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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64 Comments

  • Dr. McSwain,
    I am truly sorry if you had a bad experience with “church”. The fact is, people are sinners, and that includes Christians. I have had bad experiences with food poisoning, but I have yet to give up eating. Truthfully, my current church has its share of issues (due in large part to the fact that my church has its share of people, including me); but I love and attend God’s church because it is the body and bride of Christ my Savior, and because I am commanded in Scripture to love it and attend faithfully. Do I wish that my church would give up some of its man-made ideas and practices? Would I like to see us give ourselves over to God with perfect love and abandon? Absolutely! But God’s command isn’t “do not forsake the assembly whose people are perfect”; rather, in love, I commit myself to Christ’s church in order that I may become holy and radiant, part of the pure and spotless bride He desires to find at His coming. He is SO worth it!
    Contrary to your statement, God’s Word tells me that, unless I know Christ, I in fact do NOT “know God already.” Jesus Christ is the only way to God, and without Him I am alienated from God. I truly pray that God opens your eyes to this truth as well.

  • I hesitated to post this article I wrote a few months ago for the Huffington Post but here goes it. I hope you’ll receive it in the spirit in which I wrote it. It’s archived at Huff Post at this address: (but the body of it is below)http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-mcswain/finding-god-after-leaving_b_651148.html
    The article is entitled: Finding God after Leaving Religion
    Thirty-four million Americans have given up on organized religion, according to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey. Yet for many of these dropouts — from churches, synagogues, temples and so on — spirituality is still a vital part of their lives.
    How else would you explain the phenomenal success of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (soon a major motion picture), or the writings of the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, and others like them? Just because people are fed up with organized religion doesn’t mean their appetite for spiritual things has been swallowed up, too.
    I know because I was one of these millions who dropped out of active involvement in organized religion. But unlike the majority of the other 33,999,999 dropouts, I was a religious leader when I did.
    I grew up in the church, the son of a Southern Baptist minister. When I graduated from college, I went to seminary, and after several years of study, I began my career as a professional minister. It wasn’t long, however, before I discovered that the church was more lost than the world it was trying to save.
    Go into many churches today, and instead of finding an institution interested in saving the world, what you may find is an institution vastly more interested in saving itself. For example, people go to church to find God. Instead of finding God, however, followers are often saddled with a catalogue of “do’s” and “don’ts” as onerous as the US tax code. They are told what to think, how to believe, as well as how they’re supposed to live.
    In many places, the church is still the most segregated place in America. Where I grew up, some 40 or so years ago, many of my neighbors attended the Baptist church my father served. That is, if they were white Baptists; the black Baptists had a church of their own. Or they attended one of the other three mostly-segregated churches that occupied one of the four corners of Main Street. Today, however, your neighbor is just as likely to be black as white, or Muslim as Christian. Maybe people are leaving the church because they’d prefer to live in the real world — the desegregated one.
    Then, there are those church leaders who seem obsessed with having the biggest church, the largest crowds and the most expensive campuses. While 40 million people died of starvation in the last decade, churches spent $10 billion on campuses.
    Perhaps some churchgoers departed because they’d rather their charity actually make a difference in the world.
    If you went to church looking for relief from the stress and burdens of living, you might have found more of the same, only dressed as beliefs and dogmas, rules and expectations Then, there’s the debating, disagreement, and division that goes on between churches, as well as between people in the same church. I call it the “We’re right! You’re Wrong!” syndrome: each group insisting that their beliefs are right, which by implication means that everyone else’s beliefs are wrong. “We’re in; you’re out!” “We’re the chosen ones; you’re not!” Maybe those who came looking for some sanity in life are leaving the church to preserve what little remains.
    What about the seemingly endless clergy scandals? It may be several years yet before we know the full impact of this demonic debacle. I suspect that scores of people are just plain fed up with an institution that would “condemn gays and lesbians for coming out of their closets,” as someone characterized it, “while hiding clergy pedophiles in its own.”
    Some 15 or so years ago I, like millions of others, dropped out of active involvement in the church. Soon thereafter, I began wondering where to go to find God. For a few years, I went nowhere. I just wandered around in a kind of spiritual wilderness. Then, one Sunday afternoon, completely unexpectedly as well as outside the church, I had a deeply profound spiritual awakening. I describe it in my book, The Enoch Factor.
    Among the many realizations to which I awakened was this: “You don’t have to go to church to know God.” For reasons too obvious to mention, this isn’t the kind of message the church, or any religion, wants spread around. But it’s true nonetheless. There is no religion, not even the Christian religion, holding the title deed to God. God’s grace is not limited to a select few. The moment any religion believes it is, you can be sure that religion knows nothing of God.
    If there is anything Jesus, and the Buddha, made abundantly clear it is that the wind blows where it will. You can hear it, see its effects, and feel its power, but you can never contain it. In other words, the moment I stopped trying to find God, God found me. I love the way Deepak Chopra once framed it: “God is not difficult to find; God is impossible to ignore.”
    Even the title to this article, “Finding God After Religion,” seems to imply that there’s something you must “do” to know God. But the real truth is this: there is nothing you need to do to know God. You know God already. The mistake that virtually all religions make, including Christianity, is to confuse beliefs for faith and, as a consequence, condition people to think that there are things that they must do, duties that they must perform, etc., for God to be pleased and her presence to be known.
    Finding God after religion? Remember the following: In Eastern thought, there’s something called “the law of least effort,” or “do less and accomplish more.” If you will give up the “doing” and, instead, just enjoy “being,” I think you’ll make a great discovery. The psalmist said, “Be still and know … ” In my own experience, I have found that when I’m present (and that’s my spiritual practice), I’m immediately in Presence, the real and sacred sanctuary of God.
    What more would you want? What more would religion ever give you?

