1950s verses 1990s

1950s VERSUS 1990s
By: Gary McIntosh and Glen Martin

We have some good news and bad news. The good news is we live in the 1990s, and there is great opportunity for ministry.

The bad news is some of your people still think it’s the 1950s and aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities for ministry available to them.

While we must not fail to focus on the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people, a keen awareness of the cultural attitudes and values that have changed our world can prove helpful in developing effective strategies for church growth in the 1990s.

Here are a few observations contrasting ministry in the 1950s with that of the 1990s.


Music in the 1950s was built on the foundation of hymns with accompaniment provided primarily by piano and organ. Music was soft, and choruses were mixed with hymns in the evening service but were a none in the morning service. Services were conducted in unvarying style, with restricted forms of music, songs, and instruments. A guitar was okay for camp, but not okay for church. The choir was always robed, and the song director was mainly a cheerleader who waved his arms in an attempt to excite the people’s singing. Amplification was still in its basic stages. Large youth choirs were popular.

Music in the 1990s is often built on the foundation of praise songs accompanied by guitars and a growing variety of other instruments. Music is loud with praise music mixed with hymns or, in many cases, replacing hymns totally. The new direction is toward worship leaders who help the congregation to worship God and not simply to get excited about singing. Amplification has increasingly improved, but many churches still subsist with outdated systems. Youth choirs are not as popular as small singing groups.


Facilities in the 1950s were limited to meeting halls and classrooms and were designed for single use. Pews were the normal seating provided. Church architecture stressed the place of the sermon by locating the pulpit up front and elevated. Colors were darker, ceilings were higher, and aisles and pews were longer. Furnishings kept the pastor away from the people. Buildings were smaller, looked churchy, and were sacred. They seemed to say: “Don’t run in the Lord’s house!”

Facilities in the 1990s are more versatile and include things seldom considered in the 1950s such as gymnasiums, racquetball courts, and so on. Movable seating allows for multiple use of auditoriums. Church architecture stresses relationships by using lighter colors, pews, or chairs in a semi-circle, and less furniture, effectively bringing the pastor closer to the people. Facilities are more functional. Buildings are larger and less churchy (no steeples, for example).


Worship in the 1950s was tied to a standard format. Worship was formal with
emphasis placed on listening to the choir, special music, and the sermon.
The sermon was viewed as the center of worship. Worship involved coming to
church on Sunday, and the 11:00 a.m. worship hour was almost sacred.

Worship in the 1990s is more free-flowing and sometimes includes drama, interviews, and visual aids. Emphasis is being given to praise, and informality is on the rise. The sermon is viewed as only a part of worship and has given way to singing and audience participation. Variable times for worship (multiple services with some offered in the evening during the week) have increased the opportunity for reaching more people.


Staffing in the 1950s was limited, due in part to the large number of volunteers available. If a church had a staff in 1950, it typically was the pastor, youth minister, and music leader, and occasionally, a children’s worker. The number of staffers averaged about one full-time staff person for every 300 persons. Staffing was designed around persons who served as generalists.

Staffing in the 1990s is tied to professionals, due in part to the lower number of volunteers. The 1990s staff will include more singles ministers, women’s directors, drug ministry directors, leaders for dysfunctional families, day school directors/principals, recreational leaders, senior citizens ministers, and preschool directors, to name a few. Staff s average about one full-time staffer for every 150 to 200 persons. Staffing is now based on specialized functions.


Children’s ministry in the 1950s was tied primarily to Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and children’s choirs. Children met in a large group for opening exercises (singing and worship), then divided into small groups for teaching. There were more children due to the high birth rate of the 50s, but there was also more volunteer help since most mothers did not work outside the home. A strict curriculum was used with few visual aids. Children were more literate, disciplined, and had more contacts with adults.

Children’s ministry in the 1990S is much more diverse. The children’s choir has been replaced by the children’s musical, and VBS is losing ground in our urban society. Other additions are programs to help working parents such as year-round child care, preschool ministry, summer and winter camps, and day camps. Children meet in a large group for teaching from a master teacher and then divide into small groups for interaction. Many children have difficulty reading, are less disciplined, and have less parental and adult contact.


Sunday School in the 1950s was the primary ministry of many churches and was highly departmentalized. A Sunday School superintendent led in opening exercises, and then classes were dismissed for study. Sunday School was viewed as an evangelistic arm of the church since there was less competition for children’s time and many children came to Sunday School from unchurched homes. Adults came to Sunday School out of a desire to understand the Bible. In the 1950s adult classes were typically divided along the lines of gender, age, marital status, topic, or teacher.

