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Churches in Decline

April 25, 2008

Jay Guin has just posted an interesting article discussing the membership decline in Southern Baptists churches. His article prompted me to do a little research. What I’ve learned is not all that surprising, but should concern anyone who seeks the spread of the gospel.

Mainline churches of all types in America are in decline. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly half of American adults [leave] the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether.

On the other hand, non-denominational churches are growing.

From the USA Today:

The 2008 Yearbook of Canadian and American Churches, produced by the New York-based National Council of Churches, recorded growth trends in 224 churches, with a combined membership of 147 million Americans…

Only the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Mormons, the Assemblies of God (2.8 million) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1.4 million) reported increases; all others either posted declines or flat membership from 2005.

Looking beyond the membership and attendance numbers, baptisms are also down. From Yahoo News:

The number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year in 2007 to the denomination’s lowest level since 1987, and membership dipped slightly as well.

Baptists in 2007 baptized 5.6 people per 100 in attendance (based on 345,941 baptisms, 6.15 million attendance).

Closer to home for us in the Restoration Movement, the independent Christian churches have experienced a reduced growth rate in 2007. The Christian Standard publishes an annual issue with commentary on the state of their largest churches, including all congregations averaging more than 1000 in attendance for the year. The report indicates that in 2007, the megachurches baptized 6.4 per 100 in attendance, down from 7.2 per 100 in 2006.

Churches of Christ have been in decline since the 1990’s, according to statistics gathered by KairosChurchPlanting.org.

These studies provide some troubling facts for church leaders to ponder. And clearly they are pondering. Article after article seeks to identify why the churches are declining, and to propose a solution. Many of the proposals, in one form or another, advocate adopting more of the modern culture in order to relate to more people, especially to the young. Some churches are experimenting with different kinds of music, different worship styles, different kinds of programs. 

Those things can be helpful if done with discretion. But the scriptures call the church to be different from the world (Rom 12:1-2). And history tells us that churches that become like the world decline into irrelevance. If you haven’t read The Churching of America (1776-2005) by Roger Fink and Rodney Stark, now would be a good time to do so. In that book, they present an important lesson of history:

The churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness.

We need to stop being distracted by the pleasures of this world, and by doctrinal disputes on the fringes of the gospel. Jesus taught that a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached to the world. Maybe he was on to something.

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One comment

  1. basically, yeah. I still believe that “evangelism” works. Doesn’t matter much to me if it’s a church plant mass-mailing postcards or someone chatting with a co-worker about life and faith. We have to actively engage with people in the world. Whether through serving or socializing or both.



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