A Brief History of Church Movements Over the Last 100 Years

As church leaders we often look to our peers in ministry for directional clues. What ministries and avenues today are most effective for reaching others and making disciples? How have those changed from ten years ago? And most importantly, what will be the new ideas that will drive the church ten years from now?

Let me suggest stepping back and taking a 30,000-foot view of ministry over the last 100 years to determine what has happened in the North American evangelical church. I would observe five key movements from the 1910s to present, and some rudimentary conclusions from these observations. Please note these are broad generalizations not meant to box-in or indict any particular church movement, but rather to spur thought and discussion.

1910 – 1940: The Industrial Movement. As the industrial age came into full swing culturally we saw the church itself become a “factory” for spiritual growth. Sunday School largely replaced family discipleship. Sunday attendance and weekly ritual around the church building replaced more home- and neighborhood-based ministry. This was a reflection of people in general moving away from working on family farms and businesses centered at home to occupations where the breadwinner left the home and went to a factory or business. In 1900, 41% of the labor force in the United States were farmers. This was reduced to 16% in 1945. By 2000 only 1.9% were.

In this movement we see the birth of campus-based church ministry. Before this time most Bible teaching was done in the home by parents passing down knowledge to their children. As church programming was established, many families began to depend on the church organization to meet spiritual needs.

1940 – 1960: The Evangelism Movement. During this period we saw the church adopt a more cyclical approach to Christian life and growth. Spiritual education leads to decision for Christ, leads to maturity, leads to ministry, leads to missions. The advent of mass media like radio and television brings many parts of the faith into “sound bite” focus—praying a “salvation prayer”, or “walking an aisle” become immediate and visible actions representing faith but often lack real saving knowledge. “Billy Graham”-style evangelism permeates the church. Instead of Christians going out into their communities to reach others for Christ, we shift to methods that draw them in to the church or to evangelistic events.

The result of this movement was to place many Christians into a standardized model of Christian growth, with pre-defined steps along a path that led from initial interest in the church through salvation and into maturity and ministry involvement. Largely, church involvement becomes a series of events.

1960 – 1980: The Contemporary Movement. The church becomes modernized with a younger generation’s music and style. Pipe organs give way to praise teams, and neckties give way to blue jeans. In attempting to reach a generation that was walking away from traditional church, many congregations split their programming into “traditional” and “contemporary”—or try “blended” services. The movement is punctuated by a shift to style as a primary draw. Some congregations have found a balance here over the years, while many churches still struggle with this issue to this day.

One result of this moment may be the “personalization” of God—that is, our approach to God in worship reflects the style and taste of the individual, rather than a more prescribed and reserved liturgy. Some may argue that the overall level of respect and awe for God in the church was reduced through this movement, and indeed there is still tension, both visible and unspoken, in many churches on this issue.

1980 – 2000: The Megachurch Movement. Churches consolidate and become larger. In a new iteration of the great European church building movement of the 1400-1800s, vast Worship Centers become our contemporary cathedrals. Megachurches become mall-like environments offering a universe of activity from sports to education, counseling, large-scale events, mission trips, weekday programming—even schools. By 2010 nearly 20% of all churchgoers in United States attend a megachurch (a congregation of 2,000 or more in weekly attendance). Often situated on large tracts of land near major highways, megachurches flourish in urban sprawl cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Atlanta, Seattle and Phoenix.

The key problem becomes individuals getting lost in the vastness of a congregation of thousands or tens of thousands. Smaller churches, which lack the resources and programming of the megachurch, as well as the budget to pay a highly qualified and gifted staff, suffer from a migration away from local “street corner” congregations to the regional mega-option. Research in the 1996 book Megachurch Myths indicates that over 60% of megachurch attendees nationwide actually came from other already existing churches. Also, because megachurches are usually more known by location, programming and staff personalities, they are functionally non-denominational, signaling a broad trend away from identification with specific denominational affiliation among evangelical churches.

2000 – Present: The Networked Church Movement. Originally an offshoot of megachurches who reached their geographical limits, congregations began to “satellite” themselves into multiple smaller congregations meeting across an entire city or region. Video screens replace live preaching as dynamic Bible teachers are “beamed in”. The smaller congregations appeal to a new generation desiring personal connection and intimate friendships. A wave of church planting around satellite churches ensues. While programs in networked churches are fewer and more focused, smaller groups demand more active volunteerism, and ministry involvement among members skyrockets.

Where are we now? If you’re looking for the name or characteristics of the next big “movement” in church culture, I am sorry to disappoint you. Cultural shifts like this are only really viewable in hindsight, and are subject to much interpretation. I would, however, point out a few general characteristics of church movements about which these five eras in the modern church inform us.

First, modern church movements are largely a reflection of culture versus a creator of it. Each of these movements came about because culture shifted around the church. The church simply adapted to change versus taking part in leading it. Second, each movement largely represents the church as a physical place versus a spiritual body. Perhaps the most recent wave of small “house churches” in the United States may reverse this trend, but overall the vast majority of religious activity each week takes place more and more at a central church location versus out in individual communities.

Finally, through each moment we see that the church is not, in fact, dying, as has been the cry of denominational leaders for years. Attendance is shifting away from traditional denominations, but according to a 2010 Gallup Poll, 43.1% of Americans attend church weekly or almost weekly, up from 42.1% in 2008 and near an all-time high since such polling was introduced. The baby boomer generation is now entering their 60s, which traditionally is an age-range where increased church attendance is the norm.

What such movements teach us is to be aware of and engaged in our local and national culture so that we can, as the church, effectively minister in it and to it.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.