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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  • I think we need to recognize that probably more than 80% of the liberal churches in our nation are declining because that reality seems to reflect their own data. Such a stat would skew what is happening in Christ-centered and Bible believing churches if one surveyed them together.

    As for plateauing churches, I tell our seminary students that a church can be very stable, not necessarily growing and not necessarily shrinking, while at the same time doing very vibrant ministry in its local community. Under many circumstances, a plateauing church can be a very healthy body of believers doing kingdom work and we should not be discouraged by the numbers. I think we have to be very careful assessing a numerically growing church as a positive or healthy church if we are unable to assess the spiritual health of that church’s members.

    Thanks for the research!

  • Our church is in a town with declining population. Actually, we have taken two industry hits and fallen off the cliff population wise. But our church, though small, is growing and attracting new people.

    We are not doing any of the things you are supposed to do to grow. Just preaching and teaching the gospel.

    Go figure.

  • As a market analyst in the secular world and someone who tracks and trends our own church’s attendance numbers, I look forward to seeing this data.

  • Thanks, Thom.

    This is in keeping with a conversation I had just yesterday with the General Sec’y of one of the largest denominations in the U.S.

    I asked the percentage of churches in North America in his group that were on plateau or in decline. Without hesitation he said 66%!

    There is a significant difference between 65% and 80%. But in the business world, anyone how presided over such a miserable failure would be terminated immediately and a lot of retail outlets or production facilities would be shut down.

  • I’m looking forward to your upcoming posts. Since your study used attendance as the number, I’d like to hear how you account for the lower attendance average due to declining frequency among attenders. I imagine there’s some decline in frequency from 2013 to 2016. Your article from August 19, 2013 was so helpful on this topic.

  • Thom,
    I am looking forward to you unpacking some of the data, specifically the evangelism/discipleship data. As a DOM, I like you visit many churches each year. It will be interesting as to how the surveyed churches were selected, what region they were from, and their demographic makeup. I can honestly say, that your research surprises me greatly from what I have been observing. May all your conclusion be correct.

  • One thing is certain, Jesus statement: I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it! Thanks for the affirmation. The church is in a battle for the souls of mankind and I am glad the church is winning!

  • Looking forward to reading more from you on this research. I believe this will be some helpful information for churches in every category to either push the pedal down even harder or make some changes to move from declining to growing. Thank you for your work on this.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Chad. Church leaders who really listen to these churches we studied will have some exciting paths to travel.

  • Bill Pitcher says on

    Thanks for the encouraging words. Even though I’m hardly a numbers nerd; I can read those “new” stats and understand the reliability factors. There really is some good news there.
    Looking forward to the next installment in this.

  • Daryl Cripe says on

    I will be curious to know that if the research is specific to evangelistic growth. Meaning, does the data reflect the percentage of “growth” via “transfer growth” (from other churches whom are actually declining or steady) vs. “life transformation growth” (people who are outside a relationship with Jesus and have come to first time faith in Him)? I read recently that the Billy Graham Center research was reflecting data that indicated when the research is reviewed in this manner, actual church “growth” was closer to 4% of churches.

  • Thanks Thom,

    It’s nice to see someone focusing on the positive growth rather than the decline in churches as important as that is.

  • Thom, thanks for putting the work into this research and sharing the encouraging news. Now I have to go back to my elders and say I lied about how many churches are declining