Where Have All the Churches Gone?

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By Thom S. Rainer, Christian Post Contributor
May 14, 2011|2:06 pm

The largest church in the United States is Akron Baptist Temple in Akron, Ohio. Okay, it was the largest church in 1969. I haven’t seen the church on any lists of largest churches for at least two decades.

By the way, the primary metric for measuring church size in 1969 was Sunday school attendance. Today the metric is worship attendance.

A lot of changes in churches take place in just a few years. For many, if not most, American churches, the changes are more negative than positive. Many churches today are shadows of what they were not too many years ago.

Where have all the churches gone?

Looking at Where the Churches Were

There is no doubt that church health is not synonymous with church size. Indeed, churches can draw a crowd for a season using unbiblical methods. Still, it is instructive to look at the largest churches in America just a few decades ago.

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In 1969 Elmer Towns published one of the first books on largest churches in America. In The Ten Largest Sunday Schools, Towns noted the ten churches and took a chapter to suggest reasons for their growth and size. Look at the 1969 list of largest churches:

1. Akron Baptist Temple, Akron, Ohio

2. Highland Park Baptist Church, Chattanooga, Tennessee

3. First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas

4. First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana

5. Canton Baptist Temple, Canton, Ohio

6. Landmark Baptist Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio

7. Temple Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan

8. First Baptist Church, Van Nuys, California

9. Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia

10. Calvary Temple, Denver, Colorado

This top ten list includes eight independent Baptist churches, one Southern Baptist church, and one independent church. Today, non-denominational churches are common among the larger churches and only a relatively few independent Baptist churches make the list. Many of the largest churches today did not even exist in 1969.

Trying to Understand the “Why”

I have committed my life to studying local congregations, particularly those in America. And I continue to try to understand the “why” of a church life cycle. Why do most churches seem eventually to move toward stagnation or decline?

The matter for me is not about church size, but the churches’ effectiveness in making disciples. And my concern is for all churches, not just large churches.

Do congregations have a natural tendency to focus more inwardly over time? Do churches move away from a biblical focus and thus fail to make disciples? What roles do sociology and demographics play in the church life cycle? And how strong is the level of influence of leaders in congregations?

The Quest Continues

I will continue to search the Scriptures to find God’s plan for churches. Secondarily, I will continue to do sociological research to understand how He is working in both healthy and unhealthy congregations.

Where have all the churches gone? In the strictest sense, many congregations are still open. At least not all of them have officially closed their doors. But many are barely holding on. Many are no longer making disciples.

I really want to understand why. So my quest continues.

I’ll keep you posted.

And you can let me hear from you as well.

Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
 

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