Orginally published on Sunday, November 23, 2008 at 10:10 PM
by Todd Rhoades
A couple of weeks ago, Bob Buford gave me a book entitled “What Americans Really Believe”. This new book, written by Rodney Stark had enough content in chapter one to write a bunch of articles. Today, I want to briefly discuss what Stark, who is a researcher at Baylor University has found about American’s and their church attendance.
I’ve heard that 87% of statistics are made up on the spot. And I think that may be true. But some of Baylor’s research findings really fly in the face of what we’re hearing in most polls coming out of the Christian community. Here is one of the declarations of this book:
The percentage of Americans that belong to a local congregation is actually INCREASING in the country. In fact, church membership is much, much higher in 2008 than it was, even in revolutionary times.
Stark shares research done for the book “The Churching of America, 1776-1990,” which went through an elaborate study to actually see what church membership has looked like throughout American history. Here’s what they found:
% of Americans Who Belong to a Local Congregation
Stark says that the Puritans were actually a very small minority of the people who settled in the new world. European church attendance was dismal, and many settlers brought their religious habits with them. Thus, only 17% were connected with the church in the early years of our country.
Even since the 1950s, when more modern research started, Stark says that the combination of Gallop, Baylor and General Social Survey polls has found that actual church attendance has remained steady overall. The only thing that has really decreased has been Catholic attendance (and that was due to the Vatican II ruling saying that it was no longer a sin to miss mass). In fact, according to their numbers, 36% of people attended church regularly in 1973. By 2007, that number had stayed absolutely the same: 36%.
Those numbers are totally different than many studies released by well-known Christian organizations that have caused major alarm in the church over the past years.
Who should we believe? Stark’s research makes a lot of sense to me. As Solomon said, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’
But really, should any of this research make any difference to us as we conduct our ministries? Probably not. We all are full aware of the pressing need to reach the unchurched in our communities. Hearing and believing that there are more unchurched now, and that we are losing the battle, really does none of us any good.
The good side: Maybe the American church is not in as big of a crisis as some have painted it to be. We must just be as innovative and hard-working as ever to make a dent in the number of unchurched where we live. That is where the difference really takes place.
What do you think?
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