Dispelling the 80 Percent Myth of Declining Churches

Buckle your seat belts.

Over the next several posts, I will be sharing with you the results of an incredible research project on 1,000 churches. At the risk of overstatement, I think this data may point us to some exciting and positive opportunities. Indeed, I hope to share a plan for the evangelistic renewal and growth of our churches in the weeks ahead.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Allow me to share, at the risk of boredom, the basis of this research:

  • Our program randomly selected 1,000 churches with available data for 2013 and 2016.
  • The strength of the study is its accuracy. The margin of error at the 95% percent confidence level is +/- 3.1%. If you’re not a numbers nerd, that means this data is incredibly accurate.
  • The possible weakness of this study is that it only includes churches of my denomination. We took this path because we have a gold mine of data. I do believe, however, this data can be a good approximation of evangelical churches, and a rough approximation of all Protestant churches in North America.

The Research Says 80 Percent Is Not Correct

Have you ever heard, “80 percent of churches are either plateaued or declining”?

I have. It’s wrong.

Here are the results of our research. We used average worship attendance as our metric rather than church membership. Unfortunately, church membership is fast becoming a meaningless metric.

  • 56 percent of churches are declining.
  • 9 percent of churches are plateaued.
  • 35 percent of churches are growing.

So here is the new and correct statement of reality: 65 percent of churches are declining or plateaued. There is a huge statistical difference between 80 percent, the myth, and 65 percent, the reality.

So What?

I loathe research projects that ultimately offer only statistics and not solutions. Over the next several weeks, I will be sharing with you some incredible and eye-opening research. But, ultimately, I will offer some solutions based on what God is doing in these growing and evangelistic churches compared to the declining churches.

Here are some areas I will cover in upcoming posts:

  • The danger line in worship attendance that becomes a predictor for church death.
  • The relationship between the growth of the community and the growth of a church.
  • How some smaller churches are thriving in the shadow of megachurches.
  • What the most effective evangelistic churches are doing differently.
  • The relationship between small groups/Sunday school and the growth of a church.

My goal is ultimately to provide a clear path for evangelistic growth and renewal in our churches. We are learning so much from these churches and their leaders. I can’t wait to share more of our findings in future posts.

In the meantime, remember this basic fact: 65 percent of churches are plateaued or declining, not 80 percent.

And 35 percent of churches are growing.

It is my prayer that we will help you understand how your church can be in that latter group of churches.

Posted on June 28, 2017

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • As a research person, I am always interested in discovering trends and like you, exploring ways of using that data to help improve areas that need attention. I am VERY interested in seeing the relationship between the growth of the community and the growth of a church. I live in a suburb of DFW where we are experiencing rapid population and business growth, yet some “church people” are unwelcome to change.

  • Tim Hancock says on

    Thanks for the update. You are too hard on yourself because “myth” doesn’t necessarily mean “wrong”. It’s just the way statistics grow. In “Autopsy” you refer to the number of churches “declining” or “growing at a rate slower than the community” and adding those numbers together we came up with 80%.
    While it is encouraging that the number is actually lower (at least within the SBC) it’s still true that the “majority” of churches are declining.
    I am very interesting in discovering the “why?” I think I know the why in my church – I’m just wondering if we are unique (doubtful:)
    Again, thank you for your good work.

  • Pastor Tim says on

    I’m encouraged by your books and research, Thom. Than you for your diligent attention to eternal matters. I am able to lead my church with renewed zeal because of it. I would love to know more about the record keeping done by churches in the SBC. I pastor a rural independent Baptist church, and keep some records, but would love to know what data the SBC requires its members to keep. Are there forms I could download or are they for members only?

  • Hello Thom,
    Coming of the study results is very exciting. Since I am not from the same denomination as the study could you please point me towards some study materials where I can learn about your denomination?

  • Looking forward to the study results. Especially any data slices on those growing. Am seeing some reports claiming growth as anything above zero. Since this data is manually counted and self reported there has to be some level of growth on a percentage basis that is considered statistically significant. Again your work and reports are greatly appreciated. Keep up the good work.

  • Don L McCutcheon says on

    Thanks for dispelling this myth through solid research. There are one or two others that are ripe for examination also. I eagerly anticipate your following articles that will offer your usual excellent suggestions. Blessings.

  • Looking forward to hearing more. We are in Duluth and excited to see what the Lord is going to be doing up here in the coming months and years. We have to get moving, if we look around, it is certain His return is coming quickly and time is short!

  • This is exciting news, Thom! I’ll take 35% growing rather than 20% any day- what a great place to start!
    I do look forward to seeing the processes of these churches that are behind their numbers. Appreciate you!

  • I’m really looking forward to the specifics of your data! I’ve long thought that 80% was high and I wonder if there aren’t certain ‘pockets’ of protestant churches where that number is even lower that 65%. Does your data reflect any correlation to church plants vs. established churches?

  • Thom, I’m so grateful for your consistent, accurate help to the Kingdom! Can’t wait to see the upcoming articles. May God give us the grace to see great spiritual and methodological renewal and may He bless us with a wind of nationwide revival that would blow the statistics up!

    Bill Elliff

  • Some “growing” churches baptize relatively few people, so I’m assuming that your metric of measurement was based on more than attendance. Looking forward to reading your posts on this subject as church revitalization is an important topic to me…

  • John Blackwell says on

    Hey Thom, Thanks for the information and the encouragement. I am looking forward to your thoughts. Always enjoy what you have to say even through it might be gloomy. I just wish you had a magic wand we could wave over the people and they all would see the plight the church is in and move to action.

    • Thank you for your kind words, John. I don’t have a magic wand, but I do have some exciting information to share. You will hear what God is doing in those churches that are truly growing and reaching people with the gospel. Stay tuned . . .

      • Ron Hoeksema says on

        This is interesting info. Thanks Thom. And for your passion.
        I do wonder how much of the growth is just people shifting to a more updated church. How much of the growth is just simply pew shifting?

      • Stay tuned . . .

      • Thom,
        Everybody is throwing around figures about the number of churches that are declining or plateauing: 80%, 85%, or in your case 65%, but I can’t find anyone who will share with me the published research paper on which their percentage is based, even from you, at least not so far (and I have asked). All I’m seeing are summaries of the data. Can you share the hard data? Or if your research is unpublished, can you point me in the direction of reputable research that is?

    • I don’t see the follow up to this blog. Where can I find it? Thank you, Pastor Mike

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