Why Cool Church Doesn’t Work Anymore (and 5 Things That Do)

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Everything has its season.

And the season of the cool church is, in many ways, coming to an end.

Recently, I wrote a post that generated a lot of discussion online and offline about why charismatic churches are growing and attractional churches are past their peak. You can read that post here.

To drill down further here’s more on what’s been happening as the culture changes around us.

So flip back a few decades…There was an era when simply being a cooler, more relevant church than the church down the road helped churches reach unchurched people.

There was a day when all you had to do was improve the church you led to gain traction.

Trade in the choir for a band. Turn the chancel into a platform. Add some lights, some sound, and some haze. Get some great teaching in the room. And voila, you had a growing church.

But we’re quickly moving into a season where having a cool church is like having the best choir in town: It’s wonderful for the handful of people who still listen to choral music.

Somethings changing. And hundreds of thousands of dollars in lights and great sound gear are probably not going to impact your community like they used to.

So what’s changing? Plenty.

But we're quickly moving into a season where having a cool church is like having the best choir in town: It's wonderful for the handful of people who still listen to choral music. Click To Tweet

Cool Isn’t Enough (Anymore)

You might think I’m against churches having bands, lights, and creating a great environment. Not at all. In fact, our church and many growing churches have full production.

If you are going to gather people, gather well.

My point is not that you shouldn’t. My point is that it’s no longer enough.

And maybe it never was.

If you are going to gather people, gather well. Click To Tweet

The mega-churches many of us watch today didn’t get to be as effective as they are simply by being cool.

If you really study how most large churches have become effective in leading people to Jesus (and yes—haters step aside—many large churches are effective in leading people into a real relationship with Jesus Christ), they have always been about more than just lights, sound, and show. There’s substance. More substance than critics would ever give them credit for.

Are mega-churches universally healthy? No.

But neither are many small churches. In fact, often, the dysfunction in small churches eclipses that of medium-sized or large churches.

So why would cool church be fading into the sunset?

Often the dysfunction in small churches eclipses that of medium-sized or large churches. Click To Tweet

3 Reasons Cool Church Isn’t Enough

Decades ago, as cool church started to take root among very large, rapidly growing churches, many other, smaller churches and church plants followed suit.

And for a season, it ‘worked.’

Getting some awesome lights, better sound, better music, and a slightly more hip communicator grew churches.

Sure, some of the growth was transfer-growth, but a big percentage of what many churches experienced was not transfer-growth. People invited their friends, and their friends came back.

So what’s changing?

But now most cities have a great selection of cool churches. Cities have dozens, and many towns have at least a few.

It’s no longer unusual to have a band in church. It’s not even that novel to have lights and great sound or to play all the cool songs.

And…in the process of all this imitation, three things happened:

1. Cutting edge keeps changing…fast

What was novel isn’t novel for long anymore.

The rise of technology and social media means that you now hold access to pretty much anything you want in your hand whenever you want to.

You used to have to hire experts or do some exploring to find cool things. Sometimes you even had to travel. Now you just download an app, watch a video, stream a song or follow whatever trend you’re passionate about at the moment—whenever you want to. Instantly. Usually for free.

Consequently, there’s kind of a trend-fatigue or indifference happening. Trends are shorter and less interesting, and we’re all growing oh-so-bored with what’s novel.

This means that it’s harder than ever for churches to be cutting edge because cutting edge keeps changing.

It's hard for churches to be cutting edge when the edge keeps changing. Click To Tweet

2. Indifference to church has grown 

As this helpful Barna research points out, even in the US, people are increasingly indifferent to church.  That’s certainly been true in Canada, Europe, and places like Australia and New Zealand for a while.

So a decade ago, having a cool church would have given you more traction than it does today.

If people aren’t into church, it doesn’t matter how cool, hip, or trendy your church is; people won’t be that interested.

You behave this way. If you’re on a health kick, you’re not going to order the burger and fries, even if they are the best in town. And if you’re not on a healthy kick, the spinach, arugula, and kale salad with tuna isn’t going to capture your imagination, no matter how healthy it is.

If people aren't into church, it doesn't matter how cool, hip or trendy your church is, people won't be that interested. Click To Tweet

3. Imitation killed innovation

Of all three points, this one probably bothers me the most.

To begin with, when churches imitate each other, we rarely borrow all the best practices—we just borrow the ones that are easy to see or seem obvious.

But what’s made growing churches grow is deeper than the cool factor. Consequently, leaders who finally get what they longed for—a cool church—are often shocked to discover they don’t deliver what they promised.

