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“It Could Be Easy to Lose Hope”

“It Could Be Easy to Lose Hope”

If all you hear is “bad news” and “dire predictions,” it could be easy to lose hope.

Yesterday I received an email from a friend who shared the most recently “blog” from Thom Rainer, a researchist and author out of the Southern Baptist Convention. His “blog” is entitled, The Faster Pace of Decline Toward Death of Many Congregations. Let me share it with you:

Based on an aggregate of several research projects, I made some notes of growth and decline rates of churches and summarized my estimates into five categories by worship attendance changes over the previous five-year period. I compiled the following numbers ten years ago:

Growth and Decline Categories of North American Congregations – 2009

  • Fast-growing (growing greater than 5% annually) 12%
  • Growing (growing nominally to 5% annually) 23%
  • Steadily Declining (declining 0% to 3% annually) 34%
  • Rapidly Declining (declining 2% to 5% annually) 21%
  • Declining toward Death (over 5% decline annually) 10%

This past week I conducted the same exercise based on some of my updated research and the research of others and estimated the following:

Growth and Decline Categories of North American Congregations – 2019

  • Fast-growing (growing greater than 5% annually)   3%
  • Growing (growing nominally to 5% annually) 24%
  • Steadily Declining (declining 0% to 3% annually) 32%
  • Rapidly Declining (declining 2% to 5% annually) 22%
  • Declining toward Death (over 5% decline annually) 19%

My numbers admittedly are estimates but they do have some quantitative basis, such as denominational statistics, research by LifeWay Research, and the data available in the increasing number of consultation and coaching requests we receive.

Obviously, the staggering reality of these numbers is the pronounced change in the two extreme categories. We are seeing a marked decline in fast-growing churches and a marked increase in churches declining toward death.

As I prayerfully consider these trends, I have a few immediate reactions and thoughts:

  • We need fervent prayer more than ever in our churches.
  • Our church leaders and members must let go of the idols of the past and traditions that hold us back.
  • If we are not focused and intentional on evangelism and sharing the gospel, we are little more than a religious social club.
  • We must stop fighting each other and understand who the real enemy is.
  • Church leaders should humbly seek interventions of coaching and consultation to see how God might lead us in fresh and exciting directions.
  • I have seen too many churches breakout in God’s power to maintain a defeatist attitude. The One who resurrects the dead can bring any church back to life again.

This information is sobering. But it is not hopeless. God is not done with us yet.

You are probably taken back a bit by this article; I know I was…initially. All these statistics and numbers are “sobering.” They show that something is simply wrong with the church-at-large…in America.

I have a friend who travels the world on behalf of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, visiting congregations in parts of the world we’ve never been and probably will never go to see. In those places – where cultures and languages and history are considerably different than North America, Christian churches are growing at a tremendous rate. The largest Lutheran Church body in the world is not where anyone would expect it – it’s in the African continent. My friend’s observation is that in Africa, the Church focuses on what’s really important – God’s Word, growing together in the faith, celebrating God’s presence in worship, and prayer; which is oddly similar to something we read recently…from Acts 2 – “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (42, 47).

While Rainer’s “reactions and thoughts” have some merit, I truly support his final conclusion: “This information is sobering. But it is not hopeless. God is not done with us yet.” I believe that God is still at work in the lives of his people and in their congregations; we just need to connect to his mission and purpose rather than waiting for him to bless ours!