I have never been more optimistic about the future of the church in America. I believe we will soon see an unprecedented revival. This article explains why.
Growth occurs in cycles. We are born, we grow, we die. It is true of people. It is true of plants. It is true of churches, it is true of Sunday School classes, it is true of denominations. It is true of businesses and products.
Consider the following charts from some well-known business books that illustrate this principle. The Ten Day MBA illustrates a product life cycle with the following graph:
The Portable MBA has a similar concept. Products are developed, they are introduced to the market, revenue increase, the product matures, then it declines, following a predictable pattern.
The key to success in business, then, is to introduce new products before the existing products hit their peak. Successful companies introduce an unending line of new products. Sometimes, the new products kill the old products. That is OK. Better to compete with yourself than to see someone else put you out of business.
How does this relate to churches? One application is the idea that no group or class will last forever. We need to constantly be introducing new classes and starting new groups. We need to do some of this just to stay even, because no class will last forever. We need to do a lot if it if we want to grow the church. But, we are getting ahead of our selves. From a local church perspective, it looks like this:
Studies have shown that, in general, churches typically plateau in attendance by their fifteenth year, and by about thirty-five years they begin having trouble replacing the members they lose
The fruit of conversions follows a similar pattern: among evangelical churches, those under three years old will win ten people to Christ per year for every hundred members. Those three to fifteen years old will win five people per year for every hundred members. After age fifteen the number drops to three per year.” — Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers (Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird)
The application for a denomination is pretty simple: if you want to grow, start more churches than die every year. If you want to grow a lot, start a lot more churches than die every year. I’d like for us to think about this from a wider perspective–from the viewpoint of denominations.
Let’s look at this principle from the perspective of denominations.
Here is the history of the Episcopal church:
The Presbyterian church:
And the Methodist church, along with population growth during the same period:
For a long time, Southern Baptist stood a part from this trend, but look what is happening in recent years:
(We will look later as to how to avoid this trend.)
Notice how explosively denominations grow in their early days. Roger Finke says, “In 1776 the Methodists were a tiny religious society with only 65 churches scattered through the colonies. Seven decades later they towered over the nation. In 1850 there were 13,302 Methodist congregations, enrolling more than 2.6 million members-the largest single denomination, accounting for more than a third of all American church members. For such growth to occur in eighty years seems nearly miraculous.”
- If you were a betting man, what would you bet this trend will do in years to come?
- If you want to see a national revival, what would you do?
I tell you what I would do, I would start a whole bunch of new denominations. New groups grow better than old groups. New churches grow better than old churches. New denominations will grow better than old ones.
Now, here is the good news: we have a whole slew of new denominations in their infancy right now. They don’t call themselves denominations, but 40 years from now, that is what we well see them as. They are on that initial low flat part of the line that you see above–although, it doesn’t look very flat from where they sit.
Now, check out this chart from Wikipedia on the growth or decline of various denominations. Look at the percentage column. In a column that is nearly all single digits, with a sprinkling of double digit’s, we have the number 4040.2%. I put it in red so you can’t miss it.
in % of
|Adult population, total||175,440||207,983||228,182||30.1%|
|Adult population, Responded||171,409||196,683||216,367||26.2%||97.7%||94.6%||94.8%||?2.9%|
|United Church of Christ||438||1,378||736||68.0%||0.2%||0.7%||0.3%||0.1%|
|Protestant – Unspecified||17,214||4,647||5,187||?69.9%||9.8%||2.2%||2.3%||?7.5%|
|Pentecostal – Unspecified||3,116||4,407||5,416||73.8%||1.8%||2.1%||2.4%||0.6%|
|Assemblies of God||617||1,105||810||31.3%||0.4%||0.5%||0.4%||0.0%|
|Church of God||590||943||663||12.4%||0.3%||0.5%||0.3%||0.0%|
|Other Protestant Denominations||4,630||5,949||7,131||54.0%||2.6%||2.9%||3.1%||0.5%|
|Churches of Christ||1,769||2,593||1,921||8.6%||1.0%||1.2%||0.8%||?0.2%|
|Total non-Christian religions||5,853||7,740||8,796||50.3%||3.3%||3.7%||3.9%||0.5%|
|New Religious Movements & Others||1,296||1,770||2,804||116.4%||0.7%||0.9%||1.2%||0.5%|
|None/ No religion, total||14,331||29,481||34,169||138.4%||8.2%||14.2%||15.0%||6.8%|
|Did Not Know/ Refused to reply||4,031||11,300||11,815||193.1%||2.3%||5.4%||5.2%||2.9%|
Who are these non-denominational churches? Churches like Willowcreek and Northpoint to name a few. When I was growing up, only kind of weird churches were non-denominational. Now it is common place. Take a look at Outreach Magazine’s list of the 100 largest and fastest growing churches in America. The largest single category in both lists in non-denominational. 51 of the largest churches in America are non-denominational; 60 of the fastest growing churches in America are non-denominational.