And in the process of all that imitation, something even more important is lost: innovation.

What’s needed now more than ever is church leaders willing to pioneer….to go deep into a culture that keeps changing to reach increasingly resistant people.

What’s needed most as we look at what’s ahead is innovation. And it’s sorely lacking among many church leaders.

Should you never imitate? No…that’s not wise either. To refuse to borrow best practices from others is arrogant and, to a large extent, futile thinking.

The point is simply this: don’t let imitation kill innovation at your church.

Don't let imitation kill innovation at your church. Click To Tweet

Irrelevance Isn’t the Answer, Either

So should you run from all things cool, trendy, or hip?


Relevance is better than irrelevance. Relevance matters simply because it allows you to speak to the people and culture around you. The culture simply doesn’t listen to leaders it deems irrelevant.

The answer to the challenge of keeping up with relevance is not to return to irrelevance.

Relevant church has many critics, but to not bridge the cultural gap is even more ludicrous (in my view) than trying to bridge it and maybe failing.

To agree to be irrelevant, ineffective, and bad at what you do is a terrible option.

So what do we do as we head into the future?

Relevance matters simply because it gains you permission to speak into the people and culture around you. The culture simply doesn't listen to leaders it deems irrelevant. Click To Tweet

5 Keys to Rebirth

The church can take many forms. But for all those leaders who, like me, believe in gathering people together for the sake of a larger mission, what does the future look like?

I think you stay relevant (and maybe even a bit cool—growing charismatic churches are all that), but you go beyond that. Way beyond it.

Here are five keys I see to a future of greater impact. In many ways, they are the new cool.

Authenticity is the new cool. The mission is the new cool. Hope is the new cool. Community is the new cool. And so is experimentation.

1.  Authenticity

Sometimes lurking beneath cool is inauthenticity. Dump that.

Authentic resonates. People are looking for what’s real, what’s true, and what’s authentic.

Here’s a post on how to be an appropriately transparent leader without oversharing.

2. A Deeper Sense of Mission

The church has always been about something bigger than itself. At the center of our mission is Christ.

A church that is focused on a larger mission will never become self-obsessed. Cool can carry with it a sense of narcissism.

You lose your narcissism when you lose yourself in a bigger mission.

And that, by the way, is something Gen Z and Millennials long to give their lives to.

A church that is focused on a mission larger than itself will never become self-obsessed. Click To Tweet

3. Deal Hope

We leaders are dealers in hope.

And Christianity provides more hope than anything.

I’m 100% behind making messages practical, applicable, and helpful. I think the Gospel is that. But it is also much more than that.

If all we have is this life, we’re to be pitied more than anyone (pretty sure the Bible says something about that).

In an age where all most people see is that which is imminent, people need to be ushered into the presence of Someone who is transcendent.

In an age where all most people see is that which is imminent, people need to be ushered into the presence of Someone who is transcendent. Click To Tweet

Christianity at its best has always been about both immanence and transcendence.

If you become a student of preaching in growing churches, you’ll soon see that hope is a constant theme in their preaching, as it should be. After all, Jesus sees our hate and meets it with love. He took death and turned it into life. If that’s not hope, I don’t know what is. And it’s exactly what our world is longing for.

Jesus sees our hate and meets it with love, he took death and turned it into life. If that's not hope, I don't know what is. And it's exactly what our world is longing for. Click To Tweet

4. Elevate Community

I’m all for lights, sound, relevance, and even video walls if they help the mission.

But as my friend Reggie Joiner says, the church will never be able to out-Disney Disney.

And that’s true, we will never have the budget or resources to entertain or engage the best. But even if we did…what would be the point?

While we can’t out-Disney Disney, no one should be able to out-community the local church.

God is in the people business. He loves us. And the goal is to connect people with Christ and with each other.

As your church grows bigger, it also needs to grow smaller by connecting people relationally. I know we’ve said this for years, but it’s never been more urgent.

The church will never be able to out-Disney Disney. @reggiejoiner Click To Tweet

5. Experiment

Experimenting is the key to innovation.

And, as we’ve seen, in an age of imitation in the church, innovation has been sidelined.

Bring that back.

Do what you do now, but start experimenting on the side to see what’s really going to make the biggest impact in the future.

And while more expressive, charismatic worship and preaching seem to be connecting right now, that likely won’t be the entire future.

But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Leaders and churches need to keep experimenting, keep pressing on in the name of love and keep driving down new highways to find the future.

When it comes to church, authenticity, hope, mission and community are the new cool. Click To Tweet

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.