Total U.S. Churches No Longer in Decline, Researchers Say

We often hear about churches closing their doors in the U.S. But some may be surprised to hear that the total number of churches is not in decline anymore.

An important shift happened in recent years, according to researchers Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird. After decades of net decline, more U.S. churches are being started each year than are being closed.

The credit largely goes to the recent increase in enthusiasm for church planting. Stetzer, who leads LifeWay Research, says church planting has become the "it" thing right now and the new evangelism.

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So many new churches are springing up that Stetzer and Bird believe the U.S. is on the edge of seeing a major breakthrough in church multiplication, they write in the newly released Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers.

"[C]hurch planting is on the mind of North American Christians at unprecedented levels," they write.

Despite the aggressive increase in church launches, a massive church planting phenomenon hasn't happened yet and the co-authors are hoping to help Christians move past certain obstacles in order to orchestrate a viral movement.

That means, church planting must move from being a fad or "the next big thing" to a "passionate pursuit of the lost."

Another obstacle is getting past the "don't we already have enough churches?" mentality.

There may be a hesitancy to having a church planting emphasis because "the thinking seems to be [that] there's a church on every corner and most of them are empty," state the authors, who have led and studied church plants.

But research shows that new churches fare better when it comes to drawing new people and they have a higher ratio of conversions and baptisms compared to more established churches, according to Viral Churches.

"The only way to increase the number of Christians in a city is to plant thousands of new churches," said Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, according to Viral Churches.

Growing churches make up only about 20 percent of all U.S. churches today. The rest have reached a plateau or are declining.

"Studies have shown that, in general, churches typically plateau in attendance by their fifteenth year, and by about thirty-five years they begin having trouble replacing the members they lose," the book states. "[A]mong evangelical churches, those under three years old will win ten people to Christ per year for every hundred members. Those three to fifteen years old will win five people per year for every hundred members. After age fifteen the number drops to three per year."

Plus, according to FACT2008, the healthiest churches are those that reproduce. Also, the authors emphasize that most new churches survive. After four years, 68 percent of new churches still exist and 70 percent attain self-sufficiency by the fifth year.

Every year, approximately 4,000 churches are birthed in the U.S. (500 more than are closed). But much of the church plants have been focused on addition rather than multiplication, the authors point out.

One church planting one new church a year is definitely something to celebrate. But to achieve an "out-of-control replication of new churches" kind of movement, churches need to move from church starting (a broad category that includes church splits) to church planting (focused on reaching lost people) to church multiplication (people self-initiating to go out into the harvest, and then passing to others a heart for multiplication).

In other words, rather than planting one tree at a time in an open fertile field, churches need to multiply and fill the entire field with healthy orchards.

Ultimately, Stetzer and Bird are hoping to see a multiplication movement, similar to what occurred between 1795 and 1810 among Methodist and Baptist churches. Within that time span, some 3,000 churches were started.

"If church multiplication like that happened again today, it would be characterized by a 50 percent conversion rate (new believers) and a 50 percent reproduction rate (new churches) sustained for at least three generations of churches," they explain.

"The desired goal is to see lost people find new life through Jesus Christ – not at the rate at which the general population is growing (which isn't even happening), not even at a rate that gains respectable ground, but at a velocity and intensity that is nothing short of explosively supernatural.

"All of us should settle for nothing less than a Pentecost event."

The researchers acknowledge that too many Christians love Jesus but not his church, but they believe you can't love Jesus and neglect his wife. Their goal is not only to evangelize but also to "congregationalize."

"The Great Commission is not just a call to 'make disciples' but to 'baptize,'" they stress. "In Acts and elsewhere, it is clear that baptism means incorporation into a worshipping community with accountability and boundaries. The only way to be truly sure you are increasing the number of Christians in a town is to increase the number of churches."

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