Research on declining churches and the 80% myth

Buckle your seat belts.

Over his next several posts, Thom Rainer will be sharing with you the results of an incredible research project on 1,000 Southern Baptist churches. At the risk of overstatement, he says this data may point us to some exciting and positive opportunities. Indeed, he hopes to share a plan for the evangelistic renewal and growth of our churches in the weeks ahead. To keep up with this topic, here's a good place to go:

But, Rainer says in his current blog, he is getting ahead of himself.

He wants to share, at the risk of boredom, the basis of this research:

• Our program randomly selected 1,000 churches with available data for 2013 and 2016.

• The strength of the study is its accuracy. The margin of error at the 95% percent confidence level is +/- 3.1%. If you’re not a numbers nerd, that means this data is incredibly accurate.

• The possible weakness of this study is that it only includes Southern Baptist churches. He took this path because he has a gold mine of data. And he does believe this data can be a good approximation of evangelical churches, and a rough approximation of all Protestant churches in North America.

The Research Says 80 Percent Is Not Correct

Have you ever heard, “80 percent of churches are either plateaued or declining”?

Rainer has, and he is convinced it's wrong.

Here are the results of his research. He used average worship attendance as his metric rather than church membership. Unfortunately, church membership is fast becoming a meaningless metric.

• 56 percent of churches are declining.

• 9 percent of churches are plateaued.

• 35 percent of churches are growing.

So here is the new and correct statement of reality: 65 percent of churches are declining or plateaued. There is a huge statistical difference between 80 percent, the myth, and 65 percent, the reality.

So What?

Rainer loathes research projects that ultimately offer only statistics and not solutions. Over the next several weeks, he will be sharing with some incredible and eye-opening research. But, ultimately, he will offer some solutions based on what God is doing in these growing and evangelistic churches compared to the declining churches. (The Witness will try to keep up with what he is sharing. But the link provided earlier will get you everything you need.)

Here are some areas Rainer will cover in upcoming posts:

• The danger line in worship attendance that becomes a predictor for church death.

• The relationship between the growth of the community and the growth of a church.

• How some smaller churches are thriving in the shadow of megachurches.

• What the most effective evangelistic churches are doing differently.

• The relationship between small groups/Sunday school and the growth of a church.

His goal is ultimately to provide a clear path for evangelistic growth and renewal in our churches. We are learning so much from these churches and their leaders. He can’t wait to share more of his findings in future posts.

In the meantime, remember this basic fact: 65 percent of churches are plateaued or declining, not 80 percent.

And 35 percent of churches are growing.

It is his prayer—and ours—that you will understand how your church can be in that latter group of churches.

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.

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