Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds. Proverbs 27:23
For the last 15 plus years, we, at the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development (FASICLD) in partnership with Into Thy Word Ministries (another Francis Schaeffer vision), have been in careful, steadfast research in quest of "why so many churches are failing."
What the Statistics Tell Us
This quest started in 1992 as a Fuller Institute project that was picked up by FASICLD in 1998, seeking what had happened and why the bride of Christ was in decline. God's marvelous Church has become culturally irrelevant and even distant from is prime purpose of knowing Him, growing in Him, and worshipping Him by making disciples! This is evidenced by what is going on in our culture and in our church. Most of the statistics tell us that nearly 50% of Americans have no church home. In the 1980s, membership in the church had dropped almost 10%; then, in the 1990s, it worsened by another 12% drop-some denominations reporting a 40% drop in their membership. And now, over half way through the first decade of the 21st century, we are seeing the figures drop even more!
What is Going on with the Church in America?
The United States Census Bureau Records give some startling statistics, backed up by denominational reports and the Assemblies of God U.S. Missions:
· Every year more than 4000 churches close their doors compared to just over 1000 new church starts!
· There were about 4,500 new churches started between 1990 and 2000, with a twenty year average of nearly 1000 a year.
· Every year, 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity. This translates into the realization that people are leaving the church. From our research, we have found that they are leaving as hurting and wounded victims-of some kind of abuse, disillusionment, or just plain neglect!
· From 1990 to 2000, the combined membership of all Protestant denominations in the USA declined by almost 5 million members (9.5 percent), while the US population increased by 24 million (11 percent).
· At the turn of the last century (1900), there was a ratio of 27 churches per 10,000 people, as compared to the close of this century (2000) where we have 11 churches per 10,000 people in America! What has happened?
· Given the declining numbers and closures of Churches as compared to new church starts, there should have been over 38,000 new churches commissioned to keep up with the population growth.
· The United States now ranks third (3rd) following China and India in the number of people who are not professing Christians; in other words, the U.S. is becoming an ever increasing "un-reached people group."
· Half of all churches in the US did not add any new members to their ranks in the last two years.
· So, why do they leave-besides because of death? Why are they not coming?
More Startling Data
Between 1992 and 2002, 77% to 87% (160 million in 1992) of Americans identified themselves as Christians in most studies. However, what constitutes a Christian or a churchgoer is the question. One study that I did between 1992 and 2002 had surprising results. I found that church attendance may be half what those survey results stated. Many polls have indicated that the percentage of people who regularly attend a church service in the United States is around 40% to 50%, 20% in Canada, and 8% or less in Europe. But, when we started to count people from denominational reports and compare to census data and University research data, the numbers that were originally declared dropped by half!
· 22% of Americans "frequently" attended church in 1992, including Orthodox, Evangelical, or Protestant. (The reason why the other research is variant is due to how they ask the questions. I sought frequency over just attending. I deem frequency as at least 2 times a month as opposed to two to three times a year indicated by other statistical research.)
· 20.5% of Americans "frequently" attended church in 1995
· 19% of Americans "frequently" attended church in 1999
· 18.0% of Americans "frequently" attended in church in 2002
Now, by extrapolating the data and doing some statistical evaluation and adding some hope for revival, we can see the figures drop to 15% of Americans in attendance at a church by 2025, and a further drop to 11% or 12 % in 2050. Soon, we can catch up with Europe, which is currently "enjoying" two to four percent of its population in regular Church attendance. By the time these predictions come to pass, Europe may have no significant Church presence at all.
Now, I can gladly say many churches and denominational groups are growing such as the Calvary Chapel, Assemblies of God, and other Evangelical churches; even the one I pastor is growing. Nevertheless, we see a major problem here. What we hear as responses from most of our church leaders are the excuses of "cultural decay" and "changing values" and that "the average American views the church with little regard." These are authentic factors, but they are just symptoms. The bigger question seems to be what led up to these "symptoms?" What led to the problems of cultural decay and the downgrading of moral absolutes? There is more to it than changing values; after all, a change in values has a root cause. A symptom is usually caused by a systemic disease or an explicit psychological problem.
