As part of an experiment, I (Ed) encouraged all members of a 35- attendee congregation, which had a median age of 68 years, to visit five churches that had proven to be effective in reaching younger adults through their worship services. These members wanted to reach young adults, so it made sense for them to see what success in that area could look like. These little old ladies and a few old men took notes ranging from the types of musical instruments the churches used to the churches’ nursery programs, preaching styles and topics, singing and just about everything else.

During a Wednesday night service, everyone gathered to talk about what the team had seen. They were all accustomed to the pattern from the ’70s—two hymns, an offering, another hymn and possibly a chorus, followed by a certain style of preaching. None of the churches that were visited, however, followed that particular model. In fact, they were all completely different from the familiar old format.

The first comment was a classic—and everyone agreed with it. One of the older ladies stood up and announced almost indignantly, “Preacher, the church changed, and nobody told us!”

The Goal Is to Reach People for Christ

You may get a chuckle about a church so obviously unaware that times have changed. But what if the median age in my church had been 38 rather than 68—could we also have lost our relevance and evangelistic edge and not noticed it? What if our church, instead of being stuck in the ’70s, had been stuck in the ’80s or ’90s—or even stuck in certain patterns from last year that had led us nowhere? If our church had made no impact for Christ outside of our membership last year, should we remain content to do the same things this year?

Most churches need to change because they’re showing little or no statistical growth (numerical, spiritual or otherwise) and minimal impact on the surrounding culture. Too many are struggling just to keep their doors open, and yet they tend to keep replaying what they did “last year.” Instead of looking for a breakthrough, churches across the country are slowly dying because too many tend to value tradition over expanding God's reach.

Innovation or death? Too many churches choose death over innovation. The choice we make today will impact the church of our children.

A recent PBS series on colonial life in America was a great reminder about how much the norms for “church” have changed. In the 1600s, sermons were regularly more than two hours long, and people were fined for falling asleep in church! Musical instruments such as the organ were considered worldly. Steeples or outdoor crosses on church buildings were looked down on as inappropriate. Aren't you glad that at least some of those ways of doing church have changed?

On a more serious note, American churches have not suffered— for the most part—the pain experienced by many churches around the world. The idea of an underground church, a persecuted church or even a church with modern-day martyrs is largely non-existent in North America. Other countries generate news such as, “400 churches closed! Pastors killed and imprisoned!” Instead, American churches are moving in the sad direction of, “400 churches closed because communities don’t want them around!”

What America needs today is a culture-impacting revival. Today, the only continent where Christianity is not growing is North America. That’s a fact we dare not ignore.

Two of my (Elmer's) previous books in the field of church growth examined specific methods that God was blessing at the time they were written. Interestingly, many of the churches I previously wrote about continue to use the same methods that now no longer work as well—and, not surprisingly, their evangelistic outreach has declined and attendance at a number of them has dropped precipitously.

The message to us all is this: When culture changes, adjust your methods or you will lose your effectiveness…but never change your message or your principles! When methods no longer work, don't blame the harvest as being unreachable; instead, ask God if it’s time to change your methods!

Adapted with permission from the authors from their book, Eleven Innovations in the Local Church, Regal, 2007.