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?”
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?