A Good Question
A sincere disciple of Christ asked me recently, “What’s the future for the church?” He was not speaking of our local embodiment of Christ but of the Church. I have a ready-made answer for the question about our church. I have a pretty good idea about our local congregation but I was taken by surprise by his question. I sometimes wonder what is going on at headquarters myself. Nevertheless I began to look into his question, and here is what I have discovered.
Bad News for the Good News Business
I already had an idea the church had a fever. We weren’t running on all cylinders, but what does the research say. According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey the NONES, those who claim to have no religious affiliation rose from 8 to 15 percent, since 1990. This group almost doubled in roughly twenty years. In the same period of time those who identified themselves as Christians dropped from 86% to 76% according to the ARIS report.
According to the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Study of 2008, 28% of the U.S. population have changed religious affiliation from the one they were raised. The best retention rate in the religious universe is among the Hindu who hold on to 84% of their childhood member. Catholics retain 68% and Baptist and Lutherans are at the top of the leader board among Protestants at 60%.
The Gallup poll, and other researchers, have indicated the number of people attending church is almost 40%. Considering the times we live in this is or would be a respectable number. But 40% is not the truth. In another study, published in 2005 by Hadaway and Marler reveal the number is closer to 50 million weekly in attendance which is less than 20% of the population. So on any given Sunday only one in five people will be in worship.*
Twenty percent is disappointing. Mainly because we thought we had 40%. Now if we want to polish this bad news we might argue that each week devoted believers from coast to coast get sick or travel, so the real number could be slightly higher considering these devoted but absentee souls.
How can we explain these numbers? Losing children raised in the faith, losing people in weekly attendance, and the rise of the NONES, is not good news for a church in the business of good news.
I finally have some room on my pew
Why is there room on my pew? Let’s spend a moment considering what the church has been or should be.
There are people who think the churches primary task is to be the moral police. There is a honest difference of opinion among believers. Some think a good metaphor for the church is the police, the people who keep society in check. As more and more think our nation is becoming a police state with big brother watching even when we are blandly sitting in front of our ipad looking for next evenings recipe, so naturally the general public would view the church as gluten or fat, as something to avoid. Others believe a better metaphor might be the fire department, the people who come to your aid when life or your own stupidity is bringing pain and destruction. Those who consider this the primary task of the church think we are in the rescuing business not the policing business.
In my modest opinion I think being the moral police has undermined our purpose and called us away from our primary task. So if our primary task is to be ready to rescue (like the fire department), what’s the problem? People are people, we will always be swimming out in water that is over our head (maybe we are lifeguards not firemen). So why would we ever have a slowdown in business if people are always going to need rescuing?
Consider the Coca-Cola Company
If we were to ask what is the business of Coca-Cola? Some would answer the beverage business. Others might say the making money business. Both would be correct. A business that last is always in the trend business. They watch trends and take advantage of trends. Years ago when people started thinking about the sugar in Coke, Coke introduced Tab. Years later when Coke recognized parents and the population at large were trying to shake their coke addiction they got in the Minute Made orange juice and Dasani water business. It’s not Coke, but it is still a beverage. From Nestea to Bacardi, Coke added brands and developed lines to continue to make money but most importantly to continue to be relevant.
Coke did not see themselves tied to one product in a red can. They paid attention to the trends realizing people would always be thirsty, but not always thirsty for a product that made you more thirsty. It was fruitless to complain “Why are the people drinking more water?” or “Why are sports drinks so popular?”(Coke now owns Poweraide). It is futile to argue with numbers, the people were clearly moving away from sugary drinks called colas. Coke’s leaders decided like all good leaders to adjust the sails not curse the wind. The church, often (okay always) curses the wind.
Already the reasons we aren’t Coke are running through your head and some our spilling out your mouth. “We are not a business.” “We can’t change our message.” While the first is true, the second needs to be investigated.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer are researchers for Southern Baptist. Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research Division. LifeWay produces bible study literature for Southern Baptist Churches. Rainer is President of LifeWay Christian Resources. Southern Baptist, for many years wrote the book on how to do church and how to reach people. Now, Rainer and Stetzer are crunching the numbers and looking for trends. Annually Southern Baptist churches report to the denominational office key indicators; baptisms, attendance, financial mission support, etc. From these reports LifeWay produces an Annual Profile of Churches. Statistics are almost as Baptist as fried chicken.
Southern Baptist hit a numerical high in 2005 with 16.6 million members. In 2012 the number had shrunk to 15.8 million. That’s practically a million members lost in less than a decade. Southern Baptist are to Christianity in America what the Yankees are to baseball. If the Yankees are struggling we are all struggling. By the way from 2005 to 2012 the U.S. population grew by 18 million.
Baptisms like batting averages are a vital statistic among Baptist. While the past thirty years have not been stellar, the most recent high point was 1999 when 419,000 people were baptized. In 2012 Southern Baptist churches reported only 315,000 baptisms. According to the annual church profile provided by Southern Baptist there has been a 25% drop in 13 years.
Stetzer’s research has indicated things are not good for the patient called the church. He came short of saying it was dying, but he went as far as to say it was in transition. Certainly this mild tone reflects Stetzer own hopefulness that with God nothing is impossible. To the cynic it may just sound like someone clinging to a final, unreasonable hope. Do you prefer your doctors to tell the truth in a cold way, “This does not look good, you will die from this.” Or do you like the truth warmed a bit, “Well what’s happening is your body is transitioning from a healthy state to a sick state.” I think I like the warm method myself, but the cold method has its merits.
* C. Kirk Hardaway and Penny Long Marler, “How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week? An Alternative Approach to Measurement.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2005).