I haven’t been doing much with the blog the past several weeks, primarily because I have been trying to do some writing for my dmin project which needs to be completed in the next few weeks. Here is a small portion of chapter two which involves identifying the ministry problem, which in my case is the marginalization of the church in North America (and my local context) as a result, at least in part, to the lack of sound missionary thinking and activities.

The following portion comes after a brief discussion on the shift into a period of Post-Christendom taken from Douglas John Hall excellent little book The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity.

The magnitude of the marginalization of the church during this time of post-Christendom has been expressed by many. In the introduction of The Church Between Gospel and Culture, George Hunsberger writes about the crisis in the life of churches in North America: “The crisis, most simply put, is that the social function the churches once fulfilled in American life is gone.” [1] Eddie Gibbs in the book Church Next argues that “mainline denominations are facing an avalanche of problems that place question marks over their future. Some of these problems are so pressing that they may even threaten the denominations’ survival.” [2] In the book Death of the Church author Mike Regele offers a concise summary of the multiple issues involved in the marginalization of the church when he writes:

At the brink of the twenty-first century, the king who knew not Joseph is the collective culture of which we are a part. The combined impact of the Information Age, postmodern thought, globalization, and racial-ethnic pluralism that has seen the demise of the grand American story also has displace the historic role the church has played in the story. As a result, we are seeing the marginalization of the institutional church. [3]

The marginalization of the church that these and other authors [4] speak of can be validated in an array of church statistics and trends. In 2005 Sally Margenthaler painted this picture of the American church landscape:

Despite what we print in our own press releases, the numbers don’t look good.   According to 2003 actual attendance counts, adult church-going is at 18 percent nationally and dropping. Evangelical attendance (again, actual seat-numbers, not telephone responses) accounts for 9% of the population, down from 9.2% in 1990. Mainline attendance accounts for 3.4% of the national population, down from 3.9% the previous decade.  And Catholics are down a full percentage point in the same ten-year period:  6.2% from 7.2% in 1990. Of the 3,098 counties in the United States, 2,303 declined in church attendance. [5]

More recently David Olsen, Director of the American Church Research Project [6] and author of The American Church in Crisis has compiled comprehensive data on the state of the church in the United States. The research provides reliable attendance numbers for each of the 3,141 counties in the U.S., for each state, and for the nation as a whole. [7] One of Olson’s most significant findings is the apparent “halo effect” [8] that has been evident in the majority of polls on church attendance. Polls conducted by organizations such as Gallup and The Barna Research Group have consistently reported weekly church attendance in the range of 40 to 47 percent over the past four decades. However, Olson and other sociologists [9] effectively argue that church attendance numbers are in reality much lower. A study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion compiled data from more than 300,000 Christian congregations in the United States and found that the churches totaled 52 million people in attendance, or 17.7 percent of the American population in 2004. [10] The research of the American Church Research Project showed that 17.5 percent of the population attended an orthodox Christian church on any given weekend in 2005. [11] The total percentage was broken down into three major church categories including; evangelical at 9.1 percent, mainline at 3 percent, and Roman Catholic with 5.3 percent. [12]

One addition insight gleaned from Olson’s research is the simple fact that the growth of the American church is not keeping up with the robust growth of the American population. From 1990 to 2006 the population of the United States grew by 52 million people, which happens to be the same number of people who attend church on any given weekend. “In 1990, 52 million people attended worship each week – in 2006 the number remained unchanged. However, because of the sizable population growth, the percentage of Americans who attend church is declining.” [13]

While population growth and church attendance figures vary in different regions of the country the numbers are alarming regardless of location. Olson writes:

America’s population is growing at dissimilar rates throughout the nation. The Sunbelt states (the southernmost states from Virginia to Southern California) continue to grow most rapidly in population, while the Great Plains region and the Rust Belt (the industrial cities bordering the Great Lakes) have stagnant growth rates. The rate of population growth creates a major impact on whether the church can keep up with the increase in the population. In Arizona, for example, church attendance grew 7.3 percent from 2000 to 2005, robust growth by any standard. However, the population grew by 15.3 percent during that same period, producing a new attendance percentage decline of 7 percent. Typically, the faster a region’s rate of population growth, the more difficult task the church faces in keeping up with those increasing numbers. . . [However] in no single state did church attendance keep up with population growth! [14]

