family in a realistic way. I especially see this as necessary in the future for small and medium size churches as church giving as a whole continues to dwindle and cost of living as a whole continues to rise. At some point, the two are going to meet and make full time ministry even more difficult.

    • Mike on June 4, 2018 at 11:15 am

      Not to be rude or flippant, please ask yourself at what point did church become more than a building, an ordained pastor and the Bible? Why do we feel the need for Finneyism in the church? How has it come to be that Christ and the text is not our focus but rather our issues, our problems, our success or lack of and how we can employ already overworked business professionals to carry a burden for the church for our financial security.

  11. Jo Anne Taylor on June 4, 2018 at 9:49 am

    I see a strong connection between items 2 and 3: it’s because we are so different from the rest of the world that Christians and Christian faith are seen as irrelevant. Talking up Grace and demonstrating extravagant love can bridge the gap while promoting transformation. Good points, Carey! Our 160 year old congregation is looking at live-streaming worship. It’s a start.

    • Mike on June 4, 2018 at 11:20 am

      Joanne, I see your point but I would like to ask at what point did you consider yourself “different” from the world? The apostle Paul describes us all beautifully in the book of Romans. None seek for God. That would include you and I.

  12. Mike on June 4, 2018 at 9:43 am

    Speaking only to the office of pastor and not personally attacking Carey or any other pastor, I would like to add. Ministry is one of the easiest, best jobs to have if you love and honor the text. The text is solely about Jesus and not us. It’s not about our challenges to find leaders, Christians not returning to church, their belief and the culture of any other nonsense. What part of “faith comes by hearing and hearing comes by the Word of God” can we not seem to understand? Unbelievers dont come to church. There is no such thing. A heavenly God has brought them to church and all we can do is focus on each other? Really? No, the text preached and taught with a proper distinction between law and gospel is why they’re there even if they dont know it. Sin, repentance, forgiveness of sin and keeping in repentance as beautifully outlined in the text is what their sinful hearts and minds need to hear. We can continue to focus on us only to find ourselves dead in our trespasses and sin and headed straight to hell.

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