Is the American Church Going Out of Business? A Blog about Change and Church Decline

There are many things that I don’t understand very well:

  • The strange weather we’ve been having (I know about global warming and El Nino—but the weather these days has just been weird).
  • The persistence of racism and homophobia in America in 2015.
  • Uber, and the new on-demand economy.
  • ISIS (or ISIL).
  • Donald Trump.
  • The changes taking place in American religion—and in particular, the decline of the church.  Everything is in flux today;  change is happening faster than ever.  (The trouble is, I liked things the way they were.)

This blog is about change.  It is about decline, renewal, and transformation in the American church.  There’s much that we don’t understand about what God is doing, despite our many years of worshipping and Sunday-schooling and fellowshipping and praying and dish-to-passing and pastoring.

Now, I don’t want to overstate my case.  Many churches are not declining, and seem not to be getting rocked by change.  There are large and small churches that are reaching out to their communities and doing innovative and meaningful ministry.  By the same token, I have wonderful clergy colleagues who are enthused and excited about the opportunities they have to do ministry in new ways, and who view this as a kind of golden age of the church.

Perhaps you are one of these amazing pastors or church leaders who doesn’t know the meaning of the word, “decline.”  Perhaps your church is experiencing phenomenal growth.  If so, wonderful and amazing!  Both you and your church are blessed, and you are a blessing to others!

But chances are that you know of some churches—perhaps sister churches in your denomination, down the block, or across the street—that aren’t doing very well.  Perhaps you know some church leaders or pastors who are discouraged.  Many of us know such leaders and churches because, unfortunately, there are a lot of them—a lot of us—out there.  Perhaps your church and my church—perhaps you and I—are going through tough times.

One of the reasons I’m writing this blog is that I believe in the Biblical ethic which undergirds the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-12).  Do you remember it?  After killing his brother, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  the text clearly implies that he is.  We are all our sisters’ and our brothers’ keepers!  If my church is doing well, and a sister church (or several sister churches) are hurting, I cannot in good conscience celebrate my congregation’s success.  It will not do for me to say, in effect, “Good for us;  too bad about them!”

These days, a number of pastors and church “experts” are talking and writing honestly about change in the church—about renewal, and about decline.  Numerous books, articles, workshops, and blogs are being produced on these topics.  Experts are lecturing on, and the rest of us are talking about, church decline.  These experts predict that some, and perhaps a great many, churches will soon go out of business.

For example, the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette—a fellow United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor—predicts in Real Good Church (Cleveland:  Pilgrim, 2014), that “something like 80% of our mainline Christian churches will be dead” in 20 years (p. 11).  Can this be true?  Baskette makes this claim casually, almost in passing, but her assertion is unnerving.  I mean, won’t some churches—and even some small, part-time, chapel-type ministries—defy predictions and just go on living?  Incidentally, Baskette’s book is not about church decline;  just the opposite—the subtitle of her book is, How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too.

Whatever it is that churches are experiencing today—renewal or decline—it is certain that powerful change is swamping all Christian denominations—the American Church as a whole.  It is happening in the two churches I serve, Groton City Church (UCC) and Groton Community Church (UCC).  And it is happening throughout the theological spectrum.  It is happening in Mainline Protestant churches, and in Catholic congregations, and in Evangelical-Conservative fellowships, and in Charismatic and Pentecostal houses of worship.

It didn’t use to be this way when I started out in ministry (but then again, I am something of a dinosaur).  Back in the 1970s and 1980s, hardly anyone was talking or writing about change or decline.  Instead, pastors and “experts” were writing books and leading workshops on “church growth.”  (In fact, Baskette’s subtitle perfectly captures what those books and workshops were all about.)  Back then, the United Church of Christ was focused on civil rights and fighting racism, on articulating its position on LGBT and ONA issues, and on its rich ecumenical dialogue with other Christian denominations.

Today, many in the UCC are talking about change.  They are talking about church revitalization, and while they are not dwelling or fixated on decline, they are talking openly about it.  The fact is that many UCC churches have plateaued or are declining.  Recently, Conference Minister Dave Gaewski reported that churches in the New York Conference are giving fewer and fewer dollars to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) and to other special offerings that support the Conference, and that if these trends of giving continue, Conference work will be impaired, and the Conference itself could be out of business in four years.  Ouch!

Within the Association of the New York Conference, in which I serve:

  • Three or four relatively large and/or affluent churches seem to float, like islands in a sea of smaller and poorer churches;
  • There seem to be fewer churches with “full-time” pastors.  Many churches have 30-hour-a-week, or half-time, pastors.  (Most part-time pastors work 40 or more hours per week—the only thing part-time is their salaries.)
  • Relatedly, there seem to be fewer seminary-trained and ordained pastors.  Those who are seminary-trained have student loans to pay off, and gravitate toward bigger or wealthier urban or suburban churches that can offer full-time appointments and larger salaries.  This leaves non-seminary-trained and non-ordained ministers pastoring smaller rural churches.