Paralleling Olsen’s finding on those who are moving away from religious affiliation the 2008 Religious Landscape Survey conducted and published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life discovered that the fastest-growing segment of religious affiliation in the county is the nonaffiliated (16.1 percent of adults age eighteen and older). [15] Furthermore, those moving into the unaffiliated category outnumber those moving out by greater than a three to one margin. Throughout the previous two decades, this percentage of unaffiliated Americans had held between five and eight percent, meaning that the unaffiliated group has more than doubled in the past ten years. In the face of such startling statistics some researchers are predicting that if current trends continue, sixty percent of existing churches in America will disappear before the year 2050. [16]

Specifically focusing on Southern Baptist Churches, Ed Stetzer has written on the concerning trends of evangelistic impact in the vast majority of SBC churches in North America. [17] Stetzer cites statistics from the Leavell Center at New Orleans Baptist Seminary that “tell a disconcerting story – 89 percent of churches in the Convention are not effectively reaching the lost. According to the study, only 11 percent of the churches are experiencing healthy growth. [18] Stetzer goes on to describe the criteria used by the Leavell Center to measure church growth health as the following:

*  10 percent total membership growth over five years
*  at least one person baptized during the two years of the study
*  a member-to-baptism ratio of 35 or less in the final year of the study
*  for the final year of the study, the percentage of growth that was conversion growth must be at least 25 percent

Furthermore, when reporting on membership trends in SBC churches Stetzer contends that if current trends continue, over the next 50 years “projected membership of SBC churches would be 8.7 million in 2050, down from 16.2 million in 2008. . . . Using U.S. Census projected population figures, SBC membership could fall from a peak of 6 percent of the American population in the late 1980s to 2 percent in 2050.” [19] In The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, Christine Wicker offers a troubling summation of the wide variety of statistical data when she writes:

Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. The great evangelical movements of today are not a vanguard. They are a remnant, unraveling at every edge. Look at it any way you like: Conversions. Baptisms. Membership. Retention. Participation. Giving. Attendance. Religious literacy. Effect on the culture. All are down and dropping. [20]

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1 George R. Hunsberger, “Introduction,” in The Church Between Gospel & Culture, ed. George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), xiii.

2 Eddie Gibbs. Church Next: Quantum Changes In How We Do Ministry (Dover Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 66.

3 Mike Regele, Death of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 182.

4 See David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991), Craig A. Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Grand Rapids: Brazo, 2006), Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), Mike Erre, Death by Church (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2009), Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), Darrell Guder, Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) and Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986)

5 Sally Morgenthaler, “Windows in Caves,” Fuller Theological Seminary News and Notes (Spring 2005), Retrieved July 23, 2009 from http://churchconsultations.com/resources/faqs-resources-and-info/a/apostolic-movement-in-the-emerging-world/windows-in-caves-by-sally-mogenthaler/

7 David Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008)

8 For a definition of “halo effect” see Appendix A, “Glossary of Terms”.

9 See Stanley Presser and Linda Stinson, “Data Collection Mode and Social Desirability Bias in Self-Reported Religious Attendance,” American Sociological Review 63, no. 1 (February 1998): 137-45.

10 Kirk Hadaway and Penny L. Marler, “How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week? An Alternative Approach to Measurement,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 3 (September 2005): 307-22.

11 Olson, 28.

12 The division into evangelical, mainline, and Roman Catholic denominations is based on the typology found in the Glenmary Religious Congregations and Membership Study. All African American denominations are considered evangelical in this typology. Eastern Orthodox churches are included in the total number but are too small in attendance to receive their own category distinction. The classifications can be found at the Association of Religious Data Archives at http://www.thearda.com/

13 Olson, 36.

14 Ibid., 37.

15 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (Washington, D.C.: Pew Forum, 2008), Retrieved July 1, 2009 from http://religions.pewforum.org/

16 Norman Shawchuck and Gustave Rath, Benchmarks of Quality in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 12.

17 Ed Stetzer, “The Missional Nature of the Church and the Future of Southern Baptist Convention Churches,” in The Mission of Today’s church: Baptist Leaders Look at Modern Faith Issues (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 73.

18 Ibid.

19 Rob Phillips, “Southern Baptists Face Further Decline Without Renewed Evangelism Emphasis,” Lifeway Research, published July, 2009, retrieved August 4, 2009 http://www.lifeway.com

20 Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), ix.