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Monday, April 05, 2010

Church Growth?

If you live in the "Bible belt" like I do (Dallas is considered its "buckle"), you probably see new churches going up all the time. The existing churches are adding on, and there are several mega churches in the metro area. It might seem like Christianity is sweeping the nation. And if you attend church mostly at Christmas and Easter, you might get the impression that our churches are packed. Oh, but looks are deceiving.

What is the truth about Christianity in America? We frown on Europe for having less than 10% of its population in churches on a regular basis. But where is the U.S. headed? Are Americans really that much more focused on following God than our European brethren? How impactful are churches in America? How relevant are they in the lives of Americans? And what is the future of the Christian church in America?

George Barna started a well-respected research firm called Barna Research ( If you want to understand trends as they emerge, I personally recommend you spend some time with Barna Research. There are other credible sources too. The Assemblies of God ( and other large denominations publish the results of in-depth research that they do to understand cultural trends and shifts with regard to Christian behavior and how Christians relate to their churches.

Current data tells a story that is shocking. Despite some regional booms in church building and the emergence of mega churches in America, there is no such thing as church growth in this country. The Christian church is not growing at all. In fact, it is dying at a shockingly fast pace. Let's look at some U.S. church statistics:

* About 50% of Americans have no church that they would identify as being their home church.

* In the 1980's church membership dropped almost 10%.

* In the 1990's church membership dropped 12% (with some denominations losing as much as 40% of their members).

The U.S. Census Bureau gives even more startling statistics, which can be backed up with individual reports from various denominations:

* More than 4,000 churches go out of business every single year in America.

* Only about 1,000 new churches are planted every single year in America.

* About 2.7 million church members fall into an "inactive" status every year in America.

* A 100 years ago, we had about 27 churches for every 10,000 people in America. Today, we have less than 11.

* The U.S. now ranks third behind China and India in the number of people who are not professing Christians. Said differently, China and India are the only nations which have larger populations of unreached people groups than the U.S.

* More than half of all churches in the U.S. did not add any new members to their ranks in the past two years.

Now what's interesting is that Americans still tend to identify themselves as Christians or as church goers. However, what constitutes a Christian or a regular church goer is questionable. Some studies have shown that less than half the Americans who put themselves in this category could back it up with their behaviors. In other words, they may like to think of themselves that way (as Christians or regular church goers), but the evidence says otherwise.

Even if we took Americans at face value - believing what they said and not trying to back it up with statistics - the results are disappointing:

* Only 20.5% of Americans said they frequently attended church in 1995.

* Only 19% of Americans said they frequently attended church in 1999.

* Only 18% of Americans said they frequently attended church in 2002.

And the numbers continue to decline year after year. Current projections, at the present rate of decline, are that less than 15% of Americans will say they frequently attend church by 2025, and that will plummet to 10 or 12% by 2050.

Churches have spawned an interesting industry called "church growth consulting." It contains individuals who've made it their profession to study these trends and help churches fight them. The interesting thing is that few of the church growth consultants have had any meaningful impact. The church in America is still on a very rapid decline. And this is true even though the church growth consultants can point to clear delineation between growing churches and dying churches. It would seem a simple matter to just get the dying churches to change their behavior (and act more like the growing churches). But alas, it seems the church growth consultants cannot change the people who run the churches.

One shocking study from Barna Research a few years ago was that as much as 50% of the people who do go to church are not even (professing) Christians. Some experts don't find this to be very shocking, and point to the fact that people often just "come for the show." Other individual studies into what motivates people to come to church reveal that they come for the social aspects, religious education for their children, like the music, force of habit, free coffee, etc. But the bottom line is they are not seeking a relationship with Jesus Christ. They are not here to worship the Lord.

Now there are said to be more than 2,000 "mega churches" in America today. They tend to have attendance in the thousands each week. They're impressive organizations. But they're not representative of the population. Consider that over 50% of the churches in the U.S. have between 100 and 300 members. Another 20% have fewer than 100 members. Let's face it, unless those churches can grow or attract wealthy members, they can't even properly pay a full time pastor. Said differently, there is no way they'll ever be able to compete with the mega churches for butts in the seats!

There is no shortage of hypotheses as to why all of these statistically supported trends are our reality. Many will point to the negative aspects of conventional church services - heralding the contemporary services as the panacea. Others will point to the evolution of televangelists who live large and siphon people (and money) out of local churches. Still others will blame prosperity theology and other heretical teaching for the decline of the church.

So there's a lot of data here. And there are a lot of opinions and theories that purport to explain the phenomena that the data portrays. In fact, quite a bit of time and money is being spent trying to understand the trends and develop strategic responses. Clearly most in the churches today want to fight the trends. And many seem to think that it's about planting a church in an urban, upscale suburb and growing that church's attendance. They may, somewhat smugly, come to believe that their particular church is winning the battle. Would they be right in drawing such a conclusion?

I have a dear friend who refers to Jesus' plan to return for His perfect bride, the church. He cites the need for the collective church to be whole, right, complete, and especially united. This friend, a pastor himself, puts his efforts into working with area churches to unify them, so that they can behave with one mind and one spirit. (Could this the an improvement of the "one church, multiple locations" model that some mega churches tout?)

As I sat in church on Easter Sunday, and looked at the throngs of people who were in attendance, I couldn't help but wonder. As I walked through the parking lot and saw the flagman directing parking, and the shuttle buses from the nearby ball fields, I couldn't help but be struck by the dichotomy that I was in the midst of. It felt like being in a test tube experiment - where the experience was my experience. And as I sat in church, before a decidedly "over-the-top" worship service that would have amazed anyone, I wondered if we have any clue at all.

Do any of the churches really have a handle on what it takes to grow? Frankly, the evidence seems to support the fact that the collective church in America is fighting a losing battle. I'd like to understand why. What does it take to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ? Somehow, I suspect it's not a contemporary band, or fresh cappuccino, or even good parking and fantastic children's programs. Somehow I doubt that it's going to be good preaching, an engaging youth program, Christian counseling, or drama and dance in the worship service.

No, I wonder if perhaps more of us shouldn't be on our knees in prayer. Let's be clear, there is no such thing as church growth in the U.S. today. The church is shrinking, and has been on a steadily declining trajectory for decades. What can reverse that? Something that mankind doesn't possess. Something that we can only get from our Father in heaven.

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