Declining Attendance and 7 Preaching Shifts That Are Happening Right Now


Every week you host services at your church hoping to reach more people, which is admirable and appropriate.

The problem is that the culture is changing and never bothered to ask you permission.

In many ways, preachers are using a method that’s been around for centuries…if not millennia…which on the one hand is wonderful. The challenge is that culture is changing so rapidly, fewer and fewer people are hearing the message every year. At least that’s the case in many, if not most churches.

If you think that the cultural change is over, fasten your seat belts. It’s not showing any sign of decelerating any time soon.

Here are 7 things that are changing right now.

Wise leaders will see the change and respond. As we’ve said before, leaders who see the future can seize the future.

The culture is changing and never bothered to ask you permission. Click To Tweet

1. People Aren’t Automatically Coming to The Message Anymore

It’s almost singularly true that throughout human history to date, the only way to get the message was for people to assemble to hear it.

Just think about Jesus’ day: the crowds assembled to hear him. And in every century since then, that’s how it worked.

But technology has changed things so much that our culture doesn’t operate that way any more.

In the past, people brought themselves to the message. Today, you bring the message to people.

In the past, people brought themselves to the message. Today, you bring the message to people. Click To Tweet

Think about how profoundly things have changed in the last decade. Amazon and other online options means you can get anything delivered to you overnight…and you rarely if ever have to leave the house. The shift in how humans (here in the West) behave is profound.

In addition, people are far more mobile. This idea that you’ll be in one community every weekend to visit a set church at a set time is growing increasingly archaic by the day. People just don’t behave that way anymore. (See 7 Disruptive Church Trends That Will Rule 2018 for more on this.)

And whether you think they should behave that way is irrelevant, especially if you want to be effective.

I think it’s very possible to see in-person attendance growth AND online attendance growth (we’re seeing both where I serve at Connexus). The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. But to do that, you have to take both in-person ministry and online outreach seriously.

Preachers, everyone you want to reach is online. So act like it.

In the past, people brought themselves to the message. Today, you bring the message to people. Click To Tweet

Surprisingly, few churches invest anything more than pennies on the dollar on their online presence. And very few preachers take online seriously because they’re not even sure it counts.

But in 2021, a preacher asking if online counts is like a taxi driver asking if Uber counts.

In 2021, a preacher asking if online counts is like a taxi driver asking if Uber counts. Click To Tweet

2. Easy answers are history

Decades ago, the local preacher was essentially the source for everything about the scriptures, Christianity and faith. Sure, an avid Christian might read a few books, listen to other talks or attend a conference.

But information was scarce and cost money.

That meant that what a preacher said carried a lot of weight, and people by default accepted it.

Sure, often faith crumbled when a teenager went to college and was exposed to new information, but not every kid went to college.

For too long, preachers got away with easy answers.

Fast forward today, and it could hardly be more different.

Just assume everyone hearing your message, especially non-Christians investigating faith, know as much or more about a subject as you do. And even though they may not, they can easily Google anything you say. And they will.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of misinformation and bad information online. But that doesn’t stop people from researching.

Add to that the reality that we live in an age of strong opinions weakly formed, and the easy assumption that what you say as a preacher will carry to the day is gone.

We live in an age of strong opinions, weakly formed. Click To Tweet

Which means a little more homework on your part. Not only should you do a little research into the text (which is so important), you should do a little more research into the culture.

The future belongs to preachers who exegete the culture as well as they exegete the text.

It’s the only way you can understand what your audience is thinking.

The future belongs to preachers who exegete the culture as well as they exegete the text. Click To Tweet

3. People aren’t starved for information; they’re starved for meaning

I realize the first two points come across as a bit bleak, but they lead somewhere great.

The internet provides a sea of information, but a sea in which far too many people are drifting nowhere.

The current shortage in our culture isn’t a shortage of information; it’s a shortage of meaning.

The current shortage in our culture isn't a shortage of information; it's a shortage of meaning. Click To Tweet

And that’s where no one should do better than preachers of the Gospel.

The challenge is to wade deep into the text and deep into the culture AND come out with meaning that resonates.

In an age that has no scarcity of information but a deep scarcity of meaning, the church is uniquely positioned to answer ‘why’ in a world that is fascinated with ‘what’ and ‘how.’

