7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America

5. Established churches—40 to 190 years old—are, on average, declining.

All churches started between 1810 and 1960 (excluding the 1920s) declined in attendance from 2003 to 2004. The greatest attendance decrease in that period (-1.6 percent) came from churches begun in the 1820s, followed by the 1940s (-1.5 percent).

The numbers climb to the plus side in the 1970s, with churches between 30 and 40 years old showing a slight .3 percent increase. The percentage goes up significantly for congregations launched in the 1980s (1.7 percent) and 1990s (3 percent).

Established churches in decline are suffering from a leadership crisis, says Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. While his church is 50 years old, Caldwell says he has been there 25 years and in effect has made a “DNA change.” The church has grown from a struggling congregation of 25 to 7,100 under his charge.

Reversing the decline, he says, was about the leaders of the church—both clergy and laity—deciding to redefine the congregation and meet the needs of the community.

Bob Coy, senior pastor and founder of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, points to a different crisis for established churches—one of relevancy, especially in light of today’s young people searching for real truth and reasons for actions. “The emptiness of yesterday’s liturgy has got to become relevant,” Coy says. “The next generation is screaming for a relationship with God.”

The declining numbers send a message to church leaders content with only building their own churches, Olson says: “I hear people say, ‘Why do we need new churches? Why don’t we help our established churches do better?’ or ‘Don’t we have enough churches?’ If we keep doing the same things, we’ll continue to have the same results—decline. Established churches are the base, and new churches build on top of that. Using established churches to keep up with population growth is just not going to work.”

6. The increase in churches is only 1/4 of what’s needed to keep up with population growth.

Between 2000 and 2004, the net gain (the number of new churches minus the closed churches) in the number of evangelical churches was 5,452, but mainline and Catholic churches closed more than they started for a net loss of 2,200, leaving an overall net gain of 3,252 for all Orthodox Christian churches. “In this decade, approximately 3,000 churches closed every year; while more churches were started, only 3,800 survived,” Olson explains. In the 21st century, the net gain in churches has amounted to only 800 each year.

10,000 more churches needed

Perhaps most telling is the fact that from 2000 to 2004, a net gain of 13,024 churches was necessary to keep up with the U.S. population growth. In reality, that means rather than growing with the population, the church incurred a deficit of almost 10,000 churches.

The gap is a serious one for Christianity in America, as research and studies show that church plants are the most effective means of evangelism and church growth. “More evangelism happens through church planting than megachurches,” Anderson says. He urges leaders to plant multicultural, missional churches.

Although ultimately, America will continue to see a great dying off of churches, Stetzer says he is encouraged to see a renewed interest in missiology and Christology, as well as churches that are striving to change themselves. “They’re asking what a biblical church would look like,” he says. But he advises church planters to customize their church to their community rather than copy an existing model.

“What’s going to make an effective church plant in their community depends on what their community looks like,” he explains. “Far too many pastors plant their church in their heads and not in their community.”

Olson encourages churches, regardless of their size or expansion strategy, to either plant a church or work with other congregations to plant a church every five years.

Many church plants of the last five years are intentionally smaller than those of the 1990s, he observes, because the younger generation is opting for smaller churches that offer a more intimate experience. “So we need to realize that if churches are going to be smaller, we’ll need to start more of them to have the same impact.”

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