For the first time in the Gallup poll’s eight-decade history, in 2020 church membership in the United States fell below 50 percent in America. From World War II all the way to the mid-1990s, church membership among adults was nearly always above 70 percent. The precipitous decline occurred across all religious traditions and, as we’ve already stated, began to pick up steam in the mid-1990s. Membership has dropped by roughly a third across all religious traditions over the last twenty-five years. This invariably has caused more churches to close and has made it more challenging to plant new churches.
According to Lifeway Research, in 2019 approximately 3,000 Protestant churches were started in the US, but 4,500 Protestant churches closed. Just five years prior, in 2014, the same Lifeway study found that 3,700 churches had closed and 4,000 had opened. As you can see, the rate of church planting has slowed, and the rate of church closures has accelerated. The dechurching phenomenon is likely a large factor in those shifts.
According to the 2020 Faith Communities Today (FACT) study on all kinds of faith communities, “the vast majority of the country’s congregations are small. 70% of these faith communities have 100 or fewer weekly attendees. Only 10% of them have more than 250 in weekly services. However, far more people attend these larger congregations—roughly 70% of all attendees–than the many smaller ones.” Churches under 100 people comprise 69 percent of all churches. However, 70 percent of all US church attenders go to churches that have 250 or more people.18 Hence, smaller churches are far more common; however, far more people attend larger churches when you add up the sum total of people in those larger churches. The dechurching phenomenon is likely to hit smaller churches proportionally much harder, and we will likely see more consolidation of churches into medium and larger churches.
If the church closing and planting trends from 2019 continue, we will continue to see the total number of Protestant churches in America decline.
Davis, Jim, Michael Graham, Ryan P. Burge, and Collin Hansen. 2023. The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
What will it take to bring them back?
I suggest a long-term perspective. We didn’t get here in a day and it will take more than a day to get out. I’d suggest a three-year approach. It took roughly three years for Jesus to make his followers into fishers of men. It may take us at least that.
While most churches are struggling, many churches are not. The churches that are not struggling are doing evangelism differently. They don’t do Sunday School. They don’t do VBS. They don’t do revivals. What do they do? Here is a good summary of how many of them are doing evangelism:
If I had to summarize what the research and my experience told me about what those around us are looking for, I could do it in one word: friend!
The research confirms it. What else would you call someone who listens without judgment, offers you wise counsel but helps you make your own decision, and loves you no matter what? That’s a friend!
Friend /frend/ (noun)—a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection
It’s that simple. It’s also that challenging. People are looking for you to be a friend. They are looking for a friend who will live the good news, be good news, and then share the good news in the form of their own story. In that order! Wow! It was that simple “Aha!” that brought me back to the Bible and opened my eyes to see that this is exactly how Jesus did it.
“Friend of Sinners”
Do you know what Jesus’s nickname was? It was “Friend” (Matthew 11:16–19 NIV). More specifically, “Friend of Sinners.”
Who gave Jesus that nickname? Religious leaders who watched how He lived His life and didn’t like it. But apparently Jesus liked it so much that He kept it!
It was easy for “Friend of Sinners” to stick because everywhere Jesus went, He befriended people and was a blessing to them. His entire life and ministry were a rhythm of befriending and blessing. Jesus blessed every person and every place He encountered. — BLESS: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World, Dave Ferguson
Simple as this is, I think it will take a while to get there. Here is what I suggest. Every
year, starting in January or August, do a church-wide study of evangelism. (You might consider a sermon series to go along with the study.)
- Year #1, Study BLESS: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World, Dave Ferguson
- Year #2: How to Talk about Jesus (Without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan.
- Year #3: Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael frost
Each of these studies is about six weeks and are available on Amazon or as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription system. www.MyBibleStudyLessons.com
During the rest of the year, I recommend you spend five or ten minutes each week in each group talking about such questions as:
- Who are you praying for that is far from God?
- Who have you had the opportunity to listen to this week about their walk with God? What have we learned about why people are leaving church?
- Did you share a meal with anyone this week who was far from God?
- What service project could we do to “let our light so shine before others that they would see our good works and glorify our father in Heaven”?
In addition, I’d encourage each group to host a fellowship every month and invite every member and every prospect. For more on this, see https://www.YouCanDouble.com/
I close with a quote from the last book above:
As should be obvious by now, I’m not merely promoting these five practices as a one-off program. I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life. You see, doing a short-term project, like Forty Days of Purpose, is great. But missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them. — Frost, Michael. 2016. Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.