By Aaron Earls
In 1998, Netflix was only a year old and only offered DVDs by mail. In 2006, Apple was on the verge of introducing the world to the first iPhone. In 2012, the idea of at-home exercise changed with the founding of Peloton.
Think how much the world has changed since the late 1990s. Now, think about how much the average church worship service has changed in the same time frame.
The National Congregations Study (NCS) by Duke University has surveyed a representative sample of United States congregations in four waves: 1998, 2006, 2012, and 2018. The most recent release demonstrates the adjustments the average church has made to their worship service in the past two decades.
1. More worship services at different locations
The NCS has demonstrated the rise of the multisite church. In 2012, the first year the study asked, 3.4% of congregations had weekly worship services at more than one location, and 10.3% of churchgoers were involved in such a church.More than 1 in 10 congregations (10.6%) have worship services in multiple locations and are drawing 17% of U.S. churchgoers, according to the latest National Congregations Study. Click To Tweet
By 2018, more than 1 in 10 congregations (10.6%) had worship services in multiple locations and were drawing 17% of U.S. churchgoers.
2. Fewer services during the week
The percentage of congregations who say they held two or more services in a typical week declined in each survey wave, dropping from 72.8% in 1998 to 60.5% in 2018. Those who say they only have one service each week rose from 26.6% to 38.3%.
The drop in multiple services may be attributed to non-Protestant congregations, as a 2018 Lifeway Research study found 9 in 10 Protestant pastors say their church has some form of Wednesday night activity.
3. Fewer major differences in the worship services
In 2006, almost half of churches with multiple weekend services (47.9%) said there were “important differences,” like style of music, between those services. Now, 36.2% say that is the case.The percentage of churches with multiple weekend services who said there were “important differences" between those services fell from 47.9% to 36.2%, according to the National Congregations Study. Click To Tweet
A 2018 Lifeway Research study also suggests churches have moved beyond the “worship wars,” as only 15% of Protestant pastors say the biggest challenge they face in the area of music is navigating the varying music preferences of members.
4. Less traditional forms of worship
In previous decades, a common worship service would involve an organ accompanying a choir. Today, it may be a praise band with a drum and guitar.
In 1998, 53.9% of churches had a choir singing in their worship service, and 53% used an organ. Now, 41.9% regularly use a choir with 46.8% using organ music. Meanwhile, use of drums has risen from 19.9% in the late 90s to 40.8% today.Praise teams (52%) now outnumber choirs (33%) among Protestant churches, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
Specifically among Protestant congregants, Lifeway Research found praise teams (52%) outnumber choirs (33%).
5. More languages in the worship services
While fewer churches have different services with significant changes overall, one type of worship service change has seen growth—Spanish or bilingual worship services.
In 2006, 6.3% of churches held such services. By 2018, 1 in 10 churches in the U.S. had a Spanish or bilingual worship service.
6. More diversity in the pulpit
Fewer churches are now led by white senior pastors compared to the late 1990s. In 1998, more than 3 in 4 congregations had a white pastor (76.9%). Now, that has fallen to 64.6%. The share of Hispanic pastors has grown from 1.8% to 5.2%.
7. More age in the pulpit
Those leading the church have substantially more life experience now than two decades ago. The average age of a senior pastor has grown from 49 in 1998 to 57 today.The average age of a senior pastor has grown from 49 in 1998 to 57 today, according to the National Congregations Study. Click To Tweet
This follows other studies which have indicated a graying of the pastorate and a growing inability of many denominations and congregations to draw younger leaders to the pulpit.
8. More expressive worship
If worship services seem more animated today than 20 years ago, research indicates this is actually the case.Now, most worship services see someone raise their hands in praise (62.7%), compared to 44.6% in 1998, according to the National Congregations Study. Click To Tweet
Now, most worship services see someone raise their hands in praise (62.7%), compared to 44.6% in 1998. Also, 27.9% of services now include an adult jumping, shouting, or dancing spontaneously. In 1998, that was the case in 19.2% of congregations.
9. More technology involved
Churches are less likely to have a written order of service and more likely to use visual projection equipment compared to the late 1990s.
Use of written service orders have declined from 72% in 1998 to 66% now, while use of equipment to project announcements or music lyrics has grown from 11.9% to 46%.
Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com.