One of the main assertions I make in a manuscript I’m completing is that, as a whole, Christianity in the West closes more churches than it starts. While doing some research I came across an assertion in a few books referencing Ed Stetzer’s organization ‘Lifeway Research’ and some data that suggests that there have been years in the past decade that saw more churches start than close.
Is it true? Unfortunately, I can’t find the data to analyze since it’s really old and the references are in magazines that don’t exist anymore (I’ll keep looking).
Nonetheless, the notion that we start more churches that we close should be interpreted with caution as I don’t believe it is indicative of momentum for Christianity in North America. Here’s why.
We know from data that there are fewer members and adherents on any given Sunday year over year. There’s a lot of current research that points to an overall decline in attendance.
We also know that few, if any, churches grow by evangelism, particularly evangelicals. The churches that do post growth do so for three very specific reasons:
- 1. They transfer consumer Christians from other places (church switchers)
- 2. They grow by immigration
- 3. They grow by births
If few grow by evangelism, then what are we to make of the opening more churches than we close stat?
The answer is quit simple: we populate new church plants with a critical mass of existing Christians.
Church planting has been a valuable strategic pursuit for many evangelical churches, which is great, and it’s large churches doing most of the planting. Evangelicals boast resilient congregations (compared to mainline) because they have a good balance of evangelical identity vs cultural consumerism. By offering quality programming, preaching, and music, they can conceivably talk amongst themselves for a very, very, long time.
When large churches do church planting (or rather, church transplanting) they will push, let’s say, 100 people to a new church plant, and immediately create another viable church community.
Essentially, the growth of new church plants relies on cleaving off people from the sending church. It’s not a bad idea, but a church of 1000 that releases a church plant of 100, simply becomes two churches of 100 and 900.
The principle issue of Christians largely being incapable of speaking a Gospel language in a manner a post-Christian person can comprehend, remains the looming issue. If we can’t find a way to address this deficiency no method of counting the same people will help cover up the downward spiral we’re on.
A more profound paradigm shift is necessary to mobilize a church in the post-Christian reality it sorely clings to.