Major New Research on Declining, Plateaued and Growing Churches

Growing Churches

I love solid research. This new release about declining, plateaued and growing churches is absolutely incredible.

I am grateful to Exponential for engaging LifeWay Research to discern current levels of church health according to a number of factors. While worship attendance trends over a three-year period were a primary indicator of health in this study, the Exponential research also included conversions, income and staffing in the data.

Major New Research on Declining, Plateaued and Growing Churches

In addition to the categorization of churches as declining/subtracting (Level 1), plateauing (Level 2) and growing/adding (Level 3), the study looked at two other supplemental categories. A Level 4 (reproducing) church places a high value and priority on starting new churches. A level 5 (multiplying) church takes church planting to multiple generations of congregations.

The accuracy of this research cannot be overstated. LifeWay Research phoned 1,000 Protestant pastors. Quotas were used to maintain the correct population of each church size. Responses were weighed by region to reflect more accurately the total U.S. population. The sample provides a 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/- 3.2 percent. This information from the statistical nerds assures us the study is very accurate.

Here are some of the fascinating findings about declining, plateaued and growing churches:

  1. 70 percent of churches are subtracting/declining or plateauing. Only 30 percent are adding/growing based on Exponential’s categorization of churches which is defined above. This data is largely consistent with other research we have done. The period covered is three years.
  2. There are relatively few reproducing churches. The research categorized only 7 percent of the churches as reproducing (Level 4). The numbers of churches considered multiplying (Level 5: multiple generations of church plants) was 0 percent in the sample, indicating a negligible number in the total U.S. church population.
  3. The majority of Protestant churches had less than 10 people commit to Jesus Christ as Savior in the past 12 months. That’s fewer than one person per month. That’s not good. That’s not good at all.
  4. Smaller churches are at severe risk. Among those churches with an average worship attendance under 50, only 20 percent are growing. That is the lowest of any of the categories of churches and is an indicator that these churches are at the greatest risk of dying.
  5. Larger churches have a much lower risk of dying. Among the churches with an average worship attendance of 250 and more, 42 percent are growing. That is, by far, the largest number of growing churches in any category.

I am grateful to Exponential for initiating this research. Their focus was to discover congregations exhibiting Level 4 and 5 behaviors. In other words, they want to learn more about churches that are reproducing and churches that are multiplying.

But the study also gave us more insights into the challenges before us to see churches revitalized. Seven of 10 churches in America are declining. That is the challenge. The opportunity is a renewed interest in both church planting and church revitalization.

Thank you, Exponential and LifeWay Research. I encourage you readers to look at the totality of the Exponential research here.

This article originally appeared here.

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Thom Rainer
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.

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