Change or Plateau

Many churches in Malaysia [1] that had their heyday in the ’80s and ’90s have plateaued or declined over the last decade (probably longer). Each church may have its own unique reasons, but I suspect that there are common causal factors.

They may be due, in part, to a waning in critical areas such as prayer, evangelism and dependence on the Holy Spirit. I think, however, one of the biggest factors is the churches’ failure to change: to connect with the young, the new and the unchurched and to pursue a culture that enables them to adapt, be fresh and progressive. From my observation, only those that have embarked on change have been able to buck the trend.

Generally speaking, the newer churches are doing better—those that were planted in the last 20 years by younger people to reach their own generation and the next. They are more successful because, in part, they appear to be more attractive to them. And the reason for this is because they are more in sync with the younger generation. This is seen in the form of worship they have adopted, the way their sermons are preached, and even how the announcements are presented. These are just the more noticeable things because they happen at the worship service; the primary place of church attendance. As you go deeper, you will realise that its more than just about the lights and sound; it’s about culture. These newer churches have a culture that appeals to the younger generation.

It might help if I drew your attention to a similar situation a few decades ago. At that time many of the traditional and conservative churches were already experiencing a plateau. Some even lost their members to the up-and-coming newer or revived evangelical churches. Why? A large part of the reason was because the former refused to change. Their inflexibility to change their church culture prevented them from moving with the new things that the Lord was doing during that time. On the other hand, the latter, knowingly or unknowingly (as they were moved by the Spirit of God) made changes that brought freshness to the church, they became attractive, and relevant even to those who were outside the church.

It is my observation and opinion that, unfortunately, many of these evangelical churches that had their heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s are repeating the same mistakes of the traditional and conservative churches of the past. If they don’t change—which primarily means changing their church culture—they will continue to plateau and eventually decline. And that’s sad, when you think of how they were once riding high on the wave of God.

I sincerely believe that all churches ought to prayerfully consider what they need to do, including what they need to change, so that the young, the new and the unchurched of today can relate with them much more readily.

There are a number of related matters that need addressing, and I’ll take them up in my following blog posts.

Let me end by pre-empting a question in your mind. I know that some are going to argue that the Christian faith and good news are about Jesus. It is He whom we are to faithfully lift up; and He will draw people to Himself. I will not contend with that; Jesus is the centre of it all. But the Church is never far from Him. Jesus is the Head; the Church is His Body. When people see Jesus they will also very quickly cast their eyes on the Church. More than that, it is the Church that makes Jesus known to people. And so, how a church presents and represents Jesus will colour people’s perception about Him.

This statement still rings true: The message is the same, but the method must change.

Apply this to the larger context of the whole church. Many of the methods, forms, structures and even church culture need to change if we want to be able to continually connect and reach the young, the new and the unchurched of today and tomorrow.


[1] I’m limiting my comments to the English-speaking churches as I do not have much interaction with the vernacular churches.