can these bones liveThe first question that one must ask is, “Why is there such a great need for church revitalization?” The answer to that question is simple. At present, anywhere from thirty-five hundred to four thousand churches across denominational lines are closing their doors every year. I have read that upwards of seven thousand churches shut down, but I have never seen any real research to justify these numbers. An article by Thom Rainer stated that as many as a hundred thousand American churches will close their doors over the next decade if nothing changes. In this blog post, Rainer listed eleven signs that a church was dying or already dead. These include:

  •         The church refused to look like the community.
  •         The church had no community-focused ministries.
  •         Members became more focused on memorials.
  •         The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing.
  •         There were no evangelistic emphases.
  •         The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted.
  •         With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter.
  •         The church rarely prayed together.
  •         The church had no clarity as to why it existed.
  •         The members idolized another era.
  •         The facilities continued to deteriorate.

If Rainer’s research is correct, he is predicting that ten thousand churches will close their doors annually over the next decade—a number that surpasses all present estimates. The fact that between 70 and 80 percent of churches are plateaued or are in decline also defends these calculations. Many of these churches will not be in existence in the next ten years.

Two positive issues thankfully surface in the midst of these discouraging numbers. First, a study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion concluded that only about 1 percent of American congregations are closing annually—a number, according to this report, that demonstrates one of the lowest mortality rates for any type of organization. The study was conducted by Duke University professor Mark Chaves, who began his study in 1998. His research revealed that only about ten out of a thousand religious congregations disband each year. The criteria for his research involved reexamining congregations he had originally studied through the 1998 National Congregations Study. Chaves then reconnected with those congregations to determine how many of them were still active by holding regular services and maintaining other evidences of activity and ministry in 2005.

The one limiting issue within his research is the fact that he did not just evaluate evangelical or Christian churches. His investigation involved 1,230 churches, synagogues, and mosques, including those associated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutheran, Protestant, Episcopal, and Roman Catholics, among others.The fact that his research expanded beyond the Christian church might skew the numbers pertinent for this study somewhat. There were an estimated 314,000 Christian congregations in America as of 2010.6This particular research would imply a slightly lower number of congregations closing than what other research indicates. His findings, however, do give some encouragement at least for the present.

William Henard, Can These Bones Live: A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization (Nashville: B&H, 2015).

I have just completed a 7 week Bible study based on this theme. It is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

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