Monday, February 01, 2016

Most churches will close in the next 2-7 years

We know that religious commitment in the United States has been declining for quite a while. What is less remarked upon is the accelerated rate of decline.

For example, Donald House of the United Methodist church says the speed of decline has increased since 2002. They project that the last United Methodist Church will close its doors in 2065, or as early as 2050 if the denominational structure folds before that.

Ed Kruse of, based on widespread review of the literature, believes a "current trend of rapid decline began in the last decade."

George Carey remarked that the Anglican Church has less than 25 years, and 2015 marked the first time that less than one million people were in worship on any given Sunday in England. Church affiliation in the UK projected by 2050 is 0%.

The Southern Baptist Convention is projected to lose about 50% of its congregations in the next 20 years.

Anyone paying attention to the my own denomination, the ELCA, knows we have been in decline for decades, with no signs of slowing.

In fact, I believe that the next seven years will be even worse than preceding years. Many small churches all across the country are more precarious than ever, and will likely fold, and fold quickly. Ken Inskeep of the ELCA says that about 2/3rds of our congregations are at risk.

Is this a doomsday scenario? 

Should we blame somebody or something for this? Certain religious gripe sites would like to claim that it is the fault of heresy, apostasy, or the like. But given these declines are anticipated across the Christian religious spectrum, from liberal Protestant to Roman Catholic, from Southern Baptist to middle of the road Methodists, there must be something else at work.

Part of it is demographics. We're just an aging population. Every denomination could benefit from giving birth to more babies.

Part of it is scale. In the same way small town mom and pops stores gave way to Walmart, many small churches are giving way to their Walmart-like neighbors.

Part of it is secularization, clearly. The accelerated rate of disaffiliation from religious institutions and from confession of any particular religious faith is remarkable.

Part of it may be lack of zeal. Many people are struggling to see how Christian faith matters for their daily life. There's less focus on the life after this one in the Zeitgeist, and folks are finding they can navigate life quite fine without the complications of theological commitments--so they do so.

What should we do?

I like some of the advice in contemporary neuroscience that says we should accept the power of positive thinking, but also be realistic. I'm hopeful in spite of the evidence. But I also think we should look the evidence straight in the face, and act accordingly.

The first thing we should do is start expecting that a LOT of the churches we know in our synods and neighborhoods will close, and quickly. 

That being the case, equipped with that knowledge, we should probably...

Start new churches. New churches don't always survive, but they grow more than existing churches. 

In fact, statistically pretty much no churches older than seven years grow at all, but tons of churches started in the last seven years do. So it's disturbing how few churches most denominations are starting in comparison to how many they are closing.

Stop propping up dying institutions.

Less clergy should be pouring their lives into redevelopment work. Why give your life to an impossible reversal? It's exhausting, unhealthy, and Sisyphean.

Keep the faith but get on the road.

Churches aren't dying because they are under attack. There's no need to hide. Think of it more like this: you bought a house in Phoenix, Arizona, but now there ain't no water. You don't need to stop believing in living in a house, but you better move elsewhere.

Look to the blue oceans.

Although everything I've said above is true, if and when churches seek to reach new people, they almost all target the same set of people, maybe around 30% of the population. Which means about 70% of the population isn't reached by the church at all, in any way. Why contend for limited resources in dying churches when there are so many wonderful folks in the world to connect. Or perhaps that is one reason the churches are dying, they're all frenzied in red ocean, or so apathetic they don't even realize there's value in gaining the capacity to swim out into beautiful blue oceans to meet others who swim there.

No schadenfreude.

Taking joy in the suffering of others is a sickness, not a virtue. Too many Christians are epicaricacetic, taking far more pleasure in the pain of neighboring churches. I think this is because we have largely been swimming in red oceans. we are joyous when others fail because then they won't take what we're chasing. But if we are all out there in deep blue oceans adventuring in uncharted space, our posture would be completely other. We'd see the death of churches as something to grieve, but then to learn from, inspiration for the long swim now ahead of us.

No more seminary required

One early reader of this blog wrote: "If the ELCA moves away from having as many churches as today and lots of smaller communities are forming, there are, of course many questions. One of which is how will the role of the pastor change? If there are lots of small communities, there will not be enough pastors to be everywhere at the same time to preside at the eucharist. The pastor may take on more of a mentor role for the leaders in the small communities."

I would add, let's stop requiring graduate level education for clergy, and ordain more people in place and for the pastoring of these smaller communities. Changing such requirements would allow greater space for dual career faith leaders.


  1. Thanks for this, Clint! Two questions (that I don't have answers to):

    The first is a question on whether or not "the church" (writ large) -- or individual churches -- are going to be able to support a professional clergy class. For many new churches, there is a great deal of financial support coming directly from older, more established churches (via the synod or church body). This allows the professional clergy to devote the time and energy to dive into this newer, shakier, but more exciting endeavor. But what will that look like in the future? Is it worth investing in 4 years of seminary if we clergy will need alternative sources of income?

    Second, I've been thinking for a long time about the idea of micro-communities when it comes to the church. Douglas John Hall writes about the power of the small: mustard seeds, grains of salt. In this shrinking, post-Christendom era, how can micro-communities continue to be salt in the world? Rather than looking for a minimally viable membership, how can porous micro-communities serve God, serve the world, and offer individuals something that they're not getting elsewhere?

  2. @Dan Ruth, in your question lies the answer: granularity. Accessibility. Jesus represented God's new paradigm for engaging the world - personal presence.(Hebews 1:2). The curtain torn. As opposed to:
    Big Churches --> Big Box-ization --> Corporatization --> Impersonal (disconnected/disengaged).