The church can answer why in world that’s starved for meaning. And the church can answer ‘who’ in a world that’s starving for relationship.

The church can answer 'why' in a world that's starved for meaning. Click To Tweet The church can answer 'who' in a world that's starving for relationship. Click To Tweet

4. Your personal integrity makes or breaks everything

No one needs to make a list of names of highly known, loved and formerly respected preachers and church leaders that are no longer in ministry today because they lacked personal integrity.  Sadly, far too many names are emblazoned on our minds.

Our culture also now prizes authenticity as a chief cultural value…but only in a strange kind of way. The moral compass of our culture points in a hundred different directions on any given day, and often tolerates blatant contradictions in some leaders while zeroing in on the tiniest little defect in others.

Here’s what it universally means for preachers though: as important as your talk is (see above), your walk is far more important than your talk.

In fact, an inconsistent walk will invalidate your talk, no matter how good your talk is.

Preachers, an inconsistent walk will invalidate your talk, no matter how good your talk is. Click To Tweet

In many ways, that should be no surprise and a relief to most preachers.

We have always been held to a high standard of accountability, as we should be.

And when you mess up, admit it. I don’t just mean on the big things, I mean on the little things.

Own your junk. Get help. Apologize as often as you need to. Push others into the spotlight. Admit your weaknesses.

If you don’t, you’ll eventually be humiliated when others spot the truth you’re unwilling to admit.

Humiliation, after all, is involuntary humility. That’s what a public fall is: involuntary humility.

Humiliation, after all, is involuntary humility. That's what a public fall is: involuntary humility. Click To Tweet

Far better to humble yourself than to have others do it for you.

See a gap between your private walk and your public talk? Decelerate your talk and accelerate your walk.

See a gap between your private walk and your public talk? Decelerate your talk and accelerate your walk. Click To Tweet

If you want to dig deeper on the whole issue of the private walk of a leader, my new book Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges Nobody Expects and Everyone Experiences is available for pre-order now.

5. Imitation Will Kill You

Because integrity and authenticity are so critical in our current culture (and yes, the culture is hypocritical on that…but we never should be), imitating other leaders is a terrible strategy.

Imitating leaders you admire can seem like a wonderful strategy to accelerate your development as a preacher.

But there are two problems. First, anyone who knows you knows that’s not really you.

I watched a young preacher recently trying to preach with just a crazy amount of passion and all I could think the whole time is “Why is this guy trying to imitate Rich Wilkerson?”

It came off as inauthentic, fake and honestly, surreal.

I love Rich. Rich is an amazing preacher with a great church, and having been on a trip with him a few years ago, I can assure you he’s got a unique, God-given personality. But God gave that to Rich, not to the guy who’s trying to imitate him.

Preachers, here’s the question you need to ask yourself: do you want to be a cover band for the rest of your life, or do you want to be a real artist?

Preachers, do you want to be a cover band for the rest of your life, or an artist? Click To Tweet

Go ahead and play the bar circuit for 40 people a night if you want to be a cover band, but if you want to develop the gift God has given you, be yourself. At least you’ll die with your dignity.

I have tons of things I wish were better and different about my communication style, but at least I’m me.

The best part of being true to who God made you to be? You can roll out of bed for the rest of your life and do it.  Work hard. Get better. But be you.

As Craig Groeschel says, people would rather follow a leader who’s always real than a leader who’s always right.

6. The intellect alone isn’t enough

When it comes to the style of preaching that’s going to really reach out culture, I’m not sure the intellectual approach is going to fully win the day.

For sure, you need substance, research and a deeper level of thinking than you had before. And if you’re able to carry a discussion far and deep, that’s a great thing.

But speaking to the head alone rarely reaches the heart. So don’t just speak to the head.

Speaking to the head alone rarely reaches the heart. Click To Tweet

7. The emotional alone isn’t enough

There’s a real resurgence these days in what you might call ’emotional’ preaching…preachers with a lot of passion, fascinating imagery, word-craft and emotion.

In many ways, that’s amazing.

But just like the intellect alone isn’t enough, emotionalism alone isn’t enough.

To reach and keep the next generation is going to take both the head and the heart.

If you only reach the head, it’s easy to walk away when a new idea comes along.

