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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  • While I appreciate the attempt to put a positive spin on the church in the US (there’s too much negativity) this study isn’t useful.

    The fact that it was done from 2013-2016 disqualifies it’s usefulness. The religious landscape has changed so much since quarantine ant previous numbers are null and void.

    Second it’s poorly done. A researcher can’t say it’s a random sample then only choose their denomination and even worse apply it to the entire evangelical world.

    Speaking as a former Sr Analyst at the Data Analysis Center for Software, this study is not useable.

  • Hi, Thom. I agree that saying 80% of churches are plateaued and declining is not correct. As you know, that number came originally from Win Arn’s studies back in the 1980s, so it’s a bit old. Things have changed over the last 40+ years. I think the Church Growth Movement and today’s missional movement have been helpful in turning things around. Unfortunately, as your study found, there are still very few churches growing via conversion growth. However, things may have been a lot worse if not for those two movements with the training and emphasis their provided.
    Thanks for the updated research.

  • What I want to know is how many churches last 100 years or more. It doesn’t seem like many make it this long. Hewlp!
    Thanks, Paul

  • I’m sorry but you all remind me of the musicians who continued to play their instruments on the deck of the Titanic as is was sinking into the sea. For several years I was on the finance committee of my local UM church. Attendance and donations declined year after year and it became an agonizing, monthly exercise to determine which headcount, ministries and other costs to cut. I predict that in 100 years, a person will be considered an oddity/outcast if they belong to a church of any denomination.
    Not only is this being experienced in churches around the globe, it has been happening to male fraternal organizations, scouting, etc. Good luck with your own spin on the numbers.


  • 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?

    • Ken , you can find excellent statistics from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). You’ll need to do the work, but if you can find their major publication from 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020, you can compare the growth rates of about every church group, family, or denomination in the USA for forty years. There is a summary of the entire US and state-by-state as well. Hope this helps. -Gary L. McIntosh

  • The data and discussion is helpful. I am facilitating a Church of the Future workshop February 13th. We will discuss:
    1. Mission moments and positive community impact
    2. Generational needs (infants to seniors)
    3. Stewardship of the natural environment and leveraging forward thinking approaches like Net Zero energy and other sustainable design measures.
    4. Church anywhere (new technology allows people to work anywhere, so we are exploring “Church anywhere” through IoT, AV and apps that connect you to a prayer circle or updates on mission accomplishments, member news, and stay connected across the day and life stages.

    Super excited.

  • When can we expect the post about the line in worship attendance numbers that indicate church death?

  • What were the qualifications for the churches that were in the study? Like what were their sizes, locations, and other demographics?
    Just wondering as my own research shows similar results with certain parameters and pools of churches, but some areas have an even higher than 90-percent plateau rate.

  • Last Sunday I took our attendance average for the year from 2006 to 2017 (Jan – July avg)
    I line graphed it for 11 years, in 2006 our avg was 140 people each Sunday so far 2017 we are seeing 70 people attending on Sundays and this is why we have to reach out to the community for Christ. Its not about getting the numbers up but reaching the people for Christ and bringing them to the Kingdom. We had a few new conversions mostly sheep shifitng. I have read your books and have been praying for our church We launch an outreach on Sept 24 I did find I am a church Member and we provide new mebers with a copy.Thanks for all your work

    • Great comment Gary.
      Just by the numbers you have a -50-percent decrease.
      I just posted a comment about this. It may take a day or two for it to show up.
      But, my own research and studies show varying numbers depending on the location of the church, etc.
      I don’t think it is safe to say that the churches are out of the woods just yet on the 90-percent deal.

  • Hi, Mr. Rainer. I’d like to commend this article for the fact that it is not your usual “listicle.” I don’t read listicles because they always feel like a cursory substitute for carefully crafted writing. After I’ve read them, I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

    This is a great article! I look forward to substantive, non-listicle (hopefully) follow-ups as you said you have planned.

    Warmest regards,

    Ron Smith, MD

    • Dr. Smith –

      I will have a variety of presentation formats, including future listicles. I’m glad at least some of my writings are palatable for you.

  • Dale McElroy says on


    Much more needed in depth research needs to be done to
    determine how the American church is really. The apostasy
    will occur before the rapture takes place. 2 Thes 2:1-3 We are
    seeing this as more groups are accepting sexual immorality as being
    ok. Both homosexuality and fornication. Some of the apostasy
    is happening this way. Since Biblical assurance demands obedience under grace, Immoral Evangelicals cannot prove
    they are saved. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh. Gal 5:24 But stats show that 50% of abortions occur among Evangelicals. (it is stats like this that show how immoral or false American Christianity has become) And as we get deeper
    into end times, we will clearly see that it is only those who practice
    Christianity who are truly saved. And today we have many tares
    that warm pews or preach from pulpits.

  • alan anderson says on

    Knowing the percentage is good 65% or 80%, we are still dying. We have been in rough storm since March 2012. Now our pastor is leading us through the “valley of complacency”. He and some are just happy playing church in the building. We have no youth or young families and no desire to go outside the church with a plan.
    Looking forward to your input.
    Travel Well

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