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.

6 thoughts on “Change or Plateau

  1. While it is true that the church needs to change to adapt to the cultural milieu of the day, ultimately, people are drawn to the church when:

    the love of God is made manifest among the believers

    there is sound Spirit inspired preaching and teaching

    healing, signs and wonders are clearly evident

    there is strong Sunday School to meet the needs of parents and kids

    there is Spirit inspired worship in song

    there is a passion for evangelism and missions

    • Hi Nelson, Thank you for your comment. I certainly don’t disagree with you that the qualities you listed are critically important to the health, vibrancy and progress of the church. But I’m trying to get pastors and church leaders to seriously think about “change”–in all sort of areas and ways–so that their churches won’t become old and dusty, and appear to be irrelevant to the world today (and tomorrow).

  2. I beg to disagree… I personally have serious difficulties in own home church because worship has steered from focus on God to focus on ourselves… the Hillsongs generation… althought their songs are very good… are more about the EXPERIENTIAL relationship with God than with WORSHIP of God…. Its all about I want to sing.. I want to please you… I feel good and happy…
    The focus has shifted from God to our inward feelings and experience of God… whcih is not in itself bad… its good… but its more suited to Prayer meetings and personal time and personal relationship as in quiet time… and in my ind NOT suitable for Corporate Worship…
    Whilst not at home church … visiting my son in Singapore I attend the True Way Presbyterian Church… they have basically not changed their worship songs… its mostly hymns etc… and the focus of practically all the songs is about Gods charachter and Gods position… not our feelings for Him… our feelings in general etc…
    I am an old man… and the way churches today are bending over to attract and accomodate the younger crowd/new generation unfortunately does not sit well with me personally.
    Vibrancy of church has nothing to do with the good feeling of attending a happy sunday morning worship… I dont even like it personally when the first thing we do in church is to tell our people to walk around and connect and say good morning to each other… Lets bring back the focus to God in our Sunday worhip… in youth worship and other meetings lets socialise more… but can we revese the sunday worship for a more formal encounter with God??? God has lost its awesomeness on Sunday… The first character of God is His Holiness.. then comes His Love… (my own thoughts)…
    The time before worship should be a QUIET TIME … not music practise on stage… and worse people talking market talk and social talk in the first 10 minutes before worship up to 10 minutes after start of worship… people looking at their phones during services (for social and business matters)… I am an old goat fading away… my presence and thioughts are no longer relevant in todays church… so please excuse my comments above.

    • Hi William, I appreciate your candid response. I don’t disagree with you that worship is primarily about God and for God. But it’s also a place to help people connect with God. I believe this is where pastors and church leaders ought to guide the worship team so that both these objectives are met. While this is not a strict correlation, it’s something like what Jesus says we are to do–that we are “worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24). It’s “both and”; not “either or”.

      My point in the blog post is that church should be less about ourselves; and more for the new, the young and the unchurched. And we need to change in order to reach them for the Kingdom of God. If we can do that by changing how we do church without compromising on our beliefs — we should. I believe, if we don’t, the result is that the church will plateau as we have seen in too many churches.

  3. Thanks for your feedback, Soon Hock.

    Actually it is more like the world needs to be relevant to the church.
    In my opinion, there is too much of the world in the church eg…some more like discos, glossed over truths and half truths or no truth at all, politically correct messages, hyper-grace gospel, health and wealth, name it and claim it gospel, kingdom now gospel, youth pampering gospel etc.

    While the church needs to change in terms of style and methodology eg. more spontaneous and dynamic worship, impactful sights ,sound and design, free flowing but sound preaching and teaching, there is always the danger of watered down and erroneous gospel leading to toxic change. This unfortunately seem to occur especially among the young who, all too often are still immature, lacking in wisdom and discretion.

    • Nelson, I think the point is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is where seasoned but progressive pastors and leaders ought to provide guidance for the young people. “Change” doesn’t mean “watered down”. “Change” ought to mean presenting eternal truths in new forms that are communicable and connectable to a different generation and culture.

      I believe it can be done.

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