If you only reach the heart, it’s easy to walk away when the feeling dies.

But if you preach to both the head and heart, the head will carry the heart in the tough seasons and the heart will sometimes carry the head.

Preach intelligently and preach emotionally and you’ll reach the whole person. Which is exactly who God redeemed.

Preach intelligently and preach emotionally and you'll reach the whole person. Click To Tweet

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What Else Is Changing

Anything else you see changing in preaching?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

Declining Attendance and 7 Preaching Shifts That Are Happening Right Now


  1. Graham Spruill on April 28, 2021 at 1:46 pm

    Carey! I’m someone who’s gone from a hesitant listener not seeking to add “another leadership podcast” to an ABSOLUTE raving fan of yours. Your podcast, content, and YOU are a gift to the church and the world. Can’t wait to get the new book in my hands when it comes out. Praying for you, Toni, and your family!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 28, 2021 at 2:06 pm

      Wow! Thanks so much Graham!

  2. Aaron K. on April 26, 2021 at 11:47 am

    This article is both informative and challenging as a preaching pastor. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful piece. I would love for you to work through one of your statements. I am often a very concrete thinker, and the following statement really made me stop and think. “The future belongs to preachers who exegete the culture as well as they exegete the text.”

    I would love to learn healthy ways to better exegete the culture, at large. I feel I am pretty good at exegeting the folks in our “pews” (the people I know). But, I feel like I’m always behind on the culture.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 26, 2021 at 6:31 pm

      Hey Aaron!

      I do this by intentionally following voices like John Mark Comer, Mark Sayers, David Kinnaman, and Mike Todd who are great at studying the culture!

  3. Joy on September 4, 2018 at 6:07 pm

    Thank you for your insight! I believe these are all accurate and helpful points. One I would add is sermon length. I think preachers sometimes overestimate how long the average person can tune in and listen to what is being said. I tend to think that when a preacher goes really long, it’s just a lack of preparation. This is a turn off. If it goes too long, people get bored and start whipping out their phones.

    • Ben Graham on April 25, 2021 at 3:31 pm

      As my Grandpa you use to say, “Always leave them wanting more, then giving them more then they want.”

  4. […] Declining Attendance And 7 Preaching Shifts That Are Happening Right Now by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  5. Kevin on August 17, 2018 at 8:08 am

    I would absolutely love it, if you (Carey) would share something about the difference between the “Mission”/ “Purpose” of the Church vs. the Purpose of church “Meetings”. In the N.T. it is very obvious that our mission/Purpose is to make Disciples of all Nations and take the Gospel to all nations. However the N.T. shares several reasons why believers came together (whether in temple court or house to house) to have “church” or assemble. These “meetings” that we so often refer to in Hebrews 10:25 had very little to do with unbelievers and had almost everything to do with edifying believers. Just a few things they (believers) did when they came together: Lord’s supper, received teaching (instruction equipping), worshiped, prayed, participated in gifts of Spirit to build up church. Which of these activities were for the unbeliever? Paul no doubt mentions that unbelievers “may” find themselves in the assembly hence the reason to make sure things were done decently and in order so as to avoid confusion; but where does the purpose of “church services” existing for the lost come from? It clearly does not come from the Bible. This is something I am wrestling with as a pastor because I want everyone to feel welcome but think about the idea (According to John Maxwell) that a large percentage of the public will NEVER attend a church gathering no matter how good it may be to us. Are we conditioning our people to invite people to church so our pastor can win them or are we asking them to be intentional about sharing their faith with those who may never darken the door of our church? Just thoughts to think about and wondering if in our zeal to have great church services have we lost the purpose of them all together.

    • Evelyn Lee on April 25, 2021 at 5:18 pm

      The date of Kevin’s comments is Aug 2018m but I find his thoughts very compelling. The idea of “bringing someone to church” to save them is archaic. I think his prespective on the church service and our own discipling of those around us are even more significant in this Covid-environment.

  6. Derrick on August 16, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    In another article you discussed the importance of Church attendance. As a practicing Christian who attends church service, I agreed with many of your points. But I did find one area that I was unclear regarding your recommendation and I was seeking clarification. You mentioned the importance of church worship and fellowship, which the scripture supports. But where I was unclear is what constitutes a church? We the people are the church body and not a building, but if I meet with a couple of other people to worship God, share the word, pray, sing praises to our Heavenly Father, and if we carry out the functions of mercy, and edification of each other, in your opinion is that a church? Or was your recommendation an organized denomination? I thank you in advance for your time and response.