Perhaps, the "so called" Evangelists who are seen on TV, living lavish lifestyles while preaching a message that does not conform to how the average person lives or one based on biblical precepts have disillusioned many people. It could be persons who grew up in a church only to be treated with contempt and insolence by the very church they thought would love and care for them. Thus, they left their church hurt and feeling betrayed. The average American sees the preaching by some church leaders with a harsh reaction against the morally corrupt political figures (backed by some Christians and the further twisting of the media), yet the same avenge person see these same leaders as seemingly tolerating his or her own moral misdeeds (whether true or not). Coupled with all this is the hurt and resentment that builds over time, and turns into a wedge, leveraging the one-time church attendee into a church neglecter and even a church hater. It can happen because of childhood experiences, or perhaps a first time visit to a church where one was shunned, belittled, or treated with contempt or disrespect, or just ignored after working up the courage to go. It could be a one-time incident or a lifetime of abuse. Whatever the reason or the excuse, the result is alienation. Yes, there is personal responsibility, but I believe we can be better!
One thing I learned as a church growth consultant is when a person leaves a church, there are only a few weeks (4 to 8 max) to bring them back before the hurt becomes too much and/or they get settled somewhere else (if they even go someplace else). When the hurt builds because it was not diffused by a simple effort of contact and care, these people may never come back to their home church-or any church. The statistics tell us; this is true in any church and why many are failing!
Statistics from Barna Research reported recently that perhaps 50% of people who go to a church are not even Christians. I first heard of this statistic when I was in seminary, and even from my "hero," J. Vernon McGee, whom I visited as often as possible. I remember a conversation I had with Francis Schaeffer; he often said he believed a strong percentage of people in the church were not Christians, that they only go for show! At first I did not believe it could be a significant percentage, but after years of pastoral experience, I now know this to be fact. At least 20% in Reformed and Evangelical churches would fit in this category, and the Mainline would be higher than 60%. In the Catholic Church, I suspect it would be over 80%, but I have found no real effective way of testing any of this.
The Typical Excuses
Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
My church growth colleagues have drummed up their reasons for the decline of the Church such as a lack of several key areas that are not functioning right in the local church. These areas are in the realm of vision, leadership, evangelism efforts, communication, church mentality, capital, child care, youth programs, and being seeker-sensitive. When these key areas are not functioning, the existing people will leave and others will not come. In my own research, I too found the same results. However, I have also found other factors that are in real, critical areas such as not teaching the Word or making God's Word boring so that people are turned off. In addition, when our teaching is not tied into the needs of our people, we are failing to contextualize the message to the community. Then, the people will get the feeling that the teaching or the church is not informative, in-depth, or relevant to them, thus they are not receiving anything worthwhile from which they can grow or use in their daily lives.
From these excuses of moral decline and the harsh poles of declining cultural relativism of the church, we hear the cry of reform in the areas of worship and outreach; but, are these truly the areas of greatest concern? What is the root cause that has driven a wedge in our cultural identity? I do not believe people are dropping off in mass numbers because they do not like wearing ties to church, singing hymns, or the various Christian scandals. There is something more lurking under the surface. In addition, the church seems to be blind to what is really going on under its very nose.
Nevertheless, there is a disconnect of what most church theorists think is wrong with the church and what really is wrong with the church that we at FASICLD found and what Schaeffer himself taught (True Spirituality, The Finished Work of Christ, A Christian View of the Church, The Great Evangelical Disaster, The Mark of the Christian, to name a few). The top reasons why people leave a church have to do with not being connected in the church and/or being revolted by gossip and turned away by conflict and strife while ineffective teaching and pastoral care are also at hand. Another big turn off is being overly money-orientated so that people feel the church wants their money but not them. The rest are important, especially youth and children's ministry. The rest are more superficial in comparison (although most certainly needed). Yes, each of these areas is "mission critical" to build a healthy church, but again, these are only symptoms of what is really wrong, symptoms of a bigger and deeper problem.
I need to make this clear; in my many years of research (since the late 1970s), the churches that do and/or want to water down the message to attract more people make a huge mistake. They neuter the power and purpose of the Church to which Christ called us. When discipleship and instruction are ignored, He is ignored! We are seeing that Evangelicals are losing their way by moving away from His Way, as the building of people to serve and be involved in the church becomes more and more absent as well as real Christian involvement with the community. Real Christian service comes from a heartfelt response to God's work in us. If there is not solid biblical instruction, there will be no conviction or learning of what we are and can do. The real problem is not solved by watering the Bible down; rather, it is heightened by making it practical and understandable to people. We can still unpack its precepts and teach it fervently and reverently. You can teach God's Word with power, conviction, clarity, and in truth as long as you do it in love and make it applicable and understandable. It is a shame to take the most wonderful work ever conceived-God's Word-and make it boring! We are to make God's Word relate to us personally and then to others around us, especially when we teach it.
