What’s Happening in Churches Today?

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Each quarter Tony Morgan, director of the Unstuck Group, publishes a report on the state of church health among churches with which they connect. I see this report as somewhat of a thumbnail checkup on what is happening in some parts of American Christianity. It gives me some food for thought.

This quarter’s Unstuck Church report came from 349 churches with size range of under 100 to over 7,000. The average worship gathering attendance was 695 people. 

Here is a place to pause. Thom Rainer of ChurchAnswers.com uses recent Lifeway research to suggest that in our post-covid environment we need to adjust our church size scale. Rainer says the Lifeway research shows that only 8% of churches have a worship attendance of more than 250 people. Two-thirds of churches, over 60%, have a worship attendance less than 100. Here’s the new size scale Rainer suggests:

  • Small church: under 50
  • Mid-size church: 51-99
  • Large church: 100-249
  • Larger church: above 250

I do think the Unstruck Group report does have good insights that help us think about health and vitality. Here are a few items I find helpful. I italicized the Unstuck Group report portion so you know what is their finding and what is my reflection.

  • Growing churches are more likely to have small groups and more people connected to those smaller groups while declining churches are more likely to have Sunday school. Relationship trumps knowledge. That may have always been true to some degree, but in our post-modern, the only trusted truth is my truth, world, relationships come first. Small groups are powerful relationship building spaces. We can use those spaces to address biblical truth, but the traditional Bible class format is no longer a big draw. This suggests we need to think well about how we spend our resources of time, energy, and people.
  • Declining churches have fewer people making decisions to follow Jesus or getting baptized. Helping people discover and commit to Jesus is a central indicator of a church’s health and vitality. Life breeds life. When a church is healthy and vital it will attract new people who are wondering why, who are seeking answers for life, and who think perhaps Jesus has something worthwhile to say.
  • Declining churches have far fewer first-time connections to the church indicating that they’ve become insider-focusedFirst-time connections usually refers to visitors to our worship gatherings. The lack of first-time visitors (who can become second and third time visitors, a ultimately new members) is a sign of a weak culture of invitation. It is also a sign of a non-engaged, apathetic, culturally isolated membership. When church attenders are excited about what is happening in their church, they will invite their friends and neighbors to come and see.
  • Growing churches are more likely to only offer contemporary or modern worship and no traditional worshipHere’s where things get quite sticky for us. Our traditional worship service format was firmly established by the 1950s as a sign of theological correctness. While those who grew up in that worship service format might feel comfortable with it, new people seldom do. Growing churches exhibit a dynamic, active, engaging worship experience and not a traditional worship service, because they plan to connect with new people.
  • Declining churches are reaching far fewer young families with kids or students. The average is 11 students for every 100 people attending worship gatherings. While this finding is helpful, what Heritage 21 has found is that even smaller churches, to be healthy and vital, need to have 5 or more families with students. Healthy, vital churches grow around groups of people who are raising their families and sharing those family year experiences together. A church of 50 made up of families with students exhibits an entirely different feel than a church of 50 with just one or two families with children.

I hope this selective review gives you some ideas and spurs some activity for you. My new book Empty Church: Why People Don’t Come and What to do About It has more insights and pathways to help your church become more healthy and vital.

Blessings,

Stan Granberg, PhD

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