How Big is the Drop-Out Rate in the American Church

Unknown-1Numbers are somewhat easy to crunch and study. But when this comes to the church they can be very deceiving. On the one hand some numbers say that a church is not in serious decline yet when spiritual vitality and sharing in the ministry of a church is factored into the equation there is a growing awareness that fewer Christians are as involved in the daily work of the local church as ten years ago. (One mega-church minister shared with me last year that about 12% of their average attendance was involved in any weekly ministry of outreach that could be tracked. The problem is that this is actually a pretty good number!)

Over the last decade I have personally gone from 55 to 65 years of age. I now clearly face the last segment, or phase, of my own life. I will slow down, face more challenges, grow old and (obviously) die. (It is obvious that we will all die but only at this stage, or so I think, does it sink in so fully that your own days are numbered and YOU will die, sooner than later.)

I referenced “spiritual vitality” in the first paragraph. How do we measure it? There is only one thing I am sure about here – however we talk about spiritual vitality I suggest that this  barometer is a far more meaningful measure of the Christian life corporately than the number of those who attend, or sit in pews, on Sunday.

Membership rolls are clearly bloated in American churches. Categorizing these numbers seems to be changing with each passing year. How many “attend” weekly meetings seems to be the common metric still used. Then there are “baptisms” as measured in the adult-baptism-only congregations and confirmations in the churches that practice paedo-baptism; e.g. Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Catholic, etc. But however you measure it even these numbers lie to us since the overwhelming majority of baptized adults and confirmands do not last, at least long-term. Simply put, we have no clear measuring system for “discipleship” yet this is the only category that our Lord actually gave to us. Perhaps we should declare a moratorium on all these kinds of numbers for a decade and foster mission and discipleship and then see where we are.

The obvious flaw in all this research is apparent once you really think about it. There is no standard meaning for “member: active, giving, serving, communicant.” One mainline pastor, in the Letters published in the Christian Century (January 8, 2014), writes, “I have answered the call of three congregations that realized they were in decline. One parish listed over 350 members, and yet usually found only 25 souls in attendance on Sunday morning for the Holy Eucharist. I suspect that if churches were honest in reporting those who are consistently in worship, or shut-ins, the numbers would be considerably lower.”

And what about the mega-churches? While new mega-churches are increasing the total number of such churches each year few look below the surface to ask the hard questions, such as:

1. Have some of these churches flatlined, in terms of numerical growth?

2. Who is really funding these churches, especially when their monthly financial reports show they are way behind budget and then, as if magically, large year-end gifts pull them out in the final two weeks of each year?

3. How long can churches be sustained on programs people no longer support when they are involved in a myriad of other activities and social connections?

4. How long will people attend full-service churches when they only need or want a few of the services offered, especially when volunteers for these programs are in demand and many of them cannot be staffed unless paid pastoral staff do the work. (Do you see how money will impact this over the long run?)

5. When so many mega-churches are led by singularly gifted and high-energy pastors (?) what happens when we can no longer replace these men? (Most of these churches, if not almost all, are led by males.)

6. Since many mega-churches are program heavy what will they do when more and more of their people want to minister and need their church to respond to their “call” and unique opportunity for service rather than be slotted into a traditional programmatic form?

Add to this the scandals, the major monetary crises and the general waste of money on bricks and mortar when we now live in a new “connected,” social-media, age and you get a sense of the vastness of the real problem.

Tomorrow I will say more about the millennial generation, those born in 1982 and beyond. But today I want to end by observing another reality not often talked about, especially among conservative pastors and church leadership. Liberal Protestantism has not gone away. It has morphed and taken new forms but it is still in the church and has a much deeper impact on very bright and capable leaders. Now some of these liberal Protestants have become involved in more traditionally conservative churches. As the membership of these conservative churches becomes more educated, urban and urbane this shift has occurred without much notice. What does this mean?

Some suggest that these more liberal Protestants will “bring down” the vitality of the evangelical churches while others believe this will be a fresh new opportunity for embracing a more holistic gospel mission. Personally I have mixed feelings about this shift. If these more liberal Protestants are centered in the gospel of redemption from sin, and the grace of God in Jesus Christ, then there is hope but if they are just ideologues from the left who want to move the church away from the hard shift to the far right then I fear more internal warfare will characterize the church of the next decade. I think this will obviously vary from place-to-place but all of this calls for pastors to do serious spiritual formation and call people to mission that is broader and deeper than “saving souls” individually and privately.

As I mentioned yesterday I know dozens of couples in my age group who grew up deeply involved in the church. Now as many as half or more of these couples have dropped out. Of those I know most of these friends, like me, were in conservative churches (e.g. Southern Baptist, PCA, LCMS, etc.) It is here that I see a big drop-off that is still growing. What this means is not yet clear to me but churches that ignore this reality are not facing the present or the future missional opportunity that the church in America now faces.

 

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