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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  • Christie says on

    Mr Rainer, I look forward to hearing more on this latest research. I have been following you very closely recently as our church (my husband is staff as Communications Director) has been in a steady decline of attendance and hence giving for several years now. Even though we are located in a college town and a very fast growing community – we are slowing losing our impact on those around us. These times are unsettling for a ministry staff! Thank you for all you do to inform, encourage and challenge the Church!

  • Robin G. Jordan says on

    With whom did the 80 percent myth of declining churches originate? I’m just curious. When I first glanced at the title of your article, I just saw the 80 percent and the first thing that came to mind was if 80 percent of the seats at a given worship gathering are full every Sunday, your church needs to launch a new service.

  • I’m really looking forward to your unpacking of the data and statistics. I appreciate your ability to create a picture of what it all means! Blessings to you and your team as you continue the work God has called you to.

  • John W Carlton says on

    I am very heartened by this report. My prayer is that my health will improve so that I can again have my ministry as an Interim restored, and can be used by God to help the struggling churches in danger of their doors closing reverse the trend. Not for any glory or praise for me, but so that those who do not know our Savior and Lord personally may come to faith in Him so that they can bring others to Jesus.

    Thank you Thom Rainer for your dedication and work that you do.

  • Dick Sisk says on

    Thom, I appreciate your work on this. I am looking forward to more data. I didn’t see what metric you used to define “growth”, “decline”, or “plateau.” I remember the old one being more or less than 10%. Is that the definition you used. Thanks.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Dick –

      In our study a plateaued church had zero change in worship attendance from 2013 to 2016.

  • R.B. Gentry says on

    Thank you, Brother Thom, for the research – I’m grateful we still have folks like you who seek the best for the “Kingdom” and are willing to sacrifice to make it happen. Regrettably, I feel a 15% differential in the statistics (65% versus 80%) is hardly anything to celebrate. It’s almost like leaving the doctor’s office after being told that instead of having untreatable, incurable lung cancer; incurable heart disease; and several other terminal maladies, that in reality, I actually only have incurable heart disease but will still be dead within a year.
    In the southeastern part of Georgia where I live, we recently had a Saturday afternoon picnic for all the Pastors in our local Baptist Association (36 churches.) Only five showed up! Ruefully, this has been a common occurrence – and this is among PASTORS, mind you.
    It seems to me that one church will rejoice when a family of eight joins their church rolls several weeks after having left the one across town (for whatever reason.) Essentially, many churches are just “swapping fish from one aquarium to the other.” The real question for me is how big of an impact does a church have on “growing the Kingdom” rather than the church? Ten saved and baptized folks moving from one church to another grows the Kingdom by zero (if they are already saved.) Ultimately, a small church that has led 30 to the altar at the foot of the cross in one year, and shared in their baptism has done more for Jesus Christ than a church with 100 new members but no “converts.” I have also been guilty of leading many to the foot of the cross (as led by the Holy Spirit, of course) and then failed in the next big test – I neglected to properly disciple them. You could rightfully say that I abandoned them at the cross. I obviously have much work to do to rectify this in my own life – but I still see this as a church-wide weakness. Simply put, Ministers have the toughest job in the world today (and I say this as a retired Marine with 20 years active duty and 400 days in Vietnam as a grunt.)
    It is not my intent in this email to detract, or take anything away from your research, or any research. My goal is simply to remind me (and us) of what should be most important to we Christians: 1) Act justly, 2) love mercy, 3) walk humbly with the Lord; 4) Love the Creator with all my heart, mind and strength, – my neighbor as myself, and 5) go into all nations and make disciples of all men, and teach them. Can you imagine ministering a church, with say only 50 members, who daily applied these five things to their lives individually and collectively as a church body? In short order, I would then be writing an email complaining that we shouldn’t be celebrating the fact that only 5% of our churches have “plateaued or are declining” because 95% growth is not 100%. How could a church not triple or even quadruple if this was the mind-set of the parishioners who often forget that it’s the pastors job “to pack the pulpit”, but the parishioners job to “pack the pews.” It’s not too late for a spiritual-awakening, so I pray that today is the day we catch hold of a contagious, spiritual fire and pass it from person to person and pew to pew. Eternal life should not be viewed from the same scope as say, looking upon it as the latest “fad,” or the “newest thing.” We should view it as the ONLY thing. Great! So, what should all of us be doing as we either wait to die, or the end of the world to happen, or Christ to Come at the Rapture? Our job remains the five things described above and WITNESS, WITNESS, WITNESS, (even if we have to use words.)
    Thanks again, Brother Thom, for the hard work and your commitment to share the truth and the Good News in the Gospel.

  • Douglas Crowder says on

    Thank you for your continued objectivity. I am glad you are sharing SBC information. I am tired of hearing from pastors what the “other guys” are doing. The myth statistics are a good example of how our negativity leads to “the grass is always greener”. Our young guys need to know we are still in business and not just the “no names” or Protestants or …..
    Thank you again.

  • Thanks. Great post, and I look forward to the follow up material.

    I do have one quibble. It is this part: ” remember this basic fact: 65 percent of churches are plateaued or declining, not 80 percent.”

    Is that not a bit presumptuous? Should it not be, ” remember this basic fact: 65 percent of churches, in my denomination are plateaued or declining, not 80 percent.”?

