LifeWay is the publishing department of the Southern Baptist Convention. Last month they released the findings of a study that was conducted between the dates of January 14 and January 30 of 2019. 1,000 pastors of Protestant churches were called and asked a list of questions about their churches. The call list was compiled by way of a random sampling that took into account churches of all sizes, and the responses were weighted by region to better reflect the country’s overall population.
According to Lifeway, the sampling equates to a 95% confidence level that the study’s margin of error doesn’t exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent. Putting that in layman’s terms, the results should be about as reasonably accurate as we can get with such studies. Unfortunately, the study’s findings were quite troubling. Consider the following items:
- Over the past three years, 28% of churches declined in attendance by 6% or more, and another 33% remained plateaued within a 5% range. That means that 61% of our churches are either in decline or are plateaued in regards to attendance. Only 39% grew by 6% or more over the past three years.
- Despite the megachurches we see on t.v., 57% of churches have fewer than 100 people in attendance each Sunday. 21% average less than 50. Only 11% average 250 or more people for Sunday morning worship service.
- 54% of churches had fewer than 10 new commitments to Jesus last year. 8% of churches had none.
- Even among churches that average 250 or more people in attendance, only 18% had 10 or more conversions per every 100 people in attendance last year. That indicates that for the most part larger churches don’t maintain or increase their size by way of evangelism and conversions to Christ. Instead, for the most part they maintain or increase their size by “doing church” better (offering better programs, better facilities, better staffing, etc.) and thus reaping the benefits of being on the plus side of membership swapping.
- 55% of churches who have lead pastors who are 18 to 44 years old are growing. Only 33% of churches who have lead pastors who are 45 years or older are growing.
Since I am 52 years old, I find that last statistic particularly depressing. Why is it that the majority of churches with relatively young pastors are growing while the vast majority of churches with older pastors are not? I think it’s because the world is constantly changing and it’s the younger folks who are willing to adapt and keep pace. They aren’t so tied to the past. They aren’t so sentimental. They are more open to trying new approaches. They aren’t impressed by the line, “That’s the way we’ve always done it” because they haven’t been the ones always doing it that way.
Look, I’m not talking about watering down the gospel. I’m not talking about sacrificing doctrine on the altar of church growth. I’m not talking about a church becoming so worldly that it can’t do any good affecting its community for Christ. What I’m talking about is being willing to change the machinery of how we present the teachings of the Bible. Some elderly person might object by saying, “But what about the senior citizens? It’s our church, too. The young people shouldn’t always get their way.” Well, that’s true. However, the same can be said of the old guard. They shouldn’t always get their way, either.
The plain truth is that there comes a time when the average church should admit that what they are doing isn’t actually working all that well. A new approach is needed. Fresh thinking is required. It makes no sense to keep beating your head against the same spot on the same wall day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. All that gets you is an ugly spot on the wall and a sore head. As the old saying goes, “To keep doing the same thing and expect different results is a form of insanity.”
Of course I realize that most of you will forget all those statistics from that Lifeway study about ten seconds after reading this post. You might have even forgotten them already. So let me close this post by way of an illustration that I hope will stick in your mind long after you’ve forgotten the results of that study. Ready? Here goes.
One day a colony of ants were tucked away safely in their ant hill when suddenly the hill’s entrance became blocked by a large white object. Scout ants were dispatched to work their way out of the hill and inspect the situation. They reported back that a golf ball had rolled to a dead stop right on top of the ant hill. They had barely gotten that report given, however, when suddenly a violent blow from a golf club took out one whole side of the hill. It was the golfer swinging and missing the ball completely as he unsuccessfully attempted to play his lie. With ants scurrying around everywhere beneath him, now the golfer stood readying himself to take another swing. That’s when one ant looked at another ant and uttered a line that could very well be applied to our churches in 2019. He said, “If we’re going to survive, we’d better get on the ball!”
Well done. Sobering stuff. I think opportunities abound for a church community that is willing to embrace local missions in service to others. Where could hospice use you? Where is there abject poverty in your community? Do they know Jesus loves them? They may have heard the gospel, but never seen it. Is there a special needs community you could provide church for? What about shut-ins, can they be served? Who can the church go love on today? A church asking these questions today can thrive in 2019, in my humble opinion. Thanks Russell, you fired me up a bit today!