Two recent studies about the state of the church in the US have further demonstrated the tenuous situation of American Christianity.
On May 25, 2021, Lifeway Research released its latest data that indicates a continuing downward trend for the negative net growth of churches in America. In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the evangelical research organization analyzed data from 34 denominations representing 60 percent of US Protestant churches to find that the number of closures outpaced the number of new churches by one and a half times. That is, for every one church that began in the US in 2019, 1.5 churches closed.
According to Lifeway Research, the rate of closures has increased since 2014 when 4000 new church were started and 3700 closed. We have gone from positive net growth of +300 churches to a negative net growth of -1,500 churches in five years.
Further exacerbating the problem is the recent observation that church membership has declined to under 50 percent of the US population for the first time since Gallup began collecting data. In 1937, US church membership was 73 percent and maintained membership at approximately the same level for the next six decades. Starting in the 21st century, US church membership began to decline precipitously from 70 percent around the year 2000 to 47 percent in 2020. The 20-point plus decline of the past two decades corresponds with the rise of Americans who hold no religious preference and the perceived irrelevance of the church to contemporary culture.
In 1990, C. Peter Wagner boldly declared in his Church Planting for a Greater Harvest: A Comprehensive Guide that research from 1960-1990 clearly indicated that church planting is “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven” (1990:11). If correlated with the Gallup data over the same time period, to suggest that maintaining a 70 percent church membership rate over thirty years indicates “the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven” must be taken hyperbolically although Wagner certainly did not intend it to be hyperbole.
While many have unsubstantially reported that new church plants fail at a rate of 70-80 percent (Stezter and Bird), others such as the Evangelical Covenant Church – reporting a failure rate of 14 percent over four years – and the Southern Baptist Convention – reporting 34 percent failure rate – maintain active church planting strategies. Yet still, such modest success is unable to keep up with the overall decline in numbers of churches and church membership which must raise the question of whether or not our current church planting methods are effective.
Alan Hirsch is keen to say that the church is perfectly designed to achieve the results we are experiencing. The change that must occur cannot look to past methods and strategies. While in the 1960s to 90s, church planting was touted as the most effective strategy in the growth of Christianity, the rate of church closures today indicates that either the strategy no longer works (if it did in the first place) or it needs to be changed. To continue using a strategy that is clearly not productive is not only the epitome of insanity it is a mockery of the New Testament church which grew exponentially in the first three centuries.
For change to occur, it must look forward through the past. Jesus Christ is the builder and sustainer of the church (Matt 16:18). Indeed, He has established the church as the witness of the mystery of the gospel that is for all people without discrimination (Eph 3:10). To think that our church planting efforts might improve upon what He has established is to misunderstand the nature of New Testament ecclesiology.
The body of Christ is a dynamic, chaordic network of those who are fully committed to His mission. Her engagement of culture is as diverse as the cultures themselves (Acts 17:26). Her places of gathering are not reduced to scattered and isolated Sunday-centric performance of the few, but rather the ongoing corporate and public worship of the One. The church established by Jesus Christ is a theocentrically postured community singularly focused on His glory understanding that He is most glorified when more and more people are worshipping Him (Rev 5:9).
She does not concern herself with the mundane of the world, but rather with the life-giving message of the atoning work of Christ that gives us victory over sin, death, and the devil (Luke 12:29-31). This gospel is at once declared, defended, and demonstrated. In her three-fold ministry, she proclaims the glory of God to the nations, she irenically defends her faith in the public square, and she actively stands in the gap for the marginalized (Rev 2:1-7).
In other words, rather than the programmatic nature of contemporary church planting strategies concerned with their mission statements, the church of Jesus Christ already established by Him remembers His mission statement to “make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to keep everything He has commanded” (Matt 28:19-20).
To avert the looming crisis in American Christianity will require a rediscovery of the church, her Bridegroom, and her mission. The degree to which we are willing to journey on such a rediscovery will be measured by our recognition that some plant, others water, but God causes the growth (1 Cor 3:6). In the meantime, here are six questions that help diagnose current church planting strategies:
- Does our current strategy give people permission to not be disciples?
- Does our current strategy give people excuses to not do evangelism?
- Are all of our programs focused on more people worshipping God?
- Are we multiplying disciples or adding volunteers?
- What would happen if we removed Sunday from our church planting strategy?
- What impact would an APEST team have on our church planting strategy?
Barna Group. 2020. “One in Three Practicing Christians Has Stopped Attending Church During COVID-19.” Internet resource available from https://www.barna.com/research/new-sunday-morning-part-2/. Accessed July 8, 2020.
Brenan, Megan. 2017. “Nurses Keep Healthy Lead as Most Honest, Ethical Profession.” Internet resource available from https://news.gallup.com/poll/224639/nurses-keep-healthy-lead-honest-ethical-profession.aspx. Accessed July 9, 2020.
Cooper, Michael T. Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement. Littleton, CO: William Carey, 2020.
Earls, Aaron. “Protestant Church Closures Outpace Openings in U.S.” Internet resource available from https://lifewayresearch.com/2021/05/25/protestant-church-closures-outpace-openings-in-u-s/. Accessed May 27, 2021.
Jones, Jeffrey M. “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time.” Internet resource available from https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx. Accessed May 28, 2021.
Holcombe, Lee and Ray Kuntz. 2020. “COVID-19: The Effects on Ministry Giving.” Internet resource available from https://deo-volente.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID-19-The-Effects-on-Ministry-Giving-.pdf. Accessed July 8, 2020.
Packard, Joshua. 2015. Exodus of the Religious Dones: Research Reveals the Size, Make-Up, and Motivations of the Formerly Churched Population. Loveland, CO: Group Publishing.
Jones, Robert P. “White Christian America Ended in the 2010s.” Internet resource available from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/2010s-spelled-end-white-christian-america-ncna1106936. Accessed July 9, 2020.
Stetzer, Edward and Warren Bird. “Research Overview and Qualitative Study of Primary Church Planting Entities.” Unpublished.
The State of Theology. 2020. “The 2020 State of Theology Survey.” Internet resource available from https://thestateoftheology.com. Accessed May 28, 2021.
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