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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  • Patricia Kimbrel says on

    2 Thessalonians 2:1-3King James Version (KJV)

    2 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,

    2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.

    3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;

  • Mike Radebaugh says on

    As of this date, the Akron Baptist Temple has not sold. They no longer have enough attending the traditional service to warrant meeting in the main sanctuary. The traditional service now meets in the fellowship hall. It will hold round 300 occupants. They have lowered the selling price, but no takers. It is yet to be seen where Mr Holland will take the church. This is the same Mr Holland who was the mega-church advisor/consultant for John Maxwell’s Enjoy Ministries before he came to the Temple. These things are now in God’s hands.

  • Matthew S Miller says on

    I attended Akron Baptist Temple from my birth in 1970 until I moved away in 1989. I mostly remember Dr. Charles Billington when I did attend the main church with mom. For the most part I went every Sunday to the age group that I was a part of. These age group classrooms held approximately 100 to 200 children every Sunday. When I was old enough for the High School group it was normal for us to have 300+ high schoolers every Sunday. ABT owned a summer camp down near Canal Fulton that I was able to attend most summers as well. If you couldn’t make it to Church you could watch the main sermon on channel 23 live. If you didn’t have a ride they had a bus to come pick you up. I have wonderful early childhood memories from there. I can remember were I was sitting, in which classroom I was in, and I remember one of my friends being with me at vacation Bible School when I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

  • Jin Hurdt says on

    I was a member of ABT years ago and I think the main reason ABT went down hill is when they brought in the CCM music. I appeals to the young and they do not bring in the money that the church needs because the older folks leave the church because of the music. Why did they bring in the worldly music in the first place ? We were told not to listen to rock music then ABT brings it into the church. It was from Satan and very worldly. Mark Davenport spoke a message on rock music, them there it is in the church. I loved ABT, but if I had not moved away from Akron, I would have left the church for Godly music. Some of the CCM people have been found to not be Christians and you want their music in your church ?
    WOW, no wonder ABT went down hill.

  • Jonathan Hernandez says on

    I i’m very interested in hearing what you come up with. Perhaps you can answer another question as well. Why is are Christian society is an Immune society?

  • Mike Radebaugh says on

    I was mistaken. It was announced on Sunday, July 12 in the morning service.

  • Mike Radebaugh says on

    Just an update. The Akron Baptist Temple is for sale. It was announced on Sunday, July 5, 2015 that the Akron Baptist Temple will be for sale. Seems that the church is to take 6 weeks to pray about this and then it will be taken to a church vote. Of the members that still attend there, it seems they are all in favor of it. We will see what the future holds.

  • Mike Radebaugh says on

    I was music director at the Akron Baptist Temple for 17 1/2 years – from 1993 – 2009. I ministered under Dr. Charles Billington, Rev. Dallas Billington (his son) and the current pastor Ed Holland. I know the Baptist Temple first hand. The Akron Baptist Temple was an inovator in church ministry. It was one of the first churches to use busses to bring people to church. Founder Dr. Dallas Billington rented buses from the city transport department to run on Sundays bringing people to the church. When I began my ministry there, the church owned over 52 buses that would bring all ages to church. It was the first church to have a “cry room” – a room set aside for parents with small children with the audio of the message amplified to it. There was a large double pane window on one side that would look into the main auditorium. I remember Daily Vaction Bible School programs that would have over 1,000 children attending. Dr. Dallas was an inovator for sure. His son, Dr. Charles carried on that tradition with youth rallys that would have over 2,000 youth attending. At one time, the Sunday messages were recorded and broadcast on over 500 radio stations here in the United States and in foreign countries. When Dr. Charles stepped down, his son, Rev. Dallas, took over and moved the church into the next phase of its ministry. Each pastor had a vision for where the Temple needed to be. With the current pastor, things have changed again. This space does not permit me to discuss that change, but as with all churches, they seem to have their peak moments. I noticed that you recived a comment from the music director that followed my departure in 2009. You may find it interesting that he is no longer there. I would encourage you to contact him as to his leaving for it may help you understand where the church is today. The Akron Baptist Temple was a lighthouse for the Gospel of Christ for many years. As with any organization, sometimes the focus changes. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. We need always to pray that any change that comes to any church will be for the good and glory of God.

  • Judy yost says on

    Where is my reply from earlier today oct 1, 2013

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I don’t know Judy. I can ask the moderator tomorrow. If you mentioned someone’s’ name or church in a negative way, it may have been deleted

      • Judy yost says on

        I do not feel that I was being negative. I certainly did not
        Have that intention. I was speaking about The Akron Baptist Temple.
        If you come across my reply please read it and let me know if you feel that
        I was negative. I find what you are doing very interesting.

        Thank you, Judy Yost

  • Very interesting points you have observed , appreciate it for posting . “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” by Arthur Ashe.

  • Joe Shipley says on

    Great conversation! Too bad for me that I’ve found it long after it was finished… I do believe it’s interesting that two of the churches are still in the top 20 lists and doing rather well. One being the Thomas Road Baptist Church, the other being the First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN. Both of these churches, unlike so many others, had a relatively seamless transition from the leadership of yesteryear to today. In the case of TRBC, they went from Dr. Jerry Falwell to his son. First Baptist Church transitioned from Dr. Jack Hyles to his son-in-law. To be honest, I’m not sure which church is now larger. I still believe it may be the First Baptist Church in Hammond which runs around 16,000 now – slightly less than in its heyday. From what I understand, and I think this is very interesting, both Dr. Hyles and Dr. Falwell carefully planned for the transition in the event of their graduations to heaven. Obviously they planned well. Conversely, and for right or wrong – you decide, Dr. Roberson of the Highland Park Baptist Church, did little in preparing his church to hire a like-minded preacher and payed dearly for it. HPBC from what I’ve been told is a mere shadow of its former self.

  • This is in response to Joy. Thank you for your commitment to the church. Yes, I left the church as the article above notes but I have returned. I have found a truly Christ-like church – Highland Baptist Church in louisville, ky. It would not be among those Baptist churches sanctioned by the hierarchy of the Southern Baptist Convention. But, of course, that matters neither to me nor to the members of Highland BC. It is truly a remarkable church and I give it my wholehearted support, spiritually, physically and emotionally, and financially.
    I wrote the article above for the Huffington Post, an online news reporting entity for whom I am a regular writer simply because I seek to speak to those 34 million Americans who have been wounded and hurt by the madness that is so much of “church” these days. These people are very threatening to the establishment, just as I suppose people like me are as well. I wish not, however, to be perceived as a threat to Christians or to the church. I wish only to be a voice for change and do what I can in my limited way to bring change and to carefully but where permitted guide others who have been disenfranchised by the church back, if at all possible.
    Most of them won’t return because they’ve been too deeply hurt by it – and not just Southern Baptist churches.
    I am an active church and church leader consultant. I work, and have more nearly two decades, in virtually every Christian communion in America – as you would note in my website – http://www.stevemcswain.com. Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical – doesn’t matter. I just spoke over the weekend, in fact, in one of the largest Catholic parishes in the midwest, and have been providing them counsel and direction as they’ve been casting a new vision to help their parish move forward into the future and beyond the damage that the clergy pedophile insanity has caused in their denomination.
    So, thank you for your concern for me. I hope you’ll continue to work for change within the church even as I seek to do the same. Blessings.