American church bodies are clearly in a state of decline. Some are declining at an unparalleled rate while others have just begun to decline for the first time in the last year or two. Almost all American churches are in decline so denial of this reality serves no good purpose at all. Understanding it, and responding to it, will not be so easy. Most are likely to deny it for decades and simply do nothing. Those who are will keep asking, “What should we do in the face of Christendom’s rapid decline in the United States?”

Church2 When you take a ten year look at American church bodies it reveals that many have declined anywhere from 6.5% to 20% over the decade from 1997–2007. (The data I have is from Stephen Ministries which calls the statistical offices of these various groups to get their data. The most recent calls were made in April of this year. It generally takes about 6 to 9 months to get data from the previous year.) The biggest losers have been, to no one’s great surprise, the old line, or “mainline” denominations; e.g. United Methodists, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal and United Church of Christ (UCC). The biggest loser was the UCC, dropping 20.4% in the decade. The Presbyterian Church USA dropped 18.5%. The Methodists were better than many of the others, losing only 6.5% in membership. Even the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, a more conservative church, declined by 8.4%. What is particularly telling is that the declines grew larger in the second five year period of the same decade of numbers. This tells you the trend is clearly growing.

Some of the more conservative groups grew, but very slightly. The Southern Baptists grew by 2.4%. The Assemblies of God grew by 13.7%, one of the largest of all. Pentecostalism continues to grow but the percentage of growth seems to be slowing down in the last ten plus years. During this same decade the Roman Catholic Church grew by 10.0%. Much of this is explainable by the immigration of large numbers of new Catholics from Latin America. A few other conservative groups were not included in the data I studied but some of the smaller groups were left out.

What is of interest to me is the more recent data from both the mainline churches and the newer, smaller evangelical groups. Only a few numbers have been recorded for the year 2008 but this much we now know. The National Council of American Churches (NCAC) reported that after years of steady increases, membership in the Roman Catholic Church decreased by 0.59% in 2008. To my knowledge this is the first such decrease in my lifetime. The NCAC also reports that the Southern Baptist Convention decreased by 0.24% in 2008, another first in my lifetime.

Even growing groups, like the Assemblies of God, declined in their rate of growth rather significantly during the second five years of the decade in question.

Again, I have not yet done the work to survey smaller groups of churches but I am under the impression that the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) declined last year for the first time in its rather young history. The same holds true for several similar groups. The few that have grown, I think it can also be said, have often grown at the expense of transfers from more liberal churches.

It should also be noted that none of the total growth of churches, separately or all together, rises to the level of population growth as a percentage rate of increase.

The bottom line is now obvious. Christianity in America is in sharp decline. While megachurches still report growth, many of them are slowing in their rate of growth as well. I can name a number of such churches in my area that have declined as much as 25% in the past five years. This is not all about “local” problems. Many of those who leave never go back to church. Some will leave the faith altogether.

What does this mean? It means Christendom is slowly dying in the West. It means less and less people are openly willing to be called Christians and even more are dropping out of church. Churches that evangelize are still reaching people but the number they reach is not keeping up with the number of those who are leaving.

So I ask:

1.    When will church leaders honestly face this issue?

2.    If they begin to talk about this problem what solutions will they offer?

3.    Will churches honestly own up to the very real problem they face and admit that 85% of their giving now comes from people 55 and over?

4.    Finally, what is the course of action that should be taken with regard to this growing evidence of decline and loss?

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  1. Gene Redlin November 11, 2009 at 6:22 am

    We are now in a Pagan world. Not post Christian. It’s populated with people who never have heard the name of Jesus in context as savior. We are now in full on Mission Mode in America and Europe. Starting over. I hope as a church we get it right this next time.
    No more assumptions. We haven’t been a “Christian” nation for some time. The church must push the restart button.
    About the LCMS. There is a split. 85% of the membership is in 15% of the Churches. And those 15% are growing. The losses come from the 85% of the churches with only 15% of the membership. Many of them will close.
    They are in radical decline. And aging.
    Yet in countries around the world who are in Pentecost the church is exploding. 20 years ago the % of Christians in India was 1%. Today it’s nearly 10%. China. Philippines. Africa.
    Where are the harvesters in the USA?
    Maybe the idea of getting people INTO churches is all wrong.
    Pastor Phil Ressler has a great analysis on this that people need to hear. I hope they do.

  2. Patrick November 11, 2009 at 8:14 am

    John, I preached on this very issue just this past Sunday using Acts 14:19-28. The church is in a precarious position today, as you note in your post. Think how precarious it was after Paul’s first missionary journey. He established churches in various cities, then he was driven out of town by persecution. These fledgling churches were vulnerable to persecution (think Paul’s stoning at Lystra) and to temptation to return to idolatry (think Paul and Barnabas mistaken for Zeus and Hermes).
    At the end of their journey, we read “they returned.” They returned to these churches to strengthen the disciples and to encourage them to remain true to the faith.
    In his returning, Paul gave us a strategy to fortify the church today. He seemed to focus on “the faith,” or the deposit, the core message of Christianity–Jesus, death, burial, and resurrection. This seems to lead the church today in the direction of serious catechesis, to reverse the biblical illiteracy that drags us down.
    He also fortified the community, by appointing elders in each city who would guard the deposit and faithfully pass it on to the church through word and deed. These weren’t pastor driven churches with a CEO at the top. These churches seem to be led by teams of elders with each member taking its role in the body seriously.
    Finally, and crucially, implicit in Paul’s strategy was trust in the Lord. With prayer and fasting, he committed to the elders to the Lord. Paul seems like the kind of guy who would have cloned himself if he could–to be in all these churches to straighten them out. Instead, he trusted in the risen and ascended Lord to bless these local communities through the elders. It’s amazing to think of the step of faith Paul would have had to take to appoint elders in Lystra where there may have been some who mistook him for Hermes on his first trip through town. But the point is, with prayer and fasting, he continued to believe that the Lord Jesus would bless these frail, vulnerable churches. (It seems to me this trust in the local elders also calls into question multi-site churches and some of our mission strategies.)

  3. Mindy Withrow November 11, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Your post is timely, John, as I’m speaking at my Episcopal parish tonight about “The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults” (that’s “emerging” as in 18-29 year olds, not “emerging church”). My talk is based on Christian Smith’s recent and highly interesting book, SOULS IN TRANSITION. Our purpose is to better understand the worldviews of this age group so we can discover natural points of contact by which we can reach out (for example, a congregation of older members may have the experience to mentor emerging adults through the very real economic challenges of starting out on your own for the first time, thus opening the door to community and relationship). I think you would be fascinated by his research.
    And for an alternative perspective on the state of mainline denominations — one that looks at certain mainline congregations that are rapidly growing — I highly recommend Diana Butler Bass’ CHRISTIANITY FOR THE REST OF US.
    I always appreciate your posts!

  4. Anthony Cota November 11, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Over ten years ago, the pollsters asked Americans this question: Do you believe in reincarnation? For the first time in the history of the polling, 51% of Americans believed in reincarnation, which I believe is a Hindu concept. From that point on, we ceased to be a Judeo-Christian nation.
    Over the past twenty years, there has been some large immigrations of Islamic peoples to the United States. These groups added another fabric to the religous patchwork quilt that is the United States of America.
    The point is, the United States has always been a fertile field for home missions. With each migration of peoples, there should have been corresponding increases in our churches with fresh converts from these different cultures. However that has not been the case.
    Why? Because we have forgotten our “first love” and replaced it with things of lesser substance. If forgetting our first love, we also forgot Christ’s Great Commission…to preach the Gospel fearlessly throughout the world — starting with, our own backyards.

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