Is the American Church Really in Decline?

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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  There are 42 Comments:

  • Posted by Brad Boydston

    It depends on what you’re measuring and how you measure it. David Olson (who isn’t really an alarmist) makes a pretty convincing case in The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2008) that American church growth is not anywhere near keeping up with the growth of the American population.

  • Posted by Peter Hamm

    FIrst off [and that was due to the Vatican II ruling saying that it was no longer a sin to miss mass]. not so, afaik. I grew up Catholic post-Vatican II. It is still a sin to miss mass unless there are extreme circumstances (like being totally snowed in).

    But the way to truly measure the church and it’s “decline” or lack thereof is to measure what Christ said would mark us as Christians to the world, our love for one another. But i don’t know how to “measure” that in a survey. I doubt anyone does.

    This is merely showing how much easier we’ve made it to be a church member than it was in the late 18th century and 19th century.

  • Posted by

    It depends on what you call the church. I understand the church as invisible and visible. Jesus said there will be MANY that will say lord, lord, but He will say depart from me , I never knew you. Is America more soiritual? Yes. But that does not equate to true conversion. Is the church expanding ? Sure is, but I have a hard time believing all these people are Christians in the true sense. Our Country would not be on the course it is if this were true. Many, many goats and false sheperds leading them in he ways and philosophies of the world. Do not be deceived.

  • Posted by

    The real issue is not how many people “attend” church, but how many of them are born again.  If the Lord called all true believers home today, I believe many churches in America would have very few of their “members” missing including their pastors.  Let’s be for real.  Most of those who followed Christ around were not really converted.  Most of them either wanted Him to meet their physical needs for food or physical healing, or they wanted to be entertained by His miracles much like most of those who attend church today.  Very little has changed in 2000 years.  Jesus repeatedly taught that only a few would make it into the Kingdom.  Jesus said rhetoricallly, “When the Son of Man returns will he find faith on earth?” God has never had more than a small remnant of true believers on earth at any given time.  When Elijah got on a pity party and complained to God that he was the only man who was not worshipping idol, God said that he had 7,000 men who had not bowed a knee to Baal, a very small number in a nation of millions.

  • Posted by Paul

    It’s pretty obvious that if 69% of Americans are church members but only 36% attend regularly that using membership data is completely irrelevant as an indicator of church health.

    Does “membership” have any meaning at all if churches are OK with their members not even attending services regularly (much less serving, discipling others, sharing their faith)?

  • Posted by Andy Rowell

    I just posted on this as well: Weekly U.S.A. Church Attendance: The Sociologists Weigh In

    In short, I think Todd is right to say that what really matters is the specifics of which churches are declining which these number don’t tell us.  As all of us who are involved in church leadership know, church growth is very complicated. 

    Stark in What Americans Believe does not give a lot of evidence for his take that church attendance is staying the same beyond people claiming that they attend church is staying about the same (but he quotes his other book, The Churching of America, which I haven’t read.  Brad above quotes the Olson book which is as slim in methodological rationale as Stark.  But Olson has a point--that most of the main denominations are declining in attendance. 

    I give you snapshots of all the latest sociological research in my post.  In short, around 35% of people claim to attend church regularly and about 22% actually attend church; the former number has stayed relatively constant; the latter seems to have declined a bit but it is impossible to know for sure.  With 33,000 denominations, it is difficult to get exact numbers. 


    Andy Rowell
    Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) Student
    Duke Divinity School
    Durham, North Carolina
    Blog: Church Leadership Conversations http://www.andyrowell.net/

  • Posted by

    Interesting.  With some denominations “belonging” translates into membership, which might mean little about regular attendance.  And even with regard to attendance, I’ve heard that in America, people who attend just 20 times per year consider themselves regular attenders.

    The other statistic I read and heard numerous times while in seminary (2006) is that the number of American churches in decline is growing significantly (sorry, can’t cite sources this morning).  More close their doors each year than are planted.  I’ve also heard that a very high percentage of church plants don’t survive past 5 years (do some of you church planters know if this is true, and if so, why).