  • Thom,
    I think this is a good study and discussion. Though I am part of a younger generation and now in contemporary churches I have read the book by Towns to which you referred. I also grew up in Canton Baptist Temple and attended Highland Park while in college.
    I recognize the names of many churches on that list and from what i know they are still larger than your average church but it seems like they are just riding out the momentum of being a historic church or from having been huge in the past and now they are just big because of the children and grandchildren from those who were members when they were huge.
    As I said, I have been actively involved in two of the churches you mentioned. At CBT, they are averaging about 1100 in attendance now and have been for some time. They are actually willing to change some things in order to reach new people though in my opinion they are only half way committed to this. They have drums, a second (contemporary) campus and you will no longer get funny looks if you come in jeans (maybe). However their methods and attitude about ministry, discipleship, and leadership remains close to the model of the 1970’s.
    At least CBT has acknowledged their need to keep up with change. Highland Park has simply been lying to themselves for years. When I was part of their congregation they exaggerated their own attendance numbers by 7 times (this is not a joke) and continued to repeat stories of the good ol’ days all the while having to let staff members and ministries go because their attendance and offerings could not keep them operating at their level of appearance.
    I find these stories of these churches sad and a warning to the churches that are huge now. If they are unwilling to change in the proper timing will people in 2060 be talking about how Lakewood and Saddleback and North Point are dying?

  • Thom, if you’re really interested in getting at the REASONS why 34 million Americans (mostly former churchgoers according to the American Religious Identification Survey), you will have to do your research not among those who have managed to stay but these who have left. I’m not sure you’re in the position of doing this but perhaps you might consider hiring an independent, unbiased firm to do the research among these who are known as “nones.” You might, first, however begin by reading The Enoch Factor: The Sacred Art of Knowing God – it’ll give you some insight into this who question you’re researching. Read it with an open mind, however. Otherwise, you might find it offensive. I’d be happy to talk to you too if you’d like. Have a great day.

  • I appreciate the thoughts here, especially going back a generation to make comparisons. Much of what we look at for comparison is only within 20 years time. You have given us something to ponder.
    I have posted a link to your article in my blog.
    http://beyondoutreach.blogspot.com/2011/05/reading-roundup.html
    Do churches have a life-cycle?Thom Rainer: Where Have all the Churches Gone? http://goo.gl/pE45H

  • The churches listed have not gone away, they are just no longer the largest in the U.S. Some are still very large, other churches are just much larger.
    I would not make more of this than those facts. In several years the mega churches that dominate now in numbers and popularity will likely not be the cutting edge leading congregations they are today. No harm, no fowl.
    Royce Ogle

  • This is quite interesting and it would be definitly worth diving in to the historys’ of these churches. My best guess would be the problem lies in discipleship. My personal thoughts on proper discipleship is best compared to getting a callous; a slow process that results spiritual toughness. Most “discipleship” from my point of view is more like a blister.
    – @ralexfelton

