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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  • Bart Barber says on

    If the list turned over entirely, one must at least consider the possibility that a church so large is an unsustainable construct.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Jim –
    Thanks for the update and the good news about Akron Baptist Temple. May God continue to bless you, your ministry, and the church.

  • Jim McFarland says on

    I am the worship pastor @ the Akron Baptist Temple.
    We are alive and well not running near what we did in 1969. I was 11 years old when we recieved the World’s Largest Sunday School and remember it well when Dr. Towns came to our church. Easter Sunday we had almost 2200 people so we are not dead yet…things have changed a bit. I was a southern baptist for 27 years untill moving from Florida back to Ohio to take the worship job. We use to run 55 buses. All gone. We are doing a blened worship plus a contemporary worship.. Just thought I would chime in with what is happening to the use to be WLSS at one time. The church has only had 4 pastor’s in 77 years.
    The first three Billington’s and one outside the church. It was right for the times. Thank God things change and the church moves on. ABT was always inovative in what we did for the times. Of course legalism was a part of it, but it was with alot of churches at the time, not just independant churches but also southern baptist. We have caught up with the times and doing well. NO MORE LEGALISM. DEAD AND GONE. Hope this might shed some light on the church of today….

  • Half of these churches are in the Rust Belt. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the industrial midwest was booming and their factories utilized cheap labor that moved their from the South and Appalachia. Likely the large Fundamentalist churches catered to that demographic, providing an alternative to the American (Northern) Baptist churches (in the case of FBC Hammond, leaving the ABC). They probably weren’t competing so much as selling to an underserved market.

  • Bob Cross says on

    Most of the churches listed were independent fundamental Baptist churches, from whence (homage to KJV language) I came. I think there are many reasons for a church’s, and a denomination’s decline, but there was one main reason I left the IFB church and maybe that same reason is responsible for more like me.
    Legalism. Just as with any subculture, there are norms and mores, both stated and unstated, that become expectations of those in the subculture. In the IFB churches I was exposed to, there were a lot of “men’s rules” that people were expected to follow. E.g. Women wearing pants, men wearing shorts, mixed bathing, etc. Not to earn salvation, mind you, but to show the ongoing fruit of sanctification and to provide what leadership considered a good testimony. Some would call violation of these rules, “sin.” I had cognitive dissonance when I would examine grace and freedom in scripture but experience rules and constraints in practical christian life. I came to a point when I could no longer support and be involved in churches that were radically legalistic.
    To summarize, maybe people brought in to the IFB churches by strong evangelistic initiatives grew up (real sanctification) and came to the same decision I did – To leave the legalism behind and grow stronger in faith and grace.

    • David Miller says on

      Women wearing pants, men wearing shorts………I do believe these are NOT man made rules. Yes, you have to study your scripture a bit more than looking for the mere command, but if the thigh is nakedness, as described in Leviticus 18 and Nakedness is wickedness, as described in the same chapter AND Psalms tells us not to set any wicked thing before our eyes…..I would think wearing shorts exposes the WICKED nakedness. Not a man made rule…..rather, a desire to please the Lord and not place wickedness in front of men. The decline of our churches come from men like you that don’t wish to adhere to Biblical standards and go seeking softer ministries that don’t require a BIBLICAL separation.

      It’s sickening.

  • Only one church of the ten listed was a Southern Baptist church, the other nine were independent Baptists. Leaders like Dr. John R. Rice, Dr. Bob Jones, and even Dr. W.A. Criswell (one of the few SBC pastors independents respected)made the case for gospel/Christ centric preaching and ministry and thousands were brought to Christ. Many pastors of the largest independent churches in the 70′, 80’s, and 90’s were former SBC men who had their fill of liberals in SBC schools and pulpits.
    Once Rice, Jones, Falwell, and others died so did the zeal for raw edged fundamentalism. Most (not all) large churches today hold the same high view of Scripture, are Christ centric in message and ministry, and differ in doctrine very little from the men who led the churches you listed.
    The methods have changed, the structures have changed but the message has not.

  • Any thoughts on current “Independent Baptist Churches?” Not judging comments just honest opinions.

  • Are we wrongly assuming that size equals health? Were those churches really healthy? Does the migration of America from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt have something to do with this? Are we always looking for new forms? Are we now intoxicated by what is new and what is effective for us and not the gospel of Jesus?
    There are lots of questions to ask here. Is it reasonable to think that churches will continue to stay large across generations? Why do we want churches to stay large anyway? What if it is desirable for a church to get large and then break into 100 congregations of 100? There is a lot assumed here along the “bigger is always better line” and I don’t think that the experience of evangelicalism over the past 40 years bears that out at all.
    We are bigger but far sicker than we were two generations ago. Or, maybe we are healthier. Really, we don’t know. In some ways we are healthier and in other ways we are not. It is hard to know if large churches are a help or a hindrance to the mission of making disciples.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    There are some outstanding comments on this blog. Some of you have asked specific questions of me. I am working prayerfully to produce quickly yet diligently a book that addresses those and many other questions. Frankly, the more I look into these matters, the more I realize that quick solutions are the rare exceptions. Thanks for being patient with me. I am 55 years old, but I still have a lot to learn. You will be hearing more from me about these issues shortly. In the meantime, please continue your excellent conversations on this blog.

    • David Miller says on

      Go soulwinning Thom. The Bible clearly teaches that in the last days they will not endure sound doctrine. Why spin you wheels trying to figure out why the Bible is accurate in this area? Go lead someone to Christ……..redeem the time………Jesus could come any day.

  • Michael Mays says on

    @Gary Harris, you make an interesting observation, but when LifeWay talks about Sunday School being the “outreach arm,” the goal is pretty much to make disciples. It is debatable whether, in our current culture, most people attending worship services are actually interested in being disciples. (And that, in turn, calls into question their identification as “worshipers” at all.)
    I grew up at Highland Park in Chattanooga and remember well the packed houses at Chauncey-Goode auditorium. When the current auditorium was built, the opening service was presented to a full house of over 7,000 people! At that time, Dr. Lee Roberson had been pastor of the church for around 50 years (probably more, I don’t remember his “starting date”). Since his retirement in the early 80s, the church has had at least four senior pastors (the longest-lived one, Dr. David Bouler, began in 1991 or so, and still attends the church as a pastor emeritus, I believe).
    Lots of dynamics within and around that institution play into its current state, numerically a pale shadow of its former self. Many of the folks there have been there since my grandparents’ days, but they do still pull in new people. In the case of HFBC, a major factor would be “location, location, location.” The area has become a VERY bad part of town. There have also been questionable leadership decisions, but as I don’t attend that church any more (I do still live in the area), I don’t feel it appropriate to comment on what goes on INSIDE the church. But they have definitely seen better days.

  • Michael says on

    I’m moving to Ohio and starting a Baptist Temple.

  • The nomenclature may seem to be dated, but the fact remains. Small groups are the assimilation secret to enduring disciplship development. Worship services attract. Small groups allow for assimilation and spiritual develpment. My first suspicion is that the healthiest churches of whatever size have chosen to support a healthy small group system within their church family. This can allow for all kinds of growth. Those that retain this focus will continue on the lists for decades to come.