Feb. 9, 1964: the day the church changed never to go back again



Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014 was the 50th anniversary of The Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The British musical invasion hit its first quality live prime time that day.

It is also the day the Church in the United States changed never to go back again. The change in the church is symbolized by the appearance of The Beatles. A lot changed around that day that congregations and denominations are still struggling to fully realize. We need to continue learning the lessons of that period.


1963 saw some significant events that impacted the culture of the United States. That was the year Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham and wrote his famous letter from prison to Birmingham clergy. Later that year he delivered his I Have a Dream speech in Washington, DC before several hundred thousand people. The last of a set of US Supreme Court cases were ruled on that eliminated Bible reading, prayer, and mandatory opening religious exercises from public schools.

The biggest event of 1963 was President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22nd. Interestingly that same day the Beatles second album was released entitled With the Beatles.

Two-and-one-half months later The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. At a time when the United States needed something to celebrate the Beatles symbolized that needed sense of joy and excitement.

Trends Following February 9, 1964

That night millions of Christians in the United States stayed home from Sunday evening worship. Their children discovered the Wonderful World of Disney and the teenagers and parents the Ed Sullivan Show. They never went back to church on a regular basis on Sunday night again. Sunday night worship in congregations began to die that night. Some congregations still have not figured this out.

February 9, 1964 symbolizes the end of the birth of the Baby Boomers. This very large cohort of people had begun in 1946 and was the largest age cohort in the history of the United States. The next day the Baby Buster generation began being born and continued until 1982.

February 9, 1964 symbolizes the end of the heavily age-graded program approach to the attraction of people into congregations. It also should have marked the end of the building of Christian education facilities with Sunday School assembly rooms and small postage stamp classrooms around the outside. It did not and many buildings by this design continued to be constructed and underutilized.

When the heavily age-graded program approach stopped working because of the suburbanization of the cities, the increase in multiple cars in the typical garage, the slowing down of the birth rate with the increased use of various birth control methods, and other possible reasons, congregations had to find a way to keep the old strategy working.

This is around the time when a new trend started among congregations to bus children to church if their parents would not bring them. Hear this carefully. Church busing started in an attempt to make an old strategy work that was not longer working. When many people say that if we reach the children we will reach the adults, they forget it did not happen in large numbers during this next 15 or so years when this was a popular short-term strategy.

Take note that this period following February 9, 1964 for the next 20 or more years is when numerous congregations built gyms with the fantasy that if we build it they will come. This was also a strategy that failed more than it succeeded.

It took the beginning of the new phenomenon in the late 1970s of contemporary churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek to show that the diminishing programmatic approach focused on children had given way to an emerging process approach that focused on intentional adult discipleship development.

The period of 1964 to 1979 was a wilderness period for several denominations. The social and cultural upheavals in the USA that kicked in by around February 9, 1964 caused many denominations to stop or diminish their church planting efforts in favor of trying to save their declining and dying, yet often prophetic, congregations. This was particularly true among mainline denominations, but it also impacted some evangelical denominations.

These are not all the congregational trends February 9, 1964 symbolizes. What are others that occur to you? What are the shifts happening now on the 50th anniversary of the appearance of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show to which congregations and denominations need to pay attention?

George Bullard

Author's Website
About the Author
George is President of The Columbia Partnership at www.TheColumbiaPartnership.org, This is a Christian ministry organization that seeks to transform the North American Church for vital and vibrant ministry. It primarily does this through the FaithSoaring Churches Learning Community. See www.ConnectWithFSCLC.info. George is the author of three books: Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict, and FaithSoaring Churches. George is also General Secretary [executive coordinator] of the North American Baptist Fellowship at www.NABF.info. This is one of the six regions of the Baptist World Alliance. George holds is Senior Editor of TCP Books at www.TCPBooks.info. More than 30 books have been published on congregational leadership issues.

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  • The Toomster

    People stopped regularly attending Sunday night worship services because the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show? Wow. Bold statement.