New findings about declining (and growing) churches

If you follow Thom Rainer’s blog, you have most likely seen this. If not, get ready to dig in to some important information on local churches in North America. For the last couple of weeks, Rainer’s blog has been dropping the findings from a recent Lifeway Research study into the growth and decline of North American churches, and the results are significant.

The study selected 1000 churches and examined their data for a period of three years (from 2013 to 2016). According to Thom, the results were good and the data produced some reliable findings. That is important in a field where so many of our trends are really just based on anecdotal evidence.

Four different articles on his site lay out the broad strokes of their findings, and for those of us in ministry leadership, they are telling concerning the overall health of local church ministry. If you are a pastor, or serve churches like I do, then this data is important to consider.

Here are four primary ideas that come from Thom’s articles:

Churches are not declining as much as we thought,

In his first article, Dispelling the 80 Percent Myth of Declining Churches, Rainer brings us some good news. Of course, this statistic has been repeated ad nauseam in ministry circles. We are told that only 20 percent of churches are growing, and that 80 percent are plateaued or declining. Rainer says this number is actually high.

The truth is the number of plateaued or declining churches sits somewhere close to 65 percent. Rainer breaks the data down further and says roughly 56 percent of churches are in statistical decline and roughly 9 percent are stagnant. That means that just over half of local churches are declining, not 8 out of 10, as we have been lead to believe. A solid third of churches are, in fact, growing. Reclaiming 15 percent of our churches from the declining statistic is no small matter.

But churches that are declining may be in a death spiral.

However, this good news is rather bittersweet. In his second article, Is There a Church Death Spiral?, Rainer takes a specific look at these declining churches. The picture painted by the data is dark. As churches decline, they do so at an increasing rate. In other words, declining churches land on a trajectory toward death. Once they break the 200 mark, they decline at an average of 4 percent per year. By the time they reach 100, they are declining by 7.6 percent. Finally, a church that declines to less than 50 hits 8.7 percent. Rainer’s takeaway: “Once a church declines below 100 in worship attendance, it is likely to die within just a few years.”

It says something overall about the state of local church ministry when we pat ourselves on the back that only half of our churches appear to be failing. Fact is, two thirds (that 65 percent) are showing signs of decline or plateau. There is still much work to be done, and with half of our churches declining, simply planting more churches the way we have been planting them will not make up for the difference. In his book Reclaiming Glory, Mark Clifton points out that Southern Baptists are watching 900 of their churches die every year on average. Our church planting efforts are producing around 1000 every year. At best, we will only stop the bleeding, replacing church for church. We’re called to more than that.

A third of churches are growing, and most are doing so faster than their community,

Rainer’s third article, titled Five Surprising Discoveries about Growing Churches, turns toward that third of churches who are growing. The article has much that provides hope. Remember, just a week before this article, we were still thinking that only 2 out of 10 churches were actually growing. Rainer says the data cuts against a lot of skeptical assumptions about church growth. First off, more churches are growing than we thought. Second, most of those churches are actually growing faster than the population growth in their area.

Many folk claim that church growth is largely just a function of increasing population. If a city is growing, then churches should grow, but if it is not, then they will not. The data Rainer presents dispels this as a primary reason churches grow. Furthermore, growing churches are not limited to a certain kind of area. This is not only for city churches or rural churches. It is not only happening in certain parts of the country, either. This means any attempts to explain away growth (or excuse it not happening) based merely on location are unfounded.

So, there is hope for churches everywhere. Fatalism that excuses church decline is not the mode through which church leaders need to operate. However, Rainer’s last article points to a really significant caveat that we must consider if we care about the Great Commission.

But they are not growing through reaching new people.

While we do have more churches growing in North America than we previously thought, most of these churches are not growing by evangelism. I have suspected this to be true, and the data seems to support the idea that most of our churches are actually growing through transfer growth.

Rainer’s final article, Five Sobering Realities about Evangelism in Our Churches, makes some excellent points concerning this issue. In fact, he points out that a significant gap is developing between two sets of growing churches. There is a small, stable number of churches that grow by making new disciples. They are solid, and that number is not changing. However, there is a widening gap between them and the rest. Most of the other churches in the growing category are doing worse in evangelism now than churches were years ago. Fact is, we need to look past simple attendance numbers as our success metric for the Great Commission.

Transfer growth happens when Christians leave one church to join another. Sometimes this is good and expected growth. For instance, my wife and I recently joined a church here in Houston, because we moved from Raleigh. When Christians move to another town, they need to find a new church where they can serve. However, much transfer growth is simply at the expense of other area congregations.

Perhaps, the third of churches that are growing are doing so at the expense of the two thirds that are not. Sheep shuffling is not the way to grow a church, but from the data, it appears to be the most prevalent way that it occurs.

Transfer growth being the primary means of church growth is problematic for multiple reasons. First, it is done at the expense of another church. Remember pastor, when your church takes in transfer growth, it is doing so by taking people out of another church. Of course, there are those people who have not actually attended a church in years but have their names on the role somewhere. I get that, and we need to try and get them in a church. But, we need to be conscientious about transfer growth. People who come to our churches already professing Christ need to be asked some questions. Have they just not been attending church at all? If not, why not? Are they leaving a church where they currently attend? If so, why would they do that? Corporately, church leaders need to kill this culture of church hopping. It is not good for the individuals that do it, and it is not good for the churches that lose them or receive them.

Secondly, transfer growth is rarely Great Commission growth. I cannot count the number of potential church planters I have helped get off the ground at this point, and every single planter I know started their church because they wanted to reach people. Ironically, a church can swell in attendance and still be reaching next to no one.  Churches can appear successful at the mission when their attendance goes up but still have little overall impact on the community. Pastors, you would be wise to consider how many of your new attenders are there because someone in your church shared the gospel with them. How many were Christians before they were introduced to your church? Are you actually reaching anyone new? Or, is your growth merely coming at the expense of other churches?

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