  7. Dr Will on August 14, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    Carey, as usual you nailed it. Thanks a zillion… The challenge of those of us in Africa is that over 70% do not have access to internet and thise that have are always saddled with the challenge of poor network. Hence, points numbers 1 to 3 may not significantly contribute in churches within African setting at least not I the nearest future. Every society has its own inherent challenges and that must be studied before any general rule my be applied.

  8. Woody on August 14, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    Thank you. Very meaningful points that can apply to each of us as Christians, not only to preachers, in our walk to provide “salt and light”.

  9. Lod on August 13, 2018 at 8:06 pm

    Cite your sources!

    It kills your integrity to announce from the pulpit that “Yo I did this advanced math equation, chemical equilibrium experiment, this in-depth reading of Plato and THIS is what I discovered, figured, etc” and then the audience reads or has read the book where the author did all of that research, calculations or reading and they see the source that you have claimed as your own.

    How can a person expect to be trusted with big things e.g. the existence of a God who loves us and died for us, if the person cannot be trusted not to plagiarize another text or person? Always cite your sources. It takes just a second to say, “I read this in a book or heard someone say at a conference” and then quote your interesting and germane tidbit.

    The internet has made the world of information very small and the things that are said from the pulpit and published on YouTube can be fact-checked in very short order.

  10. Hamilton McNicol on August 13, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    Love it.

    I think there needs to be a nuance/clarification that connects #3 & #5. It is true that young people are starved for meaning. Historically lack of information meant we needed elders (and preachers) to access information. Now the problem is there is too much information. But, BUT, we still need elders and a loving wise community to help us discover the important information to negotiate the billions of options and possibilities. If Barry Schwartz is right (See Ted talk ‘The paradox of choice’), too much info/options is as bad if not worse than not enough. So, we discover meaning in Jesus through meaningful relationships in communities of faith. Carey might mean this, not sure.

    The reason I think this is connected with #5 is that imitation is actually a really important part of development. Because this is a leadership blog, maybe it is assumed that this isn’t for every level of development prior to leadership. However, my experience shows that the church really struggles to know how to do imitation well, and when and how to move people/emerging leaders towards innovation. This holds the top end and bottom end of discipleship together. I don’t think preaching is an exception to this.

    All in all, great blog, though. Thanks Carey

  11. Samuel on August 13, 2018 at 3:16 pm

    Great teachings, impacting lives. I agree that one has to be real and not imitate others.

  12. Hellen on August 13, 2018 at 2:51 pm

    I find the new concert-like church has no place for the 45 yrs old and up. The whole service…oops “experience”is geared and directed to the millenials. Programs are non-existent or sparse for more the mature christian. Many people of the older crowd do not attend church anymore. If one feels that your only purpose is to fund the church ….well that gets old very quickly.

  13. Billy Collier on August 13, 2018 at 12:44 pm

    As I am knocking on 50, I am struggling as I am reading my culture as well as “successful church cultures.” I am highly against preaching “moral deism” but am seeing much of this in popular sermon series. I definitely don’t want to bore anyone with a “here’s the story” type sermons or lessons, but where is the line? I know the theological answer (grace leads to behavior), but in a world of why’s, how do I communicate Jesus’ call and passion without making today’s culture see it as a “do’s and don’t’s” list? Thanks for your encouragement. God bless ALL your endeavors (endeavours)!

    • Mike Duke on August 13, 2018 at 1:28 pm

      Welcome to the 50 and over club. I don’t remember joining, do you? Ha. I think I understand your plight. I personally see moral relativism as the challenge. Moral deism from the text, is simply that. Followed with penal substitutionary atonement from the text, the moral deism begins to make more sense and the need for it more important.
      I think the only thing that can be boring in the text is us. Let’s face it, we have lives too and most generally they’re not glamorous. We will all have those days we ourselves struggle with the text or delivery of it but that’s okay. We’re thankfully, wonderfully human. I want to personally encourage and thank you for all you do. The 50 club is not so bad. We just have hair in places we never had before and have lost it in areas we once had it. Ha. Grace and peace to you.