    My sense is that these stats and the ones Stark notes in his book could both be true.  People ARE interested in the things of God but they are looking for something (I’m gonna say the “R” word) - - - RELEVANT.  Something that changes their lives and helps them understand how they can change the world.  So church attendance could be growing while at the same time, irrelevant American churches that make no real difference die every year.

    My thoughts this morning –


  • Posted by Chris Forbes

    Todd, I have found people in the church don’t seem to enjoy hearing how good things might be going. It is far more interesting to deconstruct the existing churches and talk about how bad things are in society. (Might be an byproduct of our Americanized eshcatology. Things have to go from bad to worse to fit the popular presuppositions. But, preachers too often make lousy social forecasters.) Personally, I feel the ‘relevant church” movement is in far more danger of extinction than the traditional church ever has been. People who get their missiology from Starbucks won’t always be around IMHO. grin

  • Posted by Peter Hamm

    I’ve seen plants fail and I’ve seen them that should have failed (bad grammar I know). imho, here are some key reasons.

    1. Not enough planning and realistic expectations of what should be done
    2. Church doing nothing different from surrounding churches.
    3. Churches planted in “wrong” spots, i.e. well-churched areas.
    4. Leadership that does not dedicate itself and revisit reason 1. Figure out what they really need to do to make it work.

    I have seen a plant where the planting group didn’t move to the community but rather commuted (nearly an hour) every sunday to the rented church facility. I don’t know how that one is doing today, but it was struggling in a BIG way after being planted for several years and experiencing nothing but stagnation it seemed. Hint: If you don’t move to the community you want to plant a church in, you aren’t planting a church, you are merely starting a “mission”. (That area was also, imho, pretty “over-churched”. There were about a half-dozen churches within a mile or two drive from the rented facility.)

    Back on point. You get what you measure. Measure church attendance and that’s all you get. Find a way to measure discipleship… for us that’s how many people are in the Word daily (we’ve adopted New Hope’s “Life Journal"), and how many people are “being the church” and serving beyond themselves inside and (more importantly) outside the walls of the church.

  • Posted by Cindy K

    I am going to go out on a limb here and ask:

    “What can be more relevant than the Word of God?”

    I’m serious.  I’m fairly new to this as some of you may know - Thanksgiving eve will celebrate my 3rd year as a saved Christ follower, but I keep hearing this ‘R’ word, and usually it’s associated with some new Church marketing scheme.

    I don’t mean to be flippant, and I don’t mean to be obtuse.  But I never in my life read anything more relevant than the Bible.

    Great marketing may improve ‘numbers’ for a time, but it seems to me in all my inexperience that only the Word will make disciples and keep the ‘numbers’ up.

  • Posted by


    Thanks for your thoughts. I would like to know when was the Word of God not relevant? Also, I do not think that the church is to change the world. Only God can do that and he does it through changed lives, lives redeemed by Christ. The church is just a gathering of those believers to hear the Word , partake of the sacraments, pray collectively and to minister to each other. We as individuals are to go into all the world and make disciples. For most of us that means right where we are, home, work and neighbors. It is not the church’s main responsibility. The church exists to edify the saints so that they are equipped to go into the world. Are you saying that we do this better than in the past? I would strongly disagree. Most Christians today do not even know the tennets of their faith and could not defend it against an attack by an atheist, a Muslim, a JW or a Mormon. We are not being relevant except to our cultural whims and that is not the relevancy we need. It may well be the relevancy we most need to disgard.

  • Posted by

    I travel full-time as a speaker in churches and retreats.  I talk with a lot of leaders.  In my opinion, we have far more converts than disciples.  The word of God is very relevant but it doesn’t have to come across as a boring theological lesson.  That’s another story for another day.

    In pondering the statistical info given:  the groups in 1776 certainly were not organized and travel was pretty tough the first 75 years unless you lived near a church.

    Also, having worked in/with many denominations, there are MANY that list hundreds more on their rolls than actually come to the church.  A new guy became pastor of a large church in the city in which I live.  He was shocked to find they had 5,000 on the rolls and an average attendance of 1,000.  That church began an aggressive contact program to find out whether these people needed “encouragement”, had moved or had changed churches, etc.  The number of members on rolls, spiraled downward.  The pastor is very evangelistic and discipleship oriented.  The church is now growing like crazy.

