Chris Backert

Just How Much are Denominations Declining?

The declining influence of the church amongst emerging generations is no surprise to church growth analysts and statisticians who have been tracking these losses over decades in some cases. While the major opinion research firms tend to report that weekly church involvement in the United States hovers around 40 percent, there is a variety of research that shows a different picture of church attendance. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that if you want to know how religious someone is, “don’t ask him – observe him.”1 It seems that 40 percent of Americans claim to attend church on a given week, while the actual number is likely closer to half that figure.2

How much, exactly, is attendance declining?

Research from Stanley Presser, Kirk Hadaway, P. L. Marler, and Dave Olson all reveal church attendance figures between 18.7 percent and 26 percent.3 Established churches between 40 and 180 years old are seeing the greatest decline in attendance on average, and the number of new churches is only one-eighth of what is needed to merely keep up with population growth.4 According to many surveys, between two and three thousand churches close every year, which equates roughly to between five and eight per day.5 George Barna projects that by 2025, only 30-35 percent of all Christians in the United States will have their primary means of spiritual experience and expression though the local church, down from 70 percent in 2000.6 Dave Olson concludes his argument by saying that if the current projections on population growth and church attendance continue, by the year 2050, only half (roughly 9 percent) of the current population of church-goers will still attend.7

A Generational Perspective

From a generational perspective, these issues are even more pronounced and alarming. In the United States, church attendance drops 42 percent between high school graduation and age 25.8 Many of these young adults are not returning to the church as they have in past generations. Thomas Rainer, a Christian statistician and professor, conducted a study in 1996, which discovered that between 4 percent and 8 percent of people in generation Y (the current young adult generation) can be considered Christian. This is remarkably striking when one considers that the same study found those numbers down from 63 percent in the builder generation (World War II), 35 percent in the baby-boomer generation, and 21 percent in generation X.9 In addition, only 4 percent of young adults are involved in local church leadership and only 12 percent have been involved in the last two years.10

Denominational Statistics

A look at specific denominational statistics also reveals similar findings. The Catholic Church has been in slow decline since the onset of Vatican II in 1963, but this decline has accelerated rapidly in the last few years, decreasing over 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2003.11 Within mainline circles, the numbers are even more startling. For instance, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA) reached a high mark in the 1960s during the boom period of American society following World War II.12 Since then, it has lost over 43 percent of its members, declining from 4,254,597 members in 1965 to 2,405,311 as of December 2003.13 If this decrease continues at its current rate, the denomination will no longer exist in 2043.

The Disciples of Christ has lost over 55 percent of its members, the United Church of Christ has lost 39 percent, and the Episcopal Church USA has lost 33 percent,14 even though it reported similar strength to the PCUSA following WWII.15 Furthermore, this decline shows itself in the average age of many of these congregations. Nearly half of all mainline Protestant congregations have memberships where the majority are over sixty-five years old.16 If these trends continue, one can expect more significant and rapid decline in the coming years, as the aging constituency will simultaneously be passing away, unable to sustain the economic costs of their congregations, or make the necessary changes to move their churches towards growth among younger generations.

Beyond the Mainline

This is not an isolated phenomenon either, only effecting the “mainline” denominations. The crisis of church involvement, though largely and noticeably affecting mainline denominations, is also beginning to plague the conservative, charismatic and independent churches at the onset of the twenty-first century. John Drane, a professor at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, relates that “the facts about the church can hardly be disputed. Throughout the Western world, Christianity has fallen on hard times. No matter how they are reported and interpreted, the statistics of church attendance and membership all paint the same picture, right across all denominations and theological persuasions.”17

For instance, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, reached a turning point recently in which they have publicly admitted to their decline as a denomination. This drop came in at nearly 5.5 percent in 2007 over 2006, though this has likely been the case for several years.18 Past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Frank Page, predicted that nearly twenty-two thousand SBC churches could close by 2030 without serious convention intervention.19 When projections are made for the future of these denominations, the outlook only gets worse. Also, as church attendance and church leadership involvement have decreased over the last four decades, denominations have been aware of this decline, yet many have only begun to feel the leadership and financial loss within the last decade. Even one of the most formidable state conventions in the normally strong Southern Baptist south is facing leadership and financial dilemmas. Dr. John Upton, the executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia states, “Virginia Baptists are 15 years away from a leadership crisis.”20

Collaboration is Key

The compilation of all the losses in attendance, clergy, finances, and leadership will inevitably result in new approaches to church collaboration and necessary renewal within existing denominational bodies. The historic denominations will simply not be able to maintain themselves without significant change, and this will only be intensified by the current financial crisis. Organizational structures of the past are beginning to, and inevitably will, crumble.21

Those who resist change will go by the way, having served the purposes of God for a time. Those that move towards the future will look more like a network of church collaboration than their current denominational structures. Fresh Expressions US is itself a network of pioneering churches, individuals and denominations exploring new ways, not just to share the gospel, but to organize around mission. We strive to model a new approach for the new world we live in, and assist others as we all make this transition.

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1 Frederica Matthewes Green, At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999).

2 Scott Thumma, Dave Travis, and Warren Bird, “Mega-Churches Today 2005: Summary of Research Findings,” (Hartford, CT: Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2005).

3 Gibbs, ChurchMorph, 178.

4 Gibbs, ChurchMorph, 25.

5 David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Ground-Breaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 28.

6 Stanley Presser, “Data Collection Mode and Social Desirability Bias in Self-Reported Religious Attendance,” American Sociological Review 63 (1998): 137-145.

7 Dave Olson, “12 Surprising Facts about the US Church,” PowerPoint presentation, theamericanchurch.org/sample/12SurprisingFactsSample.ppt (accessed July 25, 2009).

8 Lyle Schaller, Tattered Trust: Is there hope for your denomination?” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 26.

9 George Barna, The Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), 40.

10 Olson, “12 Surprising Facts.”

11 David Kinnaman, “Twentysomethings Struggle to Find Their Place in Christian Churches,” Barna Research Online, September 24, 2003, <www.barna.org> (accessed 15 February 2009).

12 Thom S. Rainer, The Bridger Generation (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997), 4.

13 Kinnaman, “Twentysomethings.”

14 Olson, The Covenant Companion.

15 Mike Regele and Mark Shultz, Death of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 42.

16 John Adams, “PCUSA Membership Loss in 2003 Is Highest Since Church Reunited,” Layman Online, June 7, 2004.

17 Michael S. Hamilton and Jennifer McKinney, “Turning the Mainline Around,” Christianity Today, no. 8 (August 2003): 34.

18 Eddie Gibbs, ChurchNext: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 16.

19 Ammerman, Pillars, 97.

20 John Drane, The McDonaldization of the Church (Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys, 2001), 2-5.

21 Jim White, “What’s Behind the Declining Numbers?” The Religious Herald, May 29, 2008, 5.

22 Norman Jameson and Greg Warner, “Resolution Could Shrink SBC Rolls Further,” The Religious Herald, June 26, 2008, 18.

23 John Upton, “Kingdom Advance” (presentation, Baptist General Association of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, 2002).

24 Roozen and Nieman, Church Identity, 235-240.

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Chris Backert

Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.


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