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The adherents of Christian religions include upwards of 2 billion people – almost one-third of the world’s population, according to David Barrett, compiler of religion statistics for the Encyclopedia Britannica. While Christianity began in the Middle East, it is generally considered a European/ American religion. Those areas, however, do not encompass the majority of adherents. More Christians are found in the “third world” – those areas that were formerly colonized by European powers. The story of the beginnings and spread of the world’s most prolific religion is informative of the current church growth climate since there are some similarities between them.
The majority of churches in the United States are exhibiting a common pattern: their base attendance is shrinking. The pattern is shared by virtually every ecclesiastical body. The U.S. population grew approximately 18% from 1990 to 2005. During that same period of time, church attendance dropped from 49% to 43% of adults. Barna Research suggests that the new conversion rate in all American churches is 1.7% per year. Additionally, more than half the adults in the U.S. have little to no confidence in the Christian churches in America, according to other Barna research results. When taken as a whole, this leaves the church with another, more meaningful statistic. The attrition rate is 2.4% when figures are adjusted for death rate, aging and general population growth. Thus, for every 17 new members, 24 people leave the church. [1/24/2009 – All italic figures on this page were researched and updated.]
These figures illustrate a change in a long-term pattern of church attendance behavior. As the population aged in the past, it became more likely to attend church. People did so as they searched for meaning in their lives in the face of their own mortality. But this pattern is waning, and the Baby-boomer generation – those born between 1946-63 – are most responsible for breaking this historical trend. The oldest Boomers have reached the age in which mortality becomes a primary concern, yet they are not turning to the church for answers. By 2025, forecasts show as many as 62 million people in the U.S. will be 65 or older. Churches must come to understand what these figures represent, not simply attempt business models of “improving” services, instituting consumer-friendly programs or advertising more effectively. The church needs to examine its ability to help the members of this age group make meaning of their lives, as opposed to instituting programmatic changes to dazzle them. This process requires the courage to institute deep self-examination.
Recent history has brought churches to an interesting juncture that mirrors the situation in American business today. Over the last three decades, big business has grown exponentially. To take just one example, Wal-Mart is now the largest corporation in the world. Its 2001 revenues were over $219 billion and unaudited revenues for the one year period ending Oct 31, 2008 exceed $499 billion. [That is the equivalent of over $1,600 per person in the U.S. ] But this growth has come at a price. In America, corporate downsizing has ended any sense of employment stability [and, hence, loyalty]. Manufacturing increasingly is shipped overseas. Growth now comes via reducing competition through mergers and acquisitions or cutthroat business practices – [a process that eventually lead to the financial crisis of 2007-2009].
The proliferation of “megachurches” in recent decades, particularly within the last decade, mirrors that of mega-corporations. With the nearly 6% decline in overall church attendance mentioned previously, the megachurch growth must come from somewhere, and the “somewhere” may be at the expense of other churches. If megachurches, as many claim, are attracting those not previously associated with church attendance, then the outlook for all non-megachurches is alarming. The “17 joining/24 leaving” ratio is greater than any statistician has calculated.
The church’s adoption of business ethics and behavior could not be timed more poorly. Those in their mid-forties and fifties are most likely to be entrenched in business-life, familiar with all of the practices and philosophies that have given rise to major decreases in labor loyalty and general attitudes about the morality of business behavior. They are already facing the contradictions present between consumerism and living a life of meaning, and are finding the same situations reflected in church life. Rather than finding a worshipping institution that reflects a better view of the world, people seem to be finding one that simply reflects the world back to them. If the church is simply an “Enron in robes,” no wonder people reject it as a place to experience transformation!
Mimicking secular practices is out of place in a worshipping body that values spiritual development. Yet the system of simony – the selling or bargaining of ecclesiastical position practiced during much of the Middle Ages – is alive and well in many of today’s churches. Elder, trustee, deacon or other board positions many times are bestowed as privileged positions to the better contributors or those gifted in secular pursuits, despite the potential spiritual unsuitability of particular persons for those offices and functions. In most churches, they are expected to be ministerial or pastoral in nature. Although most churches would not call or request a pastor based simply on economic advantage, social position or worldly attributes, this behavior occurs when board and committee members are selected based on their secular gifts. Faith development and spiritual gifts are far better determinants of suitability for leadership roles, but using them in that manner requires a church to value these characteristics over and above tenure in ministry, financial contributions and social status. Likewise, the removal of a pastor based on attendance or financial data equates more to the practice of scape-goating than true soul searching. Numbers are simply one indicator and not the determinant of the efficacy of a church or its staff.
In reviewing many church growth packages and programs, certain commonalities became quite clear. The first is that the over-riding perception of the problem facing the church in America today is[, as mentioned earlier,] numeric. Following long-standing business models of behavior, the result has been the development of programs that equate to religious consumerism. Under the guise of ‘disciple making,’ markets are analyzed and mass-marketing plans developed to make the church appeal to a broader range of people. More extensive programmatic choices are offered to provide a fuller menu of options for the churchgoer.
Virtually all of these plans are modeled to a large degree on the “success” of megachurches. In the prevailing consumerism environment, apparent success can be more attractive than relevance – at least in the short run. These plans do acknowledge another very important point: many churchgoers prefer a smaller, more intimate worshipping environment. In relying heavily on small-group “home church” programs, these plans recognize the requirement for intimacy in meaning-making. However, they seem to ignore the significance that small congregations hold for many people for participating in meaningful worship.
What are the alternatives? How can one get past the numbers and into the heart of the problem? [That would take courage. You see, that kind of approach would require self-examination and a willingness to be self-critical on every ecclesiastical level. Self-awareness and introspection, unfortunately, appear not to be common traits among churches in the U.S. Perhaps nowhere is denial more prevalent than in churches. It is much easier to believe the problem is with a general lack of knowledge about the messenger, than it is to accept that churches , by their very actions and attitudes, have misunderstood and misrepresented the message in the first place. This is not a new occurence, but one that has been fermenting for centuries.]
To begin formulating answers to the questions and thus consider solutions, then, the historical roots of modern issues must be considered.
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 “Major Religions of the World, Ranked by Number of Adherents,” <http://www.adherents.com/ Religions_By_Adherents.html>, accessed 2 May 2003. This listing, used as a resource by many researchers of religious statistics, comes with myriad disclaimers. Many of the churches represented in the Christian category would not align themselves with each other except on a statistical listing. Barrett maintains, however, that this situation is not limited to Christianity and, therefore, is not statistically relevant.
 Islam is often recognized as the fastest growing major religion, but Christianity’s longer history enables it to retain this designation. However, the continued decline in Western birthrates combined with the rising birthrates in the rest of the world may change this statistic sometime early in the 21st century.
 Figures to analyze population shifts from aging were obtained from Center for Disease Control, The Disaster Center – “Statistics on death rates per age group,” <http://www.disastercenter.com/cdc/dethrate.html>, accessed 22 January 2009, and from the US Census Bureau, ibid.
 Craig Kennet Miller, Next Church.Now: Creating New Faith Communities, (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2000), 39. Statistical analysis by the author of data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census report: “No. 17. Resident Population Projections, by Age and Sex: 1995 to 2050,” The American Almanac 1995-96: Statistical Abstracts of the United States, (Austin: The Reference Press, Inc., 1995), 17.
 Jim Hightower, “How Wal-Mart is Remaking Our World,” AlterNet.org, April 26, 2007. <http://www.alternet.org/story.html ?StoryID=12962>, accessed 15 January 2009. This opinion piece expresses concerns over many alleged Wal-Mart abusive business practices.