  • Thom – You ask… “Where Have All the Churches Gone?”
    Was wondering… Which “church” are we talking about?
    1 – “The Church of God?” Where Jesus is the head of the body, the church.
    (The ekklesia, the called out one’s), The Church? 🙂
    Seems The body of Christ the church is doing just fine. It is “The Church of God.”
    Or…
    2 – the church of man? The Gov’t approved, Gov’t inspected, 501 (c) 3, non-profit,
    tax $ deductible, Religious $ Corporation? 🙁
    Should “Disciples of Christ” call a $ Corporation – “The Church?” 😉
    Did Jesus shed His Blood for a building, an organization, an institution,
    a denomination, or a $ Corporation? 😉
    Or did He shed His Blood for you and me? His Church… 🙂
    Seems God doesn’t dwell in buildings made with hands. Jesus lives in you and me.
    Aren’t we “The Church of God,” purchased with the Blood of Jesus. Ac 20:28.
    IMO – The churches that are Gone were all 501 (c) 3, non-profit, tax $ deductible, Religious $ Corporations. Businesses, things, with rules, regulations, hierarchy, which doesn’t look at all like, “we’re all brethren” hearing His Voice and following Jesus. They are NOT the Church described in the Bible.
    That’s why it is so hard for the Religious System to come up with a definition for “Church.” They are modeling it after the church of Rome and trying to reform a broken model. No matter how much reformation – It’s still broken.
    Don’t know if you ever checked or not but…
    In the Bible…
    NO one ever *Led* “A Church.”
    NO one ever *joined* “A Church.”
    NO one ever *went to* “A Church.”
    NO one ever *Tithed* to “A Church.”
    NO one ever brought their friends to “A Church.”
    NO one ever applied for membership in “A Church.”
    NO one ever gave silver, gold, or money, to “A Church.”
    NO buildings with steeples and crosses called “A Church.”
    NO – Pastors – in Pulpits – Preaching – to People – in Pews. 😉
    In the Bible, believers became The Church, the “Ekklesia,” the body of Christ, the redeemed of the Lord, the Israel of God, the sons of God, and Jesus is the head of the body, the Church. The ekklesia, the called out one’s.
    Jer 50:6
    My people hath been *lost sheep:*
    “their shepherds” have caused them to “go astray”
    1Pet 2:25
    For ye were as “sheep going astray;”
    but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

  • I was a member of Highland Park in Chattanooga from 1977 to 1981 and attended Tennessee Temple at that time. I think the means by which God gave them such growth was:
    1. The godly, wise, and great leader He gave them. Dr. Lee Roberson was, “the cream of God’s crop!”
    2. The corps of godly, wise, and great men and women with which he surrounded himself.
    3. They perfectly fit the culture of the time.
    4. The amazing music and singing, much of which was provided by Temple faculty and students!
    5. They were ministering to lower and middle-income neighborhoods and provided real and sacrificial ministry to those people.

  • Jim McFarland says on

    Thanks so much Thom

  • Michael W says on

    This is a great research idea and I’ll leave my two cents.
    1. Could be possible that church life cycle is unavoidable and we should embrace it rather than be horrified by it. The culture that communicates so well in one generation will not communicate so well to the next even if the message is the same.
    2. These stats focus on buildings since you are measuring decline or ascent by the number of people meeting in the building. I think a purist’s view of things would also ask “what is the legacy of the people who worshiped here in 1969?” because their legacy may be in many different places. Actually, we should hope a church’s legacy was in many different places.
    3. First generation churches with a founding pastor tend to be less institutionalized, more responsive to cultural trends and needs, and able to turn on a dime since the congregation gives the founding pastor a lot of freedom. Second generation churches try to maintain the glory days but stop turning on a dime and expect their 2nd generation pastor to be much less “outside the box”. By the time we reach the third generation that 1st generation culture that served the church so well is now completely out of touch with the surrounding community and church leadership is probably mired in politics since there is no one person who can easily claim authority in decision making.
    4. If we aren’t going to completely embrace house churches, I would like to see a church sustainability model that allows churches to “die” gracefully when they have run their course and then hand their collected resources over to a young pastor/staff that is charged with re-inventing the place, totally unbeholden to the previous administration. The trick is knowing when to make the hand-oof and who to hand it to. It’s literally asking a church to die so it can live again. That’s almost Biblical.

  • I was married at the Akron Baptist Temple in 1993, and my wife grew up there. At the time, they were still running 4,000 or so. As a Church Architect, I am intrigued by this trend, so thank you for bringing it up.