  14. Jeff Fuson on August 13, 2018 at 10:42 am

    Carey, throwing strikes as usual. I’m working hard at understanding the culture and bringing texts to life that will help with the whys that people need. We are also cranking it up and putting a premium on the live experience AND the online experience. It’s a both and world for sure. And, I love the idea of being authentic all the time so I don’t have to remember who to be in different contexts. Not flawless by any stretch but allowing the Holy Spirit to shore up weak places and tear down strongholds and finding brothers for the journey. Thanks again for sharing such ‘on point’ ideas. ALL THE BEST!

  15. Jason Lieberg on August 13, 2018 at 9:49 am

    This is SO GOOD! Thank you Carey!!

  16. Mike Duke on August 13, 2018 at 9:32 am

    If I may, allow me to make a few comparisons. It’s no surprise in America we have churches and church networks with corporate structures that rival very large home improvement stores. When one wants to improve their home they visit the large home improvement store. When one wants to improve their life they visit the large corporate church.
    Plan an entire kitchen or home addition with the large home improvement store and you will begin to see huge gaping holes in the company’s mission statement. You will likely hear “out of stock”, “discontinued” or simply “we can’t help you” or “that’s not our department”. But the mission statement is clearly “customer service”. So exactly what does this huge home improvement store actually believe?
    Plan your life with a huge corporate church and the gaping holes are much the same only somewhat reversed. One leaves a huge corporate church with much life application but knows so little about remodeling a life. Often times they can’t or do not have the financial or personal skills to pull off such a project. Exactly what does the church actually believe? The Bible is clearly somewhere in the mission statement, but how? Jesus is in the mission statement, but how? The church clearly believes in something but what?
    We tend to take for granted that the church believes, as it always has, the Bible is it’s central focus. I think the same mistake is made with the home improvement store assuming customer service is it’s central purpose.
    Abandonment of church did not start with the people. It began long ago when decisions were made to abandon sound doctrine at the seminary level. At key points in history business management, psychology and other earthly studies crept their way into theological studies. These are not wrong in their own right but simply misplaced.
    As we all are aware what constitutes a church, is the church having a pastor working faithfully through the text front to back rightly dividing Law and Gospel with 40 members somehow an anathema in 2018? What is the foundational role of a physical church building in 2018? Is the senior pastor of a large corporate church a C.E.O, C.F.O or deliverer of the text in context with sound doctrinal supporting beams? Of course sin, repentance, forgiveness of sin and keeping with repentance will all have to be addressed in sound doctrine. Perhaps that’s where the problem resides?
    The text preached and taught does it’s own selection process. Does “faith comes by hearing and hearing comes by the Word of God” ring any familiarity? Supported with sound biblical doctrine, the text is self explanatory.
    Introducing someone not to a simple flimsy customer service statement but rather to a text holding all hope for them is where real building begins but it must be supported with sound biblical doctrine.
    Much kudos for allowing me to post. Please understand I’m not here to discourage but simply offer a different perspective and challenge of thought. If I might come across as arrogant or flippant my most sincere apology to anyone.

  17. Chuck on August 13, 2018 at 8:49 am

    I apologize for a second post so soon but, Carey, THIS neeeds to be tweeted from the mountaintop:

    “The future belongs to preachers who exegete the culture as well as they exegete the text.”

    Small groups people. That is our mantra! A small group ministry that does not acknowledge the culture it is trying to reach is, dare I say, doomed.

  18. Gary Whittaker on August 13, 2018 at 8:48 am

    I agree with each point. Can you give us some specific examples of good/bad ways to do it? What did you try that worked or didn’t? No to mimic you, just driving it home.
    Thx, helpful as always.

  19. Chuck on August 13, 2018 at 8:36 am

    We are in that season of seeking out a new fellowship because having moved to a different state. So a few thoughts on that.

    If I see #2 (in our language, it’s 7 Ways to Have a Happy Life) oozing from the pulpit, chances are I’m not gonna be back for good.

    #5 and #6 rock. Nuff said.

    I would add a few points about evidence of authentic community here but I know the author covers that in other entries.

    Peace out.

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