    We must return to evangelism, discipleship, true teaching of the word showing it’s relevance to life and yet dying to oneself.

  • Posted by

    I would disagree with Stark’s assessment for the simple reason church attendance does not equate to salvation.  George Barna wrote a book several years ago entitled “True Disciples” (I believe) and stated that 4 in 10 people sitting in the pews are not saved.  Brings new meaning to the story of the wheat and the weeds in the Bible.  His analysis was based upon the way they answered the questions about the gospel.  Many of them would say that Jesus is the only way that a person can get to heaven.  Then they would turn around and say that they had to work to get to heaven or there were other ways to get to heaven.  So church attendance is not the best barometer for measuring the decline of the church.  We are losing ground as we are not keeping up with the rate of growth even in America.  We are losing our influence in the public spectrum as one can tell from the course of recent events.  I believ the church is in decline with the exception of the Mega churches where people can hide and not be involved except by showing up on a Sunday.  If we really want to see what would happen every Mega Church should divide themselves up into several smaller churches strategically placed throughout a community to impact every neighborhood in the city.  Instead of a come hear mentality it would be a go and tell one.  But that will never happen because too many churches are built on the charisma of a leader rather than that of Jesus Christ.  Just my thoughts, what do you think.

  • Posted by

    I think some of you are missing Wendi’s point about relevance. The Word of God will always be relevant, but some people need to see how to apply His word in today’s society. They need to hear how to move from the agricultural examples of Jesus’ words and fit them into today’s surroundings that are decidedly not agricultural. They need to hear how to live today’s life in the light of God’s Word and principles and then grow in wisdom so they can teach others the same.

    Churches today need to focus on making disciples - that’s always been the case since Jesus gave His great commandment. Disciples are more than just members of the church - they are the ones who go out and serve while continually striving to allow themselves to be conformed to Christ’s image by studying the Word. I like the idea of the “Life Journal” at New Hope. It’s a great idea to instill displine in their discipling.

  • Posted by

    RE: your last statements: ["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."]
    (And RE: the terms “churched” or “unchurched,")
    I don’t think it’s enough to try to measure faithfulness to the collective number of institutional, corporate American organizations (for which we use the word “church.") I can’t imagine Jesus and the Apostles spending much energy on a “census” (like the Roman government) and counting the number of people gathering at synagogue and in the gatherings.  The Gospel writers made observations of the size of the groups and God included these descriptions of the explosive growth of the early Jesus-followers but it wasn’t about “building institutions.” It was descriptive information so the reader could appreciate the magnitude of God’s activity in human spirits in those 1st Century groups.  And they seemed to have a clear understanding of the difference between “organizational leadership” (guiding organizational administration) and “spiritual leadership” (influencing human spirits.) (See Acts 6.)
    I feel that what’s really important can’t be measured - only observed.  It’s personal faithfulness to “the church” (the body) which would mean faithfulness to each other, in following HIM and allowing our spirits to touch each other with love, joy, peace, patience, meekness, faithfulness, etc.  Again, reflecting on your last statements - Is the issue that “makes the difference” (your words) weekly attendance at the institution or is it becoming an apprentice to Jesus, producing real changes in our spirits?
    RE: the word - “Christian” - it’s only used 2 or 3 times in the New Testament, describing how outside observers saw these early Jesus-followers.  The term isn’t used by Jesus and Luke uses it in quoting King Agrippa’s statement of disdain, about becoming a “little-Christ.” But the word “disciple,” is used 269 times and in 1st Century context described one who was actively in relationship with Jesus, impacting their lifestyle as she/he physically “followed” Jesus around the streets and paths, and later found themselves actively doing life with other followers EVERY DAY to be in accountability and learning relationships.  In 2008 American church life, saying one is a “Christian” simply means she/he is aligned with either an institution or a body of principles labeled “Christian” (e.g. the “Christian” agenda, pop-Christianity, or even intellectual belief in the Christian message.) It does not mean one has an ongoing relationship established with the person - Jesus Christ.
    Dallas Willard has an excellent treatment of this in his book - “THE GREAT OMISSION.”
    God wants to be in relationship with individuals.  Since accurate knowledge is the first step toward establishing any relationship, there are, no-doubt more Christians than non-Christians who ARE already in relationship with Him.  But I have strong concern about the cultural pre-supposition existing in our Evangelical Churches suggesting that winning them to our church is “where the difference really takes place.”
    Thanks for listening to my “rant.”

