Major New Research on Declining, Plateaued, and Growing Churches from Exponential and LifeWay Research


I love solid research. This new release is absolutely incredible.

I am grateful to Exponential for engaging LifeWay Research to discern current levels of church health according to a number of factors. While worship attendance trends over a three-year period were a primary indicator of health in this study, the Exponential research also included conversions, income, and staffing in the data.

In addition to the categorization of churches as declining/subtracting (Level 1), plateauing (Level 2), and growing/adding (Level 3), the study looked at two other supplemental categories. A Level 4 (reproducing) church places a high value and priority on starting new churches. A level 5 (multiplying) church takes church planting to multiple generations of congregations.

The accuracy of this research cannot be overstated. LifeWay Research phoned 1,000 Protestant pastors. Quotas were used to maintain the correct population of each church size. Responses were weighed by region to reflect more accurately the total U. S. population. The sample provides a 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/- 3.2%. This information from the statistical nerds assures us the study is very accurate.

Here are some of the fascinating findings:

  1. 70% of churches are subtracting/declining or plateauing. Only 30% are adding/growing based on Exponential’s categorization of churches which is defined above. This data is largely consistent with other research we have done. The period covered is three years.
  2. There are relatively few reproducing churches. The research categorized only 7% of the churches as reproducing (Level 4). The numbers of churches considered multiplying (Level 5: multiple generations of church plants) was 0% in the sample, indicating a negligible number in the total U. S. church population.
  3. The majority of Protestant churches had less than 10 people commit to Jesus Christ as Savior in the past 12 months. That’s fewer than one person per month. That’s not good. That’s not good at all.
  4. Smaller churches are at severe risk. Among those churches with an average worship attendance under 50, only 20% are growing. That is the lowest of any of the categories of churches and is an indicator that these churches are at the greatest risk of dying.
  5. Larger churches have a much lower risk of dying. Among the churches with an average worship attendance of 250 and more, 42% are growing. That is, by far, the largest number of growing churches in any category.

I am grateful to Exponential for initiating this research. Their focus was to discover congregations exhibiting Level 4 and 5 behaviors. In other words, they want to learn more about churches that are reproducing and churches that are multiplying.

But the study also gave us more insights into the challenges before us to see churches revitalized. Seven of ten churches in America are declining. That is the challenge. The opportunity is a renewed interest in both church planting and church revitalization.

Thank you, Exponential and LifeWay Research. I encourage you readers to look at the totality of the Exponential research here.

One final note: Exponential’s FREE online assessment to discover your church’s Level 1 through 5 behavior is available here.

Posted on March 6, 2019

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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  • From my personal experience, those churches that are losing members need to look at themselves very closely. The two that I am most familiar with have become insular. They describe themselves as “tight-knit, familial, caring communities” but that translates into “insular cliques for well-established friends.” Both of the churches I am speaking about are in highly-secular urban areas. It’s as if they have a “siege” mentality. They are the only true and right guardians of the faith and outsiders are viewed as barbarians at the gates rather than souls in need of salvation. I wish I had an answer as to how to turn this around, but I fear we’re in for much more upheaval as these smaller churches die off.

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