One of the primary lenses through which demographers can track religious decline is through denominational records. Almost every large religious tradition has been tracking their total membership for decades as a means of understanding where churches are growing and where they are declining. Anyone who has been in church administration for a while knows that membership records are far from accurate. Churches don’t want to cull people from the rolls because there’s always the possibility that they will return to church one day and express offense when seeing that their name has been purged from the official records. However, despite their drawbacks, denominational records are still one of the best data sources that exist when it comes to tracking the growth or decline of American religion.
The portrait they paint is not a rosy one. For instance, in 1990 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America reported 5.25 million members. In 2020 the total membership was just over 3 million—a decline of 41 percent. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has seen its membership drop 58 percent during the same time period. The United Church of Christ is down 52 percent, and the United Methodist Church has seen a decline of 31 percent. The Episcopal Church, which used to be one of the most influential denominations in the United States, has just half a million people in the pews on an average Sunday and just 1.5 million members total.
This trend is not relegated to mainline traditions alone. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which is the largest evangelical denomination in the United States, has also seen a serious decline in membership in recent years. In 2006, 16.2 million people aligned with the SBC; now that number is 13.7 million. Between 2020 and 2021, the SBC lost nearly 410,000 members. That’s the largest single-year loss in the 170 years of the Southern Baptist Convention.
There are two bright spots when it comes to membership. The Assemblies of God, an evangelical denomination with ties to the Pentecostal tradition, has seen their membership numbers rise 50 percent over the last three decades. They also enjoy a high level of racial diversity, while many other Protestant traditions are still overwhelmingly white. The other area seeing positive growth is nondenominational Protestant Christianity. While it’s impossible to collect membership statistics on these types of churches, on surveys the portion of Americans who identify as nondenominational rose over the last decade while other traditions like Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran have all declined.
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.