Where Have All the Churches Gone?

The largest church in the United States is Akron Baptist Temple in Akron, Ohio. Okay, it was the largest church in 1969. I haven’t seen the church on any lists of largest churches for at least two decades.

By the way, the primary metric for measuring church size in 1969 was Sunday school attendance. Today the metric is worship attendance.

A lot of changes in churches take place in just a few years. For many, if not most, American churches, the changes are more negative than positive. Many churches today are shadows of what they were not too many years ago.

Where have all the churches gone?

Looking at Where the Churches Were

There is no doubt that church health is not synonymous with church size. Indeed, churches can draw a crowd for a season using unbiblical methods. Still, it is instructive to look at the largest churches in America just a few decades ago.

In 1969 Elmer Towns published one of the first books on largest churches in America. In The Ten Largest Sunday Schools, Towns noted the ten churches and took a chapter to suggest reasons for their growth and size. Look at the 1969 list of largest churches:

1.     Akron Baptist Temple, Akron, Ohio

2.     Highland Park Baptist Church, Chattanooga, Tennessee

3.     First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas

4.     First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana

5.     Canton Baptist Temple, Canton, Ohio

6.     Landmark Baptist Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio

7.     Temple Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan

8.     First Baptist Church, Van Nuys, California

9.     Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia

10.   Calvary Temple, Denver, Colorado

This top ten list includes eight independent Baptist churches, one Southern Baptist church, and one independent church. Today, non-denominational churches are common among the larger churches and only a relatively few independent Baptist churches make the list. Many of the largest churches today did not even exist in 1969.

Trying to Understand the “Why”

I have committed my life to studying local congregations, particularly those in America. And I continue to try to understand the “why” of a church life cycle. Why do most churches seem eventually to move toward stagnation or decline?

The matter for me is not about church size, but the churches’ effectiveness in making disciples. And my concern is for all churches, not just large churches.

Do congregations have a natural tendency to focus more inwardly over time? Do churches move away from a biblical focus and thus fail to make disciples? What roles do sociology and demographics play in the church life cycle? And how strong is the level of influence of leaders in congregations?

The Quest Continues

I will continue to search the Scriptures to find God’s plan for churches. Secondarily, I will continue to do sociological research to understand how He is working in both healthy and unhealthy congregations.

Where have all the churches gone? In the strictest sense, many congregations are still open. At least not all of them have officially closed their doors. But many are barely holding on. Many are no longer making disciples.

I really want to understand why. So my quest continues.

I’ll keep you posted.

And you can let me hear from you as well. 

Posted on May 9, 2011

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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  • George Wagner says on

    It’s after 2:33 in the morning and I was reading your article which I found on the same page as an article on Rev Ed Holland, pastor of the former Akron Baptist Temple, some kind of bridge church.
    Maybe, I forgot what Ed and I were taught at Baptist Bible College and he and many others must have remembered. But I believed then, and I still believe that when I see the name Baptist on a church name that it should give me some indication about what they believe about Salvation and Baptism and church doctrines, etc. I have probably witnessed more than 95% of pastors, not because they can’t, but because they won’t. They either don’t know how or they don’t have a burden for lost souls, or they’re simply just too lazy.?
    But knocking on doors with a burden for lost souls is the way I was taught. It worked for those preachers back then, and it will work today. He that goeth forth with weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bring his sheves with him.
    God bless,
    George Wagner

  • Traian Boyer says on

    The church is a passion of mine and her seemingly decline haunts me. My son and I are hoping to plant a church in Akron Ohio that has a focus on “MAKING DISCIPLES”. I was ordained and called to plant a church in the highest crime area of Akron Ohio and the message I preached at my ordination was from Mt.28:18-20, “the theology of discipleship”.
    I would love to start a conversation with you and learn from you.

  • Mike Radebaugh says on

    Update on Akron Baptist Temple. The Word church has now announced that they are not financially able to meet the demands of the property. The building has been placed for sale, again.


    The former ABT is now meeting at their new facility on Killian Road in Akron. Its formal name is Connect Church. Recent article in the Akron Beacon Journal states that the current realtor is suggesting that the building be razed and a strip mall be built in its place.

    However, this should not be a worry to anyone because we as Christians realize that…

    “….the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet,
    Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest?”

    Acts 7:48-49

    • Mike Radebaugh says on

      December 17, 2019

      Update on Akron Baptist Temple. It now sits abandoned. This once beacon of Light now sits dark, weeds growing up all around. Would be nice if it could be used for something. Any suggestions?

      • Jill Snider says on

        Hi Mike. This is Jill Snider. You may not remember me. i used to go to ABT. I went there from about 1990 until 2000. The reason I’m contacting you now is I’m trying to find out what happened to ABT and i recongnized your name. can you please contact me through facebook, or email.
        [email protected]
        thank you. have a nice day.

  • Kate E. says on

    I feel the pain of the people from ABT. Almost 40 years ago, my church underwent a similar fall…..while under the leadership of the same pastor. A teenager at the time, this was hard for me to understand because church leaders are ordained from God and could always be trusted to be there for us, right? It took years of study, reflection, and the support and wisdom of other clergy for me to make sense of what had happened back then.

  • Mike Radebaugh says on

    The church has now sold. New owners are the Word Church of Cleveland, OH. Akron Baptist Temple will become Connect Church, a smaller facility on the south part of town. Opening day is set for sometime in 2019. Will be interesting to see where Ed Holland is taking this church in the future.

  • Cindy Fleet says on

    I have been reading the comments on this web site for some time. I feel the need to share my views. I was raised in the ABT my whole life. (starting in the Cradle Roll at age 3 mos.!). My mom, Susie Ramsey, worked in the nursery for over 40 years and my dad, Austin Ramsey sang in the choir. If there is anything I have learned in life, it’s “change is inevitable”! As the years went by and church attendance declined, the membership was saddled with the burden of keeping an old building properly maintained. I feel if ABT was to remain at the same address that perhaps they could have looked into taking some of the buildings down. Another concern was, when founding pastors passed away, who would replace them? After younger Dallas Billington moved away, a new Pastor, Ed Holland and his wife, Kathy, were brought in. They started in Dec. of 2006. I think that was a pivotal moment for the church. While I can certainly undertand a new pastor wanting to hire his own workers I believe a lot of toes were stepped on and a lot of feelings were hurt, when long time workers/volunteers were made to feel their services were no longer needed and agendas changed. A building is just brick and mortar but people are the church! I have not attended the ABT for 5 years now and I am sad that the ABT I grew up in will soon be no more.

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