The American church is in crisis. At first glance this may not be apparent, and it's certainly not what we hear from many publications citing expanding numbers. But while many signs of the church's evident success and growth abound, in reality the American church is losing ground as the population continues to surge.
What does this mean for you, your church and the future of Christianity in North America? Why are these trends occurring? What can a church do to reverse a pattern of decline and decay? How can we make the gospel story come alive again to new generations? Five critical factors will influence how your church fares in the next 10 years. Understanding each dynamic can help you tailor your ministry to overcome the present challenging environment and see renewed fruitfulness.
1. The New Americans
In 1990, 52 million Americans attended a Christian church on any given weekend. Sixteen years later, attendance remained unchanged, even though the U.S. population had grown by 52 million people. This net increase was brought about by the birth of 68,510,978 babies, the arrival of 22,873,578 immigrants minus the deaths of 39,611,000 Americans.
Consider this: 91 million of today's Americans did not live in our nation in 1990! More than 70 million of these new Americans are under the age of 17 (births plus immigrant children). Imagine looking out over a sea of humanity that size. A scene from Revelation comes to mind: "I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (7:9). How many of those 91 million new Americans will someday be in that great throng in heaven?
2. The Size of Your Church
Most Christians feel that large churches are growing while smaller ones are declining. It's true: Large churches (those with more than 1,000 in attendance) are still growing, but so are small churches (less than 75 in attendance). Unfortunately, midsize churches are struggling. On average, churches with 100 to 299 people decline in attendance by more than 1 percent per year—a trend that has accelerated over the last seven years.
One reason why small churches are growing is that everyone can know each other by name, which opens the door for intimate bonds. Although most large churches are not intimate, they usually offer a wide range of high-quality ministries.
Unfortunately, midsize churches are too large to be intimate, yet too small to offer the range of services that large churches provide. They are being squeezed by both sides of the continuum. What are midsize churches to do? These churches comprise 50 percent of Protestant church attendance, so this is a critical question to address. Midsize churches must learn how to embrace both intimacy and ministry excellence if they hope to grow.
3. The Age of Your Church
Just as most people in their 40s begin to show signs of advancing age, such as graying hair and presbyopia, so too churches founded before 1965 demonstrate some of the effects of growing older. When a recent study divided 75,000 Protestant churches into the decade in which each church was started, researchers found that churches were most likely to grow during their first four decades of life (years one to 40), while beginning at age 40, a period of persistent decline was likely to occur.
Fortunately, churches do not have to follow this human pattern. When people older than 40 practice five healthy habits—proper diet, regular exercise, good relational connections, mental stimulation and spiritual vitality—many of the negative effects of old age may be delayed. When practiced daily, these habits promote health while slowing decline.
These five factors directly correlate to the habits of healthy churches. A church's proper diet is the spiritual food that its members receive through teaching, preaching and Bible study. Regular exercise that strengthens and energizes the human body correlates to a church body's active ministry involvement. Healthy personal connections form deep and authentic relationships both inside and outside the church. Mental stimulation takes place when the church grows in the knowledge of Jesus, the gospel, our world and our culture. Spiritual vitality occurs when Jesus becomes Lord and we live in the power of the Holy Spirit. When Christians and churches live out all five habits, they diminish the natural effects of deterioration.
4. The Survival of the Species
Extinction. The word creates deep sadness, a feeling of tragic loss. Dodo birds, great auks and passenger pigeons are species forever lost because they couldn't adapt to the environmental changes humans brought. Think of the American church as an endangered species. Is your church headed for extinction? With all living creatures, three indicators forecast a species' future: its mortality rate, the health and reproductive rate of its adult members, and its birthrate. What is the future of the American church, based on those indicators?
Mortality Rate: Approximately 3,700 churches close each year. A little more than 1 percent of all churches disband annually, similar to the human mortality rate.
Adult Health and Reproductive Rate: Evangelical churches more than 40 years old are declining in attendance at slightly more than 1 percent per year. Mainline churches are declining at more than 2 percent per year. By 2020, these churches will decrease in size by 20 percent. In addition, most established churches do not leave a legacy for the future by reproducing themselves through church planting.
New Churches: Approximately 4,000 churches are started annually that survive at least one year. Unfortunately, many are very small, and these "low birth weight" churches have a high infant mortality rate. To keep up with population growth caused by new Americans, our country needs an additional 2,900 churches started each year.
The critical factor is the birthrate. In all likelihood, the mortality rate and decline rate of established churches will remain the same. The only solution to counteract that decline is to start new churches that flourish for generations. Historically, the American church has grown through three types of births:
•Physical births: church families having children, causing biological growth
•Spiritual births: people who repent, believe the good news and follow Jesus through the ministry of your church, causing conversion growth
•Congregational births: healthy established churches that parent new churches, causing multiplication growth
Is your church attracting and connecting with young adults and families, resulting in a significant natural birthrate? Are you seeing substantial numbers of people become new followers of Jesus? Is your church's network or denomination starting sizeable numbers of healthy new churches?
5. The Message of Your Church
Although the first four challenges are formidable, I believe the church's most critical challenge in the next 10 years is to restore Jesus' words and actions to their proper place of centrality. As I studied more than 200,000 churches over the last few years, I listened carefully to the messages they delivered through sermons, vision statements and music to ascertain what they were saying about Jesus. I have discovered that many churches have somehow failed to clearly communicate this most important message.
Much of the church's public discourse about Jesus is secondhand conversation, instead of allowing Jesus' own words and actions to speak. Imagine someone has never met you but has heard about you from others. Can this person know the "real you" through secondhand information? Not really. He would need firsthand experience to truly know you and get a sense of your personality, character and presence. Secondhand words about Jesus often become trite, whereas His actual words and actions have the power to cut deep into a person's heart.
Not only do the words and actions of Jesus no longer play a prominent role in the American church today, but we have also allowed a shallow and narrow understanding of the message and mission of Jesus to persist. Rather than the glorious vision of Jesus, the focal point of the church's message is often the fulfilled life of the listener. That message possesses neither the power to transform nor the necessity to worship.
How will our world meet Jesus? How will they experience His living power? Who will communicate this story? How will they hear it in a way they understand?
The seventh century Celtic poet and musician Caedmon prophetically described the great need of the church today: "I have a dream, that all the world will meet You, and know You, Jesus, in Your living power. That someday soon all people will hear Your story and hear it in a way they understand. So many who have heard forget to tell the story. Here I am, Jesus: teach me. I cannot speak, unless You loose my tongue; I only stammer and I speak uncertainly; but if You touch my mouth, my Lord, then I will sing the story of Your wonders."
David T. Olson is director of the American Church Research Project and director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church. His book, The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan), is based on groundbreaking research from more than 200,000 churches over a 20-year period that shows the problems as well as the potential of the American church.