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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  • Gary Harris says on

    I know you at Lifeway like to say that “Sunday school is the outreach arm of the church” because I’m sure that is you biggest moneymaker. However, that i not the case anymore. Every church that I have seen in recent years always has a higher worship attendance that S.S. Sometimes it is about twice as much. As I talk to people who say that they are interested in coming to church, they say and will come to worship before S.S. We need to get out of the 50’s and 60’s and live in today.

  • Gary Harris says on

    I think that you hit the nail right on the head, Allen.

  • Stuff like this fascinates me, too, Thom. I’ll be interested to hear more.

  • I think Don Lacich’s comment above is salient. I also suspect that a given era’s “large churches” resonate well with the popular culture of the era. The culture changes, and they don’t, and interest wanes. This is, of course, merely an observation, not a recommendation that churches mimic the surrounding culture in order to increase attendance. I believe that the more the church mimics the culture, the more attendance WILL increase, as a general rule. But in mimicking popular culture, the church loses its distinctiveness and the increased attendance may not reflect more disciples of Christ being formed so much as the church becoming less objectionable to professing Christians.

  • This would be my contribution of “warning signs” for churches: a lack of missional vision, we must work outward to grown inward; a lack of commitment to serious Bible study and obedience, see Ezra 7:10. Thank you for your continuing work and encouragement.

  • Vladimir Aquino says on

    Hi, Tom.
    Are you familiar with Christian Schwarz work? “Natural Church Development” concept is very close to what Scriptures teach about Church growing. My favorite books related to Church Growing are “Purpose Driven Church”, from Rick Warren, and this one from Christian Schwarz. I don’t believe that you can sale the church growing recipe, but I do believe we can compare what New Testament states to what growing churches are doing.

  • I also wonder where all the Christians have gone. It seems like Americans are becoming less concerned about morality and godliness by the minute. I agree that discipleship is a huge factor. Jesus is compelling, and living for Him is the most incredible thing that’s happened to me. When I see people that are living for Him it inspires me and encourages me to press on. I think less people have vibrant relationships with Jesus now than in years past. It’s so sad to me. I work in collegiate ministry, and colleges seem to be among the least godly places in America. I think part of it is because they don’t see anyone living out the Christian life on campus. I’m doing what I can to help students own their faith and to learn how to live the abundant life John talks about in John 10:10. I look forward to reading more!

  • As an Independent Baptist I would be interested in your thoughts as to the decline of this movement. I would say a lot of those pastors started fighting each other rather than doing Gods work. Perhaps they sacrificed Church stability for growth–over sized bus ministries and outreach programs. Not transitioning to a new culture…most of those churches were built on door to door soul-winning. This was probably well received in a 60’s culture, not so much now. Most church members don’t want to knock doors, don’t feel comfortable knocking doors, while IFB pastors insist they do. While the people in the community don’t particularly want their doors knocked on.
    Just a few thoughts.

    • David Miller says on

      So it doesn’t really matter what the Bible says? Are we really supposed to be concerned more with WHAT people want than what the Bible commands?

      In the New Testament they went House to House. Why are we to do less? Because the people don’t want to go? The flesh usually does not wish to obey Biblical commands. How surprising is that? Or because the LOST does not want to have their door knocked on?

      I would say churches are on the decline, NOT because the methods no longer work but because it has become mechanical and the folks are no longer SPIRIT FILLED. The men in the pulpits are no longer spending hours in prayer begging God for His power and this lack of power spills over to the folks. Doing God’s will in the World’s way!

      Hence the decline of the IFB churches.

  • Thom, I think the problem is that pragmatism isn’t multi-generational. The reasoning for church attendance, evangelism, etc. isn’t passed on to the next generation. When it’s built on something other than the Word of God or the finished work of Christ, it’s virtually impossible to pass onto the next generation, for “the times, they are a changin.” If we can just get our children to love the Word of God and Christ, the growth will fix itself.
    I look forward to what you find; I appreciate your ministry.

  • Jonathan McGuire says on

    “the primary metric for measuring church size in 1969 was Sunday school attendance. Today the metric is worship attendance.”
    Given your earlier work on effective churches, this statement stood out.

  • Thom,
    I wonder how many of those churches had a long time pastor, 20 years or more, during their glory days. How many of them did not transition well to the next leader and so declined as a result? The rise in the number of mega churches, especially non-denominational ones that have no history or process of transition, would indicate that this is going to be a growing issue.

  • This sounds interesting Thom. I’m looking forward to what you find.

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