Bradley Wright says, “Reflecting this change, in 1990, only about 200,000 Americans described themselves as nondenominational Christians, but in 2008, 8 million did.”
Finke says, “In contrast, the evangelical groups-some of them rapidly becoming the new upstart sects of our era-do look like rockets. So much, then, for perceptions of a seismic shift or a sudden response to a cultural crisis. The speed of conservative growth and liberal decline will no doubt change from time to time, but the general trend has remained consistent for more than two centuries of American history.”
Who are these non-denominational churches? The seeds of a new denominations, that is who they are. 79 of the largest churches are multi-site. The average number of sites among all the 100 largest churches is 3.88. Nearly 4 locations per church. Something is happening here.
Take Northpoint, for example. Charles Stanley’s son, Andy Stanley is the pastor. Or, perhaps we should say that Charles Stanley is Andy Stanley’s father. Saul has killed his thousands; David his ten thousands. Northpoint is the second largest church in America. I watched their 15 year celebration service. Bill Hybels spoke. In his message, he called Northpoint the fastest growing movement in Christendom. Let’s take a closer look.
In addition to reaching 24,325 at their three main campuses, Northpoint has also started a number of daughter churches they call strategic partners. Attendance at these churches would not be included in the 24,325 number:
Many of the top 100 churches could show a map like this. Here is Community Christian in Naperville, IL:
I couldn’t find a map for Lifechurch.tv, but I did find a list:
Again, 80% of the 100 fastest growing churches in America are multi-site. And, a whole lot of other churches are joining the movement. Many of these will, from the viewpoint of history, bet the seeds of new denominations. Now, the new denominations will not be like the old denominations. The old denominations were about theological differences. The new denominations will about distinctive style, culture, and branding.
Now, here is what is exciting to me:
- It is not that the second largest church in America got to 24,000+ in only 15 years.
- It is not that in addition to that, they were able to start a couple of dozen churches.
- It is not that there are several dozen movement like this. (See Stetzer and Bird’s Viral Churches)
- It is that these churches were all started with reproduction in their DNA. They understand they were born to reproduce. In the coming years, many of these churches will have maps of their own showing a couple of dozen churches coming out of each of these churches. By about the fourth generation down, things get really exciting.
There will come a day when there will be a Northpoint, a Saddleback and a Willowcreek in every city in America. They will be a common as Wal-Mart.
What about my denomination, does this mean we are dead?
No, it doesn’t, but you do have your work cut out for you. They key is to become an garden rather than a plant. No plant can live forever, a garden can live forever. An forest can live forever because it is constantly planting new trees. A lot of them don’t make it. But, many do. And the existing trees eventually die of.
For a local church, this means taking an interest in church planting. It means staring churches and churches that are not like your church that will reach people your church will never reach. It means starting new classes. You grow a church not by growing the existing groups but by growing the number of groups — by starting new groups.
This is a price many churches are not willing to pay. Trust me, I have talked to lots of them. I have cast a vision for starting new groups by pointing out that a group of ten that doubles every 18 months will reach 1000 people in ten years–an insight I owe to Andy Stanley. I have had them look me in the eye and say, “Yeah, but we are comfortable the way we are.” You don’t have to do everything the way Andy does it to grow a church; you do have to figure out a way to start new groups.
I have done research on the size of groups in small churches and large. Odd thing, the average size stays more or less constant at around 10. In large churches, there will sometimes be some really large classes (often these have subdivisions of smaller groups within them). But, the overall average works out to about ten–even in really large churches. These are churches that have learned to be an eco system rather than a plant. They are a garden where plants grow, develop and die. But, they are always replacing those dying plants with more new ones.
Jesus said this is how it would be. He told us about the wine and the wineskins. The wine must be poured into new wineskins. Here is my application of this idea: every new generation must reinvent the way we do church. Never messing with the wine itself, we must continually allow the Spirit to blow where it will and create new wineskins to contain the every expanding wine.