7. In 2050, the percentage of the U.S. population attending church will be almost half of what it was in 1990.
So what is the future of the American church? Does declining attendance mean declining influence? If present trends continue, the percentage of the population that attends church in 2050 is estimated to be at almost half of 1990’s attendance—a drop from 20.4 percent to 11.7 percent. Olson”s projections for the years leading up to 2050 are less than encouraging. He estimates a drop to 16.6 percent in 2010, and 15.4 percent in 2020.
He notes that while church attendance is projected to increase from 50 million in 1990 to 60 million in 2050, because the U.S. Census estimates that America will grow from 248 million in 1990 to 520 million in 2050, the church can”t keep up with population growth if it stays on its current course.
The prognosis doesn’t discourage Anderson. “It encourages me that the harvest is greater,” he says. “I’m somewhat comforted by the idea that Americans have left dead churches.”
Caldwell echoes Anderson”s positive outlook: “If anything, this information causes me to get fired up about what I can do to reverse these trends.”
Coy, too, sees the projections as a call to action for church leaders: “If we’ve given the impression that church is an option, maybe we’re the ones who are at fault,” he says. But church attendance is only the beginning, he adds. “We have to get serious and begin to live it every day.”
Clearly, the future looks less than bright for the church in America; nevertheless, countless stories of transformed lives remind us that God is using, and wants to continue to use, the 330,000 U.S. Orthodox Christian congregations to draw others to Him and strengthen believers for His work in a hurting world. In the words of the late author Henri Nouwen, the Church maintains the vital connection to Christ:
“Listen to the church,” he writes in Show Me the Way (Crossroad). “I know that isn’t a popular bit of advice at a time and in a country where the church is frequently seen more as an ‘obstacle’ in the way rather than as the ‘way’ to Jesus. Nevertheless, I’m profoundly convinced that the greatest spiritual danger for our times is the separation of Jesus from the church. The church is the body of the Lord. Without Jesus, there can be no church; and without the church, we cannot stay united with Jesus. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has come closer to Jesus by forsaking the church. To listen to the church is to listen to the Lord of the church.”
by Rebecca Barnes and Lindy Lowry