American churches in crisis equals opportunity
Recently, a friend recommended I read The American Church in Crisis by David Olson. Inwardly, I immediately resisted, thinking who is David Olson? Lucado I know and McArthur I know, but who is David Olson? Further, I resisted because of the title of the book – The American Church in Crisis. Haven’t enough books been written to forecast the demise of the church? Indeed, hasn’t the Lord’s church been in crisis since its beginning on the day of Pentecost? Much the same, has mankind lived in crisis mode since Satan deceived Eve into eating the fruit of the tree. Or, as my late father used to say, “Mankind’s problem did not begin with the apple on the tree, but with the pair on the ground.”
Enough talking of this crisis stuff, as if it’s something new. But, to humor my friend, I bought the book. Am I ever glad I did. I discovered David T. Olson is director of the American Church Research Project and director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church. His book is chock-full of relevant and pertinent data, as well as updated information and analysis regarding the church in America today. Though he reports details about the church today we would rather not hear, his message is not the typical, fatalistic, doom-filled prophecy about the imminent expiration of the American Church. Instead, he sounds encouraging and hope-filled words, providing practical answers about how to renew Christ’s church.
Things I didn’t want to hear, but I needed to hear (in the back of my mind I had already conceded these were true, but was still in denial about them) included the following.
• Pollsters, including Gallup and Barna, have claimed that 43 percent of Americans attend church weekly. Olson’s groundbreaking research based on data compiled from more than 300,000 Christian congregations in the U.S., found that the churches totaled 52 million in attendance, or 17.7 percent of the American population in 2004. To look at it another way, that means 82.3 percent of Americans are not attending church.
• Our U.S. population grew dramatically from 200 million in 1960, to 300 million by 2006. Just over half of that growth (52 million) occurred from 1990 to 2006. Let those numbers sink into your head and heart for a moment as you remember that only 52 million are in church these days. 48 million, new to the U.S. since 1960, plus the remaining 200 million already here, were not in church last Sunday.
• If the American church continues to do business as usual, Olson’s data projects that by 2020 (yes, that’s just over 11 years from now), weekend attendance will decline from 17.7 percent (52 million) to 14.7 percent (49 million). Meanwhile, population of the U.S. will have grown from 300 million to 336 million. Therefore, in 2020, 287 million Americans will not be attending anyone’s church on any weekend.
Thankfully, Olson’s book does not leave the church writhing in the dust, waiting for the undertaker. I was greatly encouraged and challenged by his unique review of church history, as well as some practical action steps he lays out for the Lord’s church.
• The early Christian church faced a similar challenge, that of reaching its population. In AD 40 the Roman Empire was made up of a very minute population of Christians. By AD 350 there were as many as 31 million Christians – more than half the population of Rome, which numbered 60 million. Olson quotes Rodney Stark, who in his volume, The Cities of God, estimated that the church growing by as little as 3.42 percent a year, would account for the remarkable growth of Christianity in the first three centuries. Breaking it down, if your church attendance averages 100 this year, you would only have to average 104 next year to be on pace with the early church. Solid, moderate growth, year after year, can produce a revolution. It did 2000 years ago.
• Most casual observers would guess that large churches are growing, while mid-size and small churches seem to be declining. Olson’s data reveals that the smallest churches actually grew at a faster yearly rate. He cites several reasons: In a small church, everyone knows everyone else by name, creating intimate bonds. A church with fewer than 50 people has little room to shrink. On the other hand, they have a large potential to grow. A church of 25 could grow to 75, 125, or even 200.
• Fruitful growth begins with spirituality, no matter the setting of the church, be it rural, urban, or suburban. Olson defines spirituality as a commitment to deep spiritual transformation that brings about God’s work in people’s hearts. He quotes John Perkins, a pioneer in the Christian Community Development Association, and a powerful African American voice in the U.S. for racial reconciliation for more than 30 years, who said: “We have overevangelized the world too lightly.” Perkins explaining what he meant by the phrase, responded, “Evangelism actually becomes counterproductive to God’s purpose for the church when it is not partnered with discipleship. Evangelism and discipleship should be an inseparable pair.”
Somewhere I have read that the Chinese word/symbol for “crisis” is also their same word for “opportunity.” The modern-day crisis of the American church masks the opportunity before us. Our forefathers faced the same 2000 years ago: How can we reach the masses of our population for Jesus? Let’s pray that the same Holy Spirit who enabled them, will enable us. (Gary Taylor is the Missouri Baptist Convention’s director of evangelism.)