How Cultural and Environmental Factors Impact Denominations

Before we create new models and solutions, we need to understand the situation better, taking a closer look at the external factors that are facing the church in our current age.

This will allow for a more effective synthesis of the key points of contrast between traditional church structures and contemporary environmental forces. From this, new models can be formed to interact with the internal and external factors within denominational systems.

The Religious Shift: From Christendom to Post-Christendom

Perhaps one of the most significant factors that have caused the decline of many denominations (as well as a variety of independent churches) is the changing position of the church in society.

Most have called this a move from Christendom to Post- Christendom. Historically speaking, Christendom refers to the era that began with Constantine making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in 325. In time, religious and political agents (popes and kings) occupied a shared place of power within the distributed Roman Empire that became Western Europe. To be a citizen of a European nation at the time also meant that one was automatically a Christian.

The church dominated or was centered within the political, cultural, financial, educational, and religious aspects of society.

With the onset of modernity, the church of Christendom began a progression towards marginalization and was taken from the center of all society and placed at the center of the religious/spiritual/private life. Christianity was still the dominant and inherited faith passed from one generation to the next, but it did not occupy the seat of all power, only religious power.

Yet, the residue of the central place of the church within the wider culture still held strong for many centuries as institutions of higher learning taught theology and included divinity schools, most organizations had scriptural foundations for their beginnings, and government frequently called upon the religious leadership for advice and symbolic representation.

With respect to the United States in particular, in the twentieth century, this led to a considerable “cultural Christianity” in which people understood the basic beliefs and stories of the Scripture, attended (or were at least members) of a church regularly, and gave financially to support the work of the church. Well-known church observer, Lyle Schaller states:

Back in the 1950’s it was relatively easy to find a church in rural or small-town America in which one third or more of the local residents were constituents. That could be 30 percent of the several hundred residents living within three or four miles of the meeting place. The open country church might include more than one-half of the nearby households as members.

The traditional church of most denominations, has been shaped strongly and foundationally by the culture of Christendom.

Stuart Murray, in Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World, lists several pieces of evidence for the impact of Christendom upon our traditional churches:

  • A hierarchical, ecclesiastical system, based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, which was analogous to the state hierarchy and was buttressed by state support
  • The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations
  • The generic distinction between clergy and laity and the relegation of the laity to a largely passive role
  • The increased wealth of the church
  • The defense of Christianity by legal sanctions 
However, during the era surrounding the Vietnam War, Christianity began to lose its religious and spiritual authority within the United States.

Several other factors collided in this moment to loosen the grip of Christendom, even though its vestiges would still linger for a substantial period of time. Yet, one can easily observe that western society is no longer operating under the era of Christendom, and this is easily indicated by:

  • a wide variety of acceptable moralities in western nations, many of which have little overlap with Christian belief
  • the decentralization of power and authority throughout churches and denominations
  • the increasing marginalization of the church within the broader society
  • People are more reluctant to become members and move church to church
  • People’s beliefs are less Orthodox and tend to reflect the pluralistic culture
  • There is a lack of interest in spreading the faith

What This Means Today

As the death of Christendom has eroded the stronghold of the Christian faith in North America and as many established denominational churches have been in decline, this has changed the landscape of congregational life in substantive measure.

People no longer attend the same kinds of churches they used to, and their reasons for attending those churches have less to do with the vestiges of Christendom and more to do with a variety of other personal factors. This has led to significant changes in the size and type of church that people do attend. 
According to the 1890 census, the average congregation in the United States reported an attendance of 71 members.

This number increased to 104 by 1906, and, surging ahead to 1997, the average was 300. However, the quantity of active churches had decreased during this time. This phenomenon of increased average attendance, coupled with decreasing numbers of active churches per the church-going population, is explained by a growing number of congregations that had higher attendance figures.

Today, the largest 6 percent of Protestant congregations now account for at least one- third of all church attendees, while the smallest 60 percent of congregations account for 22 percent of attendees. This leaves just 46 percent to 47 percent of all worshippers to be found in congregations that can be described as mid-sized

As many have said, this is resulting in increased competition among churches for a smaller slice of the church-going pie.

This tension is causing a decrease in attendance among medium-sized churches (85-200) because they are not able to provide the sense of community that is accompanied with a smaller congregation (which account for roughly one-half of all congregations in the US), nor the range of services that is provided by a larger congregation.

George Barna reports that average church size dropped nearly 10 percent in attendance from 102 adults in 1997 to 91 adults in 1998 and these churches correspondingly felt a drop of 15 percent in their annual budget within that year. This sort of financial situation causes difficulty for congregations, as few are able to provide an adequate salary for a full-time minister, especially one with a seminary education.

It is reported that between 85,000 and 100,000 churches now have a bi-vocational minister, with the number increasing 2 percent annually. As the slide continues, church researchers anticipate that the number of mid-sized churches will continue to decrease unless there is a significant shift in the orientation and expectations of the churchgoing public.

Overall, this has not been a positive shift for Christianity, and it has impacted denominations most substantially.

In place of the medium sized congregation that once formed the core of the church-going public, it is now the mega-regional church that dominates the landscape of Protestant Christianity. In 1960, only sixteen churches were reported to have over two thousand in attendance; today the number is over thirteen hundred and increasing. These churches provide a wide range of ministries to service the modern consumer and have the financial resources to provide salaries for highly qualified and specialized ministers.

Yet, in spite of this ability to provide a broader range of experience with more specialized ministry, the church continues to struggle most precisely because, by and large, these churches continue to operate under a Christendom mentality and are growing by the increasing collection of Christendom Christians into one congregation.

In summation then, there are fewer Christians overall attending fewer churches with fewer leaders and fewer resources.

All of this paints a picture of a church that is increasingly marginalized in our contemporary society. As George Lindbeck contended nearly thirty-five years ago, “The future is a world in which the majority of people are indifferent or hostile, for either secular or religious reasons, to anything that could claim to be distinctively Christian.”

These shifts require radically different strategies, structures, and theological understandings in order for churches and denominations to effectively engage the culture of Post-Christendom.


Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.


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