Editorial Consultant, Writing Coach, Freelance Writer
Here are a few facts about the status of the church in America.
1. As a percentage of the total U.S. population, Christian church attendance (evangelical, mainline, and Catholic) declined from 20.4% in 1990 to 17.5% in 2005.
2. At the present rate of decline the percentage of the U.S. population attending Christian churches will diminish to 16.2% in 2010 to 14.4% in 2020 and to 10.5% in 2050.
3. In a study of 90,000 Christian churches, almost all the 2004-2005 growth in attendance came from churches planted in the last 15 years and particularly in the last five years. The pretty amazing graph below shows that the newer the church the more likely it was to grow.
4. With the exception of the decade following World War II, the number of new churches started per million residents has steadily declined throughout this century. The net growth (churches opened minus churches closed) of Christian churches in America from 2000 to 2005 was 3,162. That is one-fifth the 15,975 required to simply keep pace with population growth. See the other pretty amazing graph below.
I have my own opinions about church planting, leadership development, and the churches ability to adapt to cultural changes that seem to be proceeding at a breathtaking pace.
1. The reason most church growth (according to stats above) comes from newly established churches is that planting new churches is THE PRIMARY WAY the church adapts itself to an ever-changing culture. Though some churches can make the repeated transitions to remain relevant to emerging cultures, for many the process changing the old structures is just too difficult. A church founded by the greatest generation can adapt to boomer, but to continue transforming itself to appeal to GenX-ers, GenYs, and post-moderns is pretty tough. Even when long-established churches do retool themselves culturally, it is because they are trying to emulate the success of church they or their denomination has planted.
Historically, distinct generations emerged every 40 to 100 years depending on scientific advancements, culturally transforming events, and contact with the world outside their community. Given the speed of innovation and communications, it is easy to see why distinct generations are identified every few years.
The critical thing is not just that the number of new churches keeps up with population growth, it is that emerging generations of churches (church plants that plant other churches) are occurring as quickly as new cultural generations emerge. If not, the church will lose the battle for people’s minds because they are becoming more and more culturally irrelevant.
2. Church plants force church members to become leaders. I have been involved with several church plants, each of which could be a case study in everything not to do. In fact, we were so bad at it, by any standard of church grow you could employ, these endeavors were failures. They were tiny little groups that never really grew beyond a few dozen people and were never able to completely sustain themselves financially. Nevertheless, I am flat out astounded at what people from those struggling little churches have gone on to do.
Some of the people from those little groups are well known. What is most amazing is what has happened with those who were less well know and even with those who were on fringe. Every now and then you hear of someone like Zoo. I have no idea what his real name was, but I remember that Zoo was the king of intramural basketball. He was saved right before he graduated, and no one ever heard of him again. Then about 14 years later he gets back in touch… He is the pastor of church in Harlem.
There was another guy named Randy who one of our Guatemalan students nicknamed “Dot.” The only thing anyone ever heard about Dot was bad. Then we lost touch with him for few years. The next thing we hear he’s the worship leader in church and passionate for Jesus. Often some old friend say, “Do you remember… You wouldn’t believe what they are doing now.” Frequently, I don’t remember them and it is hard to believe what God has done.
This is not just my experience. It is common for almost everyone who has been involved with some kind of church planting endeavor.
As you go to plant a church, go as a part of the support team, as you invest financially to support the initiative, you never know what God will do and you never know who he use. Your experience, abilities, and dynamic personality don’t matter as much as you might think. As a business leader once said, “Eighty percent of success is simply showing up.”