Culture | Leadership
Thom Schultz

Is it possible that the American church is fading into the background of our culture, dragging youth ministry with it?

Will rapidly declining attendance lead to a marginalized church presence in America, similar to what’s happened in present-day Europe?

In light of the storms that are currently pounding it, what will the American church look like in 10 years?

In October, Group hosted church leaders, denominational executives, and world-class social and religion researchers at our Colorado headquarters for a “Future of the Church” summit—our aim was to dig into the church’s current health and produce a collective prognosis. The summit was fueled by panel discussions and targeted presentations by Neil Howe—groundbreaking author of Generations, The Fourth Turning, and Millennials Rising—and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s director Scott Thumma, a Harford Seminary professor and author of The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators Into Active Participants.

To set the table for conversation, we offered the latest research on the church’s overall health, collected and analyzed by the Hartford Institute (for a full presentation of this data, go to http://hartfordinstitute.org/church_checkup.html):

• Just over 350,000 churches dot the U.S. landscape, but only the very small (less than 200) and very large (more than 2,000) churches are showing growth—the vast middle is dwindling.

• Church attendance is waning, especially in mainline congregations. And while 40 percent of Americans say they attend church every week, the actual number is more like 20 percent—4,000 churches closed their doors last year alone.

• Four out of five Americans say they’re sure there’s a God, and they identify themselves with a faith group, but only half (or less) of them actually attend a church.

• Churchgoers are getting older, on average, than the general population—the younger the generation, the higher percentage reporting that they are “unaffiliated” with a church.

• Giving is down 2.2 percent from last year—in 2000 about a third (31 percent) of congregations exhibited “excellent” financial health, but by 2010 that number had plummeted to 14 percent.

• By 2010 the percentage of congregations characterized by “high spiritual vitality” had dropped from about 43 percent in 2005 to 28 percent.

• Finally, in just the last five years, the percentage of teenagers attending church every week has dropped from 20 percent to 15 percent.

 

The Diagnosis

What has caused the “wasting disease” afflicting the church, producing these deadly symptoms? We had no shortage of opinions in the room, including my own. Among many possible culprits, I believe four are primary—the church has…

1. Embraced an “audience” orientation that focuses all the attention on the “performers” up front,

2. Created one-way-communication worship services that ensure the people in the pews stay anonymous,

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