Challenges for the 21st Century Church

By Ircel Harrison, 
Pinnacle Coaching Coordinator

Recently, Dr. Terrell Carter invited me to be a guest on his weekly radio program which is broadcast in St. Louis.  This is not something I usually do, but I enjoyed the dialogue that emerged between the two of us. As Terrell asked me about some of the challenges that face the 21st century church, several came to mind.


Almost immediately, I responded, “One of the biggest challenges that we face is accepting people where they are rather than where we would like for them to be.”  I don’t think that I had actually used that terminology previously.  Whether we intend it or not, we think in terms of the “ideal new member” for our congregation, expecting the person to come up to certain standards.  Unconsciously we are thinking, “This way we avoid the hard work of acceptance.”

Of course, we should ask ourselves, “When I first became part of a faith community, was I such a great ‘catch’?”  The answer is probably, “No.”  Each of us was a long way from being the type of disciple that is ready to make a significant contribution to the Kingdom of God through a local church.

My friend Mark Tidsworth points out that the process by which people choose to affiliate with the church has changed.  At one point, especially in the free church tradition, the idea was that a person would profess their faith (believe), begin to grow in their faith (become), and then seek to be received into a congregation (belong).  In the 21st century, the process often plays out this way:  a person experiences relationship with believers (experience), belongs to a group that is largely comprised of loving and active disciples (belong), grows in her or his understanding of the Christian faith (become), and finally understands what it means to be a follower of Christ (believe).

We must learn to meet people where they are and not impose burdens on them for which they are not ready.  This means accepting casual dress in worship services, unexpected language in fellowship sessions, and naïve questions in a study group.  In other words, we love them and accept them where they are, inviting them to join us on the journey.  This requires more patience than most of us have, so we depend upon the Spirit of God to give it to us.


In the middle of the last century, the ideal staffing of a mainline church looked like this:  a full-time, seminary trained minister (male); at least one associate (often seminary trained) who specialized in youth and/or children’s ministry; and a full-time or part-time music leader.  Of course, this was not the reality for every church.  Many churches, especially rural churches, had a bi-vocational minister (one with another vocation), a volunteer or part-time music director, and lay volunteers for other ministries.

As we move further into the 21st century, the second model is becoming more common. Even mainline denominations which have high standards for ministerial preparation--both in the discernment process and in educational preparation--are looking at other options to fill the pulpits of churches who have both declining memberships and smaller budgets.

On the other hand, there are the non-denominational or community churches who place more emphasis on leadership ability than formal preparation, calling pastors and staff members who lack theological credentials.   There are also alternative church models that depend entirely on gifted volunteers to lead the fellowship of believers.

The landscape has changed as well as the viability of the ideal.  What does this mean for leadership development--both for clergy and lay--for the church in the 21st century?

First, this means that the distinction between clergy and laity is less clear.  Many churches are affirming that Christian baptism equals a call to serve.  Whether one is compensated for service or not, each believer has a role to serve in the life of the church.

Second, a number of churches have decided that the most effective leaders for their congregations are those who have been nurtured there.  They have gifted lay people who can preach, teach, and serve.  What hinders them from becoming the ministers of the congregation?

Third, new structures of leadership are being either created or revived.  The “circuit rider” model of Methodism where one minister served several congregations is alive and well.  Baptists often had “farmer preachers” who plowed six days a week and preached on the seventh.  This model has never gone way, but those bi-vocational preachers are now business people, educators, salespeople, and professionals.  The major change is that these models are spreading to other denominations who have been used to full-time professionals. 

Fourth, churches are realizing that it is finally time to give leadership to women, the young, and marginalized people.  Crisis drives change.  Unfortunately, it takes a leadership bind for many churches to finally call out, train, and ordain women and men who should have been in lead roles already.

Five, new types of leadership call for creative ways of educating and equipping. Both accredited and non-accredited programs are emerging, some church-based and some are alternative denominational structures.  Seminaries and theological institutions are also recognizing that they can serve this population of learners.  Although many of these programs are developed out of necessity, this does not mean that they cannot be quality academic programs while developing necessary ministry competencies. 

We are just at the beginning of a major shift in religious leadership.  What is the Spirit of God saying to us in this time of change?  How will we meet this challenge?


Since seminary days, I have been a student of church architecture.  I love to walk through worship spaces, take pictures, and learn their history.  The structures that we Christians build make theological statements, whether the buildings are gothic cathedrals, simple country churches, art nouveau temples, or modern places of gathering.  Auxiliary buildings such as Christian education space, fellowship halls, and gymnasiums express our approach to church life and ministry.

The challenge we face comes when the way we do church changes.  Believe it or not, it is easier to change the way that a church worships than it is to alter how it uses its buildings.  And, as anyone who has ever attempted it knows, changing worship styles has divided more churches that have doctrinal issues.

Church buildings become memorials to life experiences.  We become emotionally attached to buildings because that is where sacred moments in our lives took place--professions of faith, worship, baptisms, weddings, and ordinations, for example.  The experience becomes so closely tied to the structure that the two become inseparable for us.  Even more, the sacredness of the space prohibits any changes that might increase its effectiveness.

Spaces become relics of earlier, better times.  The sanctuary that accommodated 700 people thirty years ago may now be used by a hundred people or less.  We simply don’t need as large a facility as we once did.  Aging facilities, often with deferred maintenance, constrain the church’s ability to institute new ministries and reach out to the community.

No one wants to admit it, but facilities may become a stumbling block to effective ministry.  In a recent Baptist News Global article[i], Jeff Brumley observed that “another factor that can lead to extinction [of a church] is an emotional attachment to facilities so strong as to cripple a congregation’s willingness to share the gospel and make disciples.”

Buildings are not an end in themselves.  They are tools to further the work of God’s Kingdom, but once something is built it takes on a life of its own and can hinder the work of the Spirit in the life of a congregation.

Social Justice

I recently posted an article on Facebook related to a resolution opposing social justice that a messenger planned to present at the annual meeting of a major denomination.  I was surprised at the responses.  One person said that when he thought of social justice, “Communism” or “socialism” came to mind.  Another considered social justice a modern construct that had nothing to do with the Bible.  Someone else said, “Social justice is just about civil rights.”

The church of the 2lst century is challenged to reclaim the term and make it part of its DNA. In fact, I believe that if the church fails to deal with social justice concerns such as sexuality, economic deprivation, care for the infirm, hospitality for the stranger, and creation care, it is not pursuing the mission of God.

A quick search of the word “justice” on Bible Gateway identifies 130 citations including both the teachings of Old Testament prophets and those of Jesus.  The ethical pinnacle of the Old Testament is found in Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (NIV)

In the New Testament, Jesus preached, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23, NIV)

Justice is not optional in a biblical ethic; it is central.  If we are pursuing the mission to which God has called us, we must be advocates for and practitioners of justice.  We not only proclaim the message but we find ways to walk beside and minister to “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:45, NIV)

In a society where those who are different are ostracized, ignored, and repudiated, the church has the opportunity--no, the commission--to embrace those on the margins and assure justice for them.  In so doing, there is a possibility that a marginalized church may become a significant force in righting the wrongs prevalent today.  The church does this not in order to become more prominent or to be rewarded but to be what God has called it to be.  This is a challenge for the 21st century church.

Addressing the Challenges

Churches and leaders will find themselves at different places in addressing these challenges, but I believe that at some point every congregation will face one or more of these.  I pray that we will have the wisdom, humility, courage, and faith to deal with these challenges and turn them into opportunities.

If the church of the 21st century is to faithful to the mission of God, we must step up and face these challenges.

(Content of the article originally appeared on the author’s blog