Sunday School in the 1990s is only one of many ministries. Home groups and weekday/night small groups are on the rise reducing interest in Sunday morning schedules. There is less departmentalization and classes go directly to their meeting places often with worship being an integral part of their teaching time. Sunday School is viewed as an educational arm of the church since there is competition for children’s time and children seem to come primarily from Christian homes. People want the Sunday School to relate to where they are during the week. They want to learn how the Bible can help them in their personal lives. In the 90s adult classes are being divided along the lines of life stages such as parents with school-age children, parents with no children, parents with adult children, and so on.


Missions in the 1950s was the heartbeat of many churches. People not only gave their money but also invested their time in prayer and writing letters to missionaries. The church’s missionary program was primarily determined by the women in the church, and few pastors would argue with their requests. Missions was primarily an adult issue. Missions was viewed as a life-long career “over there.” Target groups were large major nations.

Missions in the 1990s is often of low interest. People find it more difficult to communicate to missionaries, and prayer for missions is often lacking. The church’s missionary program is most often determined by a missions committee. Youth are a primary part, especially in short-term mission trips. Missions is being viewed as “right here.” Target groups are now smaller, unreached, hidden people groups.


Administration in the 1950s saw the pastor as preacher and general administrator. The pastor did it all, and church administration was generally weak. Pastors were only asked to be godly, dedicated people. People asked, “What’s a computer?”

Administration in the 1990s sees the pastor more in the role of leader and visionary with other staff being responsible for administration. Administration is more efficient. Pastors are asked to be up-to-date on the latest ministry tools, and formal continuing education is expected. People ask, “Where’s my computer?”


Outreach in the 1950s was easier for a number of reasons. First, people lived closer to their churches and were more willing to bring their neighbors to church. Second, unchurched people seemed to have a basic understanding of spiritual issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, humanity’s sinfulness, and people’s need for redemption. Third, there wasn’t the vast diversity of belief systems with which to contend. Fourth, people were sociable and willing to be friends. Evangelism was a high priority for many churches, but their follow-up often was weak. Churches had few organized outreach programs, and the ones they had were event-oriented. Evangelism was done through crusades.

Outreach in the 1990s is more difficult for a number of reasons. First, people tend to live farther from their churches and for that reason, hesitate to invite neighbors to attend church. Second, unchurched people often don’t have a basic understanding of the Christian faith. Third, we have a pluralistic belief system. Fourth, people prefer to be left alone and resist socializing. More emphasis is being placed on follow-up of people, but less evangelism is taking place. Outreach is being viewed as more of a life-style than simply a church program. Outreach is more relationally oriented but still remains in the hands of a few faithful.


Welcoming visitors in the 1950s was easier since people were more sociable. People were welcomed by formal greeters and the general friendliness of the members, but little was done to unite them with the church. Most people had to wait months, and even years, before being able to serve. In the 50s seven out of eight adult visitors were people who had grown up in that church’s denomination. Thus, they understood the church they were visiting and there was less need to introduce them to the church’s ministry.

Welcoming visitors in the 1990S is more difficult since people prefer to remain anonymous and may actually resist being greeted. More effort is exerted to assimilate new people into churches, and people are allowed to serve sooner than in the past. In the 1990s only about eight in twenty persons who visit a church come from that same denomination or church background. Thus, there is a greater need for a well-thought-out visitor welcome that helps new people understand a church’s ministry.


Ministry in the 1950s was tied to formal meetings often requiring attendance out of a sense of duty or loyalty. Ministry was often done by a few people in the church and was always well-planned and coordinated. Evening services were common, and the truly dedicated always attended them. Church sports programs were few, and those that existed were for fellowship. Ministry to the elderly had a significant place in a church’s overall strategy.

Ministry in the 1990s is more tied to needs, and people are less likely to attend meetings out of duty or loyalty. More talk has been given to involving people in ministry, but ministry continues to be done by a few people. Overall ministries are better planned, and there are fewer evening services. Church sports programs are a good way of reaching new people and are more geared to reaching the unchurched. The spiritual needs of the elderly are often overlooked today. Church programming doesn’t take seriously the spiritual and physical needs of the elderly.


Prayer in the 1950s was primarily tied to a midweek meeting. This occasion was viewed as coming to the throne of grace. There was little or no education on how to pray, but prayer was the backbone of the church. Prayer time was often devoted to Bible study and the sharing of prayer needs.

Prayer in the 1990s has been accelerating since the late 1980s and is focused more in small groups, partners, and triplet prayer teams. Prayer is being viewed as spiritual warfare or power encounter. Prayer, however, is often a weakness in most churches-even though there is more education on how to pray.

The work of the church is the work of God, and the organizational system never can compensate for the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit.

Our job is quickly to take advantage of the opportunities that are ours to win people to Christ.

(The above material appeared in the July/Aug./Sept. 1992 issue of Growing Churches Magazine.)

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