  • Posted by Geoffrey harris

    Todd, thanks for raising this important issue.  I think we have fallen short in our measurements.  We measure attendance and finances but our measurement of spiritual growth, which is the greatest true determinate of church growth, is foggy.  Have we clearly defined the end product of Christian education?  If you go into an organization that produces widgets and go to the end of the production line and there are no widgets, you know that organization is in some other business.  Having been on staff of a church for ten years and consulting with hundreds of churches, my discovery is that most churches are not clear about their end product.  Therefore, we measure attendance, finances and “growing Christians”.  What does that mean?  The Great Commission, Matthew 28:19,20, suggests that the end product of the church is a disciple maker.  Jesus asked his disciples to “go make disciples”.  What about beginning to measure how many disciple makers we have in our church?  Spritual multipication is the master’s church growth strategy.  If we measured how many believers we have helped to become disciple makers then we would begin grappling with the real issues of a growing or declining church.  How do we measure a true disciple maker?  2 Timothy 2:2 suggests four generations, Paul, Timothy, reliable men, others.  We need to be measureing how many fourth generation disciple makers have been produced through our ministry.  When that starts happening we won’t have to be concerned about whether or not the church is growing in attendance.
    Geoffrey Harris

  • Posted by

    In defense of Wendi (not that she needs it) I really do not think that she is saying something is more relevant that the word of God, nor do I think she is saying something unbiblical when she says the church is to change the world. 

    The scriptures instruct us that the church is God’s plan to reveal the mystery of Christ.  His intent was to use the church. 

    To be relevant is not to change the word of God nor is it to not speak the word of God but rather to learn the language of the people. 

    To fail to understand culture, the many we have here in the US and the many around the world and then to bring the word is to bring the timeless truths of God’s amazing grace to people in a different language and then blame the people who speak a different language for not understanding. 

    I just returned from India, imagine if I preached in English without translation to Punjabi (where I was) and then got mad at the people who spoke Punjabi for not understanding the word.  To be relevant I needed translation. 

    This is also true in how people respond and family structures and peoples histories.  I cannot effectively do ministry with Latino and Hispanic people groups in my area if I approach them as though they were like me.  I have to understand family structure, how to honor the father in the home, how to engage the children in what might be a duel language home.  (parents only speak spanish and children speak both English and Spanish)

    It helps to know if they are Hispanic or Latino, it helps to know what part of the world they hail from, to know the reason they are here, to lean of family left behind… These all go to understanding the language of the culture. 

    Relevancy is not about the word of God but about the language it is spoken. 

    That said, I see huge decline in the church in my almost half a century of participation.

  • Posted by

    My thoughts:

    -According to ABC, 83% of people in America classify themselves as Christian.

    -According to Barna, 42% of people who identify themselves as Christian also identify themselves as, “born-again” (John 3).

    -In that same poll, 37% of these self-described born-again Christians believe that good people can get to Heaven.

    So, mathematically, that would mean than less than 21% of people in America can be safely assumed to be born-again Christians.

    Add in all of the other social ills, divorces, and moral sins that we find within churches today, and I would say that the number is lower than that.

    Although we may have steady upward growth in church numbers and people claiming to belong to a local church, the only conclusion I can reach is that churches are continuing to grow with scores and scores of unsaved people who believe in their own merit as qualification for entering Heaven.


  • Posted by

    I don’t think the Church is in decline, but it’s definitely changing.  Your article says “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...” Do you mean “membership” in the traditional sense in that people have gone through a formal membership process or in the sense that they are regular attenders at a particular church?  I think that aspect of church has definitely changed.  What I seem to be seeing at our church are people who enjoy the worship, come fairly regularly, but haven’t necessarily plugged in to any ministries or classes.  Or, if they have plugged in, it seems to be into ministries that are outward focused like going out to the homeless or working in the neighborhoods.  Our in-house ministries seem to struggle for volunteers.

