There’s a lot of false teaching going on within the evangelical church regarding statistics. Authors sell more books when they persuade their audience that sky is falling, the evangelical church is collapsing, and their book offers the solution. Preachers more easily persuade their members to knock on doors and attend next week’s gospel meeting when they are afraid of the imminent collapse of American Christianity. Politicians get more votes when the next election will decide the fate of the church in America.
But the stats say otherwise, according to Ed Stetzer, author and consultant on church growth —
The General Social Survey, the best-known ongoing survey tracking societal trends, finds the share of Americans who regularly attends a Protestant church has only declined three points — from 23 to 20 percent — in the last thirty years. According to Gallup, current church attendance rates areessentially the same as they were in the 1940s. Church attendance rates (over reported, yes, but consistently over reported so we can see trends) peaked in the ’50s.
But that’s Protestants. What about Evangelicals?
Even the most recent Pew data, which many (oddly and contrary to the actual data) took to spell doom for American Evangelicalism, showed a slight increase in numbers of evangelicals (with a small decline in terms of population percentage). In addition, the General Social Survey actually has the percent of Americans who regularly attend an evangelical church to be up over the last few decades and the last few years (though it peaked in the late ’80s).
Now, I in fact believe that evangelism is urgent, despite the stats. And I’m all for church growth literature. (But, no, the next election will neither make nor break the church. Our King doesn’t have to run for office.) But we need to motivate ourselves and our members with truth not lies. Means and ends and all that. Just because it’s for God, it’s not okay to lie to our members and claim to be on the verge of a disastrous collapse.
But, of course, I’m speaking of evangelicalism in general and American Protestantism in general. The Churches of Christ, as a denomination, are indeed in accelerating numerical decline, and the denomination really is on the verge of a disastrous collapse. The numbers are grim, no matter how they are viewed. Fewer members, fewer adherents (members and unbaptized children), fewer congregations, and fewer baptisms.
But it’s not because every branch of American Christianity is in decline. That’s just not true. There are other denominations in decline, like us, such as the Southern Baptists. But the Pentecostal denominations and non-denominational churches are growing quite well — well enough to offset the declines in the other churches.
On the other hand, the un-churched and de-churched are increasingly secular in their worldviews. Indeed, we are increasingly surrounded by a world that is outright opposed to Christianity.
However, the ground is shifting and it requires some rethinking and refocusing on mission (and writing on that has been most of my ministry focus).
The trends are challenging and should concern us. Society is becoming more secular. Nominal Christians are often dropping the label and frequently changing their values. And, while church attendance and involvement is relatively steady for evangelicals, this should just remind us that we need to engage the new reality where we find ourselves.
Simply put, the mission force is now living in and engaging a very different (and more challenging) mission field.
In short, the church is becoming less denominational, less Reformation minded, less Great Awakening (gospel meetings, revivals, and responses to invitations were all invented in the First and Second Great Awakenings), and in many ways, more First Century (non-denominational, missional, Spirit-led). And the world is becoming more worldly. And this is why so much of Romans 1 speaks to us today. Modern America and ancient Rome have much in common.
Therefore, the Bible should speak more clearly to us today than it has since Constantine. Our mission has never been more clearly set before us. The question is whether we’ll truly become more First Century or insist on remaining true to the 19th Century and 20th Century versions of Christianity.