Yes, I believe we do need to do a better job at reaching people. Changing some methodologies, and being creative is a good approach with which to start, but it does not solve the main problem! These are not the core issues on why people are finding other various activities to fill the Sunday time slot! Yes, we do need to re-think our methods without compromising the message. The church regards the guitar and keyboard as of the Devil while at the same time producing boring lectures and monotone messages in the King James language. Then we wonder where all the people are. Something needs to change. But, again, this is not the main problem! The problem is not that theater style is more conducive to people than the historical architecture of gothic design or thinking, or that chairs are better than pews, or storefronts better than the A-frames and cathedrals. It is not about a lack of parking, of drama, or of power point presentations. The problem is that the church has lost its way; we have fallen off the path that Christ has for us. Either we reform, and let the Lord use us to usher in revival (theologically speaking, He does not need us, but God, through history, has usually used people in His plan), or we will be like a bad science fiction movie where religion is a relic of the past!
How does this relate to Church Growth?
Statistics tell us that 42% to 50% of all churches in America have a congregation of between 100 and 300 members, and 20% of American churches have fewer than 100 members. This is factoring in the mega church trend. There are many reasons why some churches grow while others remain small. One of the main reasons a church does not grow is that the church does not want to. The church has little desire for change; they are complacent and many tend not to take their pastors seriously. If a church does not like change, then calls a pastor into their fold who wants to change, the results will be one of two avenues. The first avenue is that prayer will become the focus and that church will capture a vision, surrendering themselves to the Lordship of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, they will grow and will be blessed. But, what typically happens is avenue two where prayer is ignored or superficial and eventually the church gangs up against the pastor and forces him out, as our data supports. Usually, this process is not overt or overnight-that is, they are not in his front yard burning down a cross or carrying torches. What a congregation tends to do is belittle the pastor, not respecting him or her; therefore, they do not have to hear what the pastor has to say, because it is irrelevant. After all, you do not have to listen to someone you do not respect. If you do not like the person, then obviously God is not going to use them to communicate the truth to you. Of course, this is unbiblical and pure nonsense, but most people believe it in their hearts, which because of our actions, undermines God's work in changing hearts and using people.
It is imperative we understand that growth statistics are just one aspect of an indicator of a healthy church. True success is being obedient to what God has called us to do and realizing that although we are responsible to serve, we are not responsible for the results. Our surrender to the will of God over our will and desires equals success; we are called to have the focus that God has and the passion and prayer to follow through. These are the marks of a successful church leader.
Church growth statistics say that visitors in a church will decide in the first few minutes whether or not they will come back. So, the inference is that the visitor will be most impacted by how they are greeted, which will determine how they respond and connect to the rest of the church. Even if you have the best teaching and worship in the world, people will not stay where they are not welcomed. First impressions are critical. If the church does not have a friendly atmosphere, then it will slowly die from its unkindness. Kindness is a very important Fruit of the Spirit that must manifest itself from the parking lot to the restrooms, or you will be sitting in a pew or theater chair by yourself. When the church is infighting and the pastor is dazed and confused from the warfare, it is the visitors and potential members who become the collateral damage!
The bottom line is this: do not be shortsighted concerning your faith and the opportunities Christ has and will still bring for you. If we do not have a desire to pursue the will of God, we have to ask ourselves why and what is in the way. Mostly, if not all of the time, it is the desire of the sin of pride that blocks us. Sometimes, we may not recognize sin and will perhaps rationalize it away. This happens especially when solid biblical theology or teaching is "dumbed down" and shown as OK in the media and entertainment which are at our disposal. Our election is proven by our obedience, fruit, and growth in Christ!
We have to be on guard against the erosion of biblical values and damage to our beliefs and biblical mindset (Psalm 123:3; Mark 4:19)!
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:14-16
Remember, churches fail because we place our needs and desires over the Lord's. It is His Church and we are His people. Let our focus be on the right target-that is, His and not ours! We are called to a higher purpose. We are not called to ourselves. Ministry is a dangerous thing because we are before a Holy God. Yes we have grace, but we have responsibility too!
© 2007 (research from 1998 to 2006) R. J. Krejcir Ph.D. Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development www.churchleadership.org