  • I would be curious about what portion of the growing churches had experienced a substantial period of time of decline or plateau before growing again. And, of course, the story behind such a turnaround would be helpful.

  • Joseph Pike says on

    Out of the 35% of churches that are growing, do you have any statistics to that determine if their growth is conversion growth or is it simply transfer growth? I know that in my own area association, while the megachurches have grown over the last 5 years, most of that growth is transfer growth and even the growth of the large churches have not kept pace with the decline of the smaller/average sized churches. Thanks!

  • Hi Thom,

    I too am encouraged by the statistics, but I guess I’m troubled by “what” we’re measuring. Worship attendance is certainly good to track, but for those of us who are clinging desperately to seeing regenerate church membership become a core value in SBC churches once again, I wonder if that’s a healthy basket for us to be putting our eggs into. Coming away from the annual SBC meeting, I am greatly troubled by the fact that we still tout being a movement of nearly 16 million and yet average weekly attendance is below 6 million. Add on top of that the dismal number of missionaries we field whether we use the 6 million or 16 million number. I certainly don’t mean to be a “Debbie Downer” but I think these areas need to be addressed in some way. While I am encouraged by the report, I still see evidence that the SBC is still dealing with the scourge of the so called “church growth” movement in that we are tracking who is attending our “events” rather than tracking the disciples we are making… which is something I’m not even sure is possible since we don’t have a clear definition of what a disciple actually is.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Peter. What would you recommend we measure?

      • With so much diversity in ministry philosophy among SBC churches, I’m not sure there is a single metric that will provide the kind of picture. It seems to me that tracking the worship attendance metric alone to determine growth, decline, or plateau in a given church might lead to error. If a church tosses their membership standards out the window so that anyone can be a member, and that church experiences a surge in worship attendance are we going to say that church is a growing church? I guess my concern is that in our effort to say we are “growing” as a denomination, we will chase the lowest common denominator… i.e. worship attendance. Unfortunately, high church attendance doesn’t necessarily indicate health in a church. There are plenty of high profile churches that are well attended, but are not healthy.

        At the end of it all, I’m looking forward to seeing a fuller picture as you present the data and believe me when I say I am grateful for any ray of sunshine.

    • Peter,

      You raise an EXCELLENT point.

      Most of the numbers that get measured as indices of growth, plateau, or decline are actually lagging indicators. Lagging indicators indicate whether the antecedent processes are functioning properly or need some adjustment – usually.

      I add that caveat because there are instances in which the lagging indicators (attendance, income, baptisms) don’t accurately reflect whether a church’s ministry processes are healthy or not. Rather, they point to the fact that the church is the happy beneficiary of “dumb luck.”

      Two examples.

      One church I monitored languished for decades under incompetent preaching, lack of passion for outreach, and self-centered programming. Then a large plot of government land adjacent to the church was sold to developers who built several hundred homes within walking distance of the church. The church experienced growth for several years, more than tripling in size. Eventually the new people figured out what the church was all about and most of them left. But at the end of the wave, the church was still 50% larger than it had been. The typical metrics would fail to reveal that this was purely by accident.

      Another church I know quite well blossomed from 800 to over 3,000 in under three years because three other megachurches in the same relatively small community all melted down at the same time. The growth was purely happenstance. The typical metrics would not reveal the actual source of this growth.

      More important for plateaued or declining churches is to measure the leading indicators – those processes which will eventually show up in the lagging indicators.

      So, for example, we teach pastors to measure such things as (and these are merely exemplary; they will be different from church to church):

      1) Number of people who pray for others to be saved
      2) Percentage of 1st time visitors who return a 2nd time
      3) Percentage of 2nd time visitors who become members
      4) Number of people who share the gospel each week
      5) Staff alignment around the core mission and vision
      6) Percentage of Sunday attendees in small groups
      7) Percentage of people engaged in daily devotions
      8) Tithing among church officers, leaders, and key influencers
      9) Interdepartmental cooperation by staff
      10) Ministries and programs audited and revised (or killed)

      You get the idea.

      The point is that a plateaued church cannot focus on the lagging indicators like attendance, income, baptisms & etc. Watching those numbers will not lead to revitalization. Instead, one must focus on the metrics and processes which indicate that the church is beginning to move in meaningful ways toward active engagement with Jesus in mission. By keeping an eye on these numbers, the church will experience revitalization and will, in time, see it in the “bottom line.”

      As to another point you made in your initial comment, there is a clear but mostly neglected body of evidence, based on good research, which indicates that when we teach people to walk as fully devoted followers of Christ and show them how to practice the spiritual disciples then personal evangelism happens spontaneously! We don’t need to organize evangelism and outreach programs; we simply show them what it means to have a vital, dynamic and moment-by-moment relationship with Christ. When we do, they become “self-motivated” witnesses.

      Sorry for the length of this reply. But you scratched me where I itch!

      • Hi Bud,

        Wow! You are totally scratching my itch. I recognize that much of the data we look to is going to be anecdotal and also may not reflect the underlying causes of movement in the tracked metrics. I love the tracking indicators you list and I know some individual churches take the time to monitor those things.

        I guess I’m still at 30,000 feet above the ground and still seeing the systemic negative impact of the church growth movement. Shifting what we measure will certainly give us a clearer picture as to whether or not we are making reproducing disciples.

  • I look forward to reading the rest of your posts in this series.
    How does the rate of growth within the 35% compare with the rate of decline within the 56%?