  • Posted by Tom Fillinger

    “Measure ministry by TRANSFORMATION not mere activity.”

    This is the focus o our ministry.

    http://www.igniteus.net .

    The SBC has stated that they have 16>3 million members.

    On the best sunday of the year they have 37% or slightly over 6 million in attendance.

    The measure of ministry is not membership, especially in the ‘easy believism”, raaise your hand, walk down the isle mode practriced imany churches today.

    The Gospel includes confession and repentance. Jesus said “blessed are you in yoou do these things.” Our works do not save us but without evidence of ongoing transformation it is very difficult to offer a credible profile that I am a Christ follower.

    David Olson is a most credible researcher and “Yes Virginia, the American Church is in precipitous decline and in need of Reformation and Renewal!!


  • Posted by

    I attended the Whiteboard sessions (Spring ‘08) which was a church growth/church planting/church innovation conference.

    I remember Mark Dever standing up and starting his talk with this statement:

    “I come with no fresh ideas.”

    An example of Dever’s call to “Who exactly is building the chuch...”

    I like a good dose of Dever’s Godward perspective along with, for instance, a book like “unChristian,” which is more “sky is falling...”

  • Posted by

    I am with you Tom. I also think that the emphasis on measurement is far too much like the world. It is a pragmatic tool coming out of the Enlightenment. We depend on it far too much. What we need to emphasise is obedience. That is not to be measured. God will be the Measurer for who can know the heart? Granted there are outward sins that must be dealt with corporately, but measurement of success the way we are doing it today puts the emphasis on Man, not God. Be obedient and God will grow His church as He sees fit.

  • Posted by Cindy K

    Leonard said:

    “Relevancy is not about the word of God but about the language it is spoken.”

    Thank you.  smile And I apologize to Wendi if my words came off as some kind of attack. That is not how they were intended.  I was asking an honest question.  I normally see the word ‘Relevant’ in association with some kind of ‘cutting edge’ or ‘fringe’ outreach program.

    And I agree with the number of people who have said that membership does not equate into disciples.  But in order for people to become disciples they must move forward on their own.  They must be hungry for the gospel, they must have a burning desire to serve.  And I can only speak for myself but that stuff all came from the Holy Spirit inside of me.

    There was no sermon, or no Pastor, or no worship service, or no welcome video that could have done that for me.

    I had and have to be the one that continues to move in the direction that God wants. I have to be the one that seeks God.  Not only on Sunday but every day.

    And I would not know how to make anyone understand that.  But /that/ alone will grow disciples.

  • Posted by

    I would say this study is not accurate.  Because people who are members may not attend, or they say they due but don’t.  And how would they knew way back when who went and who did not? 
    A long time ago the church was the social structure there was no TV etc. so they went to church and fellowshipped together.
    I don’t put too much stock into survey or polls like this.

  • Posted by

    “They need to hear how to move from the agricultural examples of Jesus’ words and fit them into today’s surroundings that are decidedly not agricultural. They need to hear how to live today’s life in the light of God’s Word and principles and then grow in wisdom so they can teach others the same. “

    Why does the contemporary church make such an issue of this and it was never an issue before? I believe it is because we are not teaching doctrine adequately. If Christ says feed My sheep, I understand that to mean people. The principles Christ taught cross agricultural/urban barriers. I work for a youth ministry that is global in scope. I have never seen this attention placed here on cultural relevancy in foreign countries. God’s Word is what it is and it applies just as is. Only here in America, where we pride ourselves in being pragmatic, business minded, technique driven is all this an issue and I fear an excuse for many things. I assert that most of this is of the world and that is precisely why we see this pragmatic growth in the church. The growth is in the seeker and emergent areas, not in the fundamentally strong churches of doctrine , the praeching of the Word and the delivery of the sacraments. Those churches grow as they always did---steadily and surely, not in phenomenally huge spurts unless there was a revival by God. I really do not se that happening. These churches are also the ones that the world hates.

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