Beyond the New York Conference and the United Church of Christ, there are similar signs of change:

  • Somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 American churches close their doors annually.  And these numbers may be conservative.  The truth may be more like 8,000–10,000 houses of worship disbanding every year.
  • In the Roman Catholic Church, “membership,” as measured by those who self-identify as Catholic, continues to grow, but participation, membership in religious orders, the number of seminaries, and the number of clergy have been declining since the 1960s.
  •  Fifty to seventy years ago, the church was one of the most highly trusted and respected institutions in the United States.  The parish pastorate was considered an esteemed profession and a noble calling;  the minister was on a par professionally with the physician, the lawyer, the tenured professor, and the corporate executive.  Today, neither the church nor the pastorate garner that kind of respect in society-at-large.
  • Over the past two years, the Alban Institute and the Bangor Theological Seminary have gone out of business.  Another seminary—historic Andover Newton Theological School in Boston—announced recently that it plans to relocate and scale down its operations.  Andover Newton is actively seeking a partnership with another mainline organization—most likely another seminary.  Without such a partnership, the first theological seminary in the United States may be forced to close its doors permanently.  
  • Many more seminaries are facing smaller enrollments and soaring overhead.  The average cost for a three-year Master of Divinity degree in North America is $100,000.  Most hard hit are Protestant mainline denominational schools, but Evangelical seminaries are also experiencing decline.
  • There has been a stark reduction in the number of women and men going attending seminary and going into the ministry right out of college.  Today, 23 percent of all seminary and divinity school applicants are over the age of 50 and are pursuing ministry as their second or third career.  The 50-to-64-year-old cohort is the fastest-growing population among divinity school students.  (Often, these older seminarians have private pensions and health insurance, and do not have young families to support;  consequently, they may be less expensive for churches to hire.)

Why is all of this happening?  It is not happening because pastors and church leaders are ill-trained, pessimistic, or lack a can-do spirit.  It is not happening because of bad, weak, or tired leadership.  It is not happening because church people, leaders, and pastors don’t have enough faith, or are not praying hard enough.  It is not happening because congregations are lazy, or because church leaders aren’t trying the old tried-and-true techniques.  It is not happening because God is punishing certain churches, or refusing to bless them.

Rather, these things are happening largely because of societal change.  As UCC pastor Anthony Robinson writes, our society has shifted radically over the past sixty years—from being a culture of obligation during the 1950s, in which people felt socially obligated to attend weekly church services—to becoming a culture of choice and non-affiliation today, in which people feel free not to attend, or even identify with, a church.

In addition, there is a sense that the old approaches, the tried-and-true techniques that used to work, aren’t working anymore.

As author and columnist Rachel Held Evans argued so convincingly a couple of years ago in a CNN blog (“Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church”), young adults—those in their twenties and thirties—cannot abide hypocritical institutions, and many see the church in those terms and are dropping out in droves.  This raises an obvious question:  If Millennials leave, where is the next generation of congregants and church leaders going to come from?  It is not at all certain that Millennials will return to church once they have children of their own or enter their ‘golden years.”  Is the church going the way of the dodo bird???

Of course, many of us are quick to compare our declining churches with the mega-church across town, which is bulging at the seams, and has overflowing crowds, multiple services, and a jam-packed parking lot every Sunday morning.  Don’t such burgeoning congregations disprove the “churches-are-declining” thesis?

Not really.  Often, these churches are Evangelical or fundamentalistic in theology, and feature charismatic leaders, constant entertainment, guilt-laden appeals (“God wants you to tithe ten percent of your income!”  “If you’re not in church every Sunday, God is not going to bless you!”), and negative, excluding messaging (“Gay marriage—or evolution, or Planned Parenthood, or Obamacare, or sex outside of marriage, or fill-in-the-blank—is an abomination before God!”).

These churches seem successful—and so congregants often ask, “What are they doing right that we are doing wrong??!!!”  I must confess that sometimes I am tempted to reply mischievously that, yes, of course, they are doing wonderful work!  And all of the starving-children charities appealing to us for money in those late night television commercials are also doing wonderful work just because they say they are!  And all of the investments our stock broker recommends are high-flyers that will make us crazy-rich once we put down a small $10,000 investment!

I mean, look.  Despite these churches’ apparent (and self-proclaimed) successes, there are serious questions to be asked about how well they are doing.  Many mega-churches have mega-mortgages, mega-budgets, mega-financial troubles, and mega-leadership problems.  Two notable examples are the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California (remember the Hour of Power TV show on Sunday mornings?) which went bankrupt and now houses a Roman Catholic congregation, and the Mars Hill mega-church, which went out of business and spun off all of its “franchised” congregations.

Even The Southern Baptist Convention, which has been the most insistent of all the Protestant denomination in boasting of how it, unlike the mainline denominations, has maintained its focus on evangelism and church growth (and has been carefully tracking such statistics as numbers of baptisms, attendance and membership figures, and amounts of giving for years), now reports that its churches are experiencing no growth or “negative growth.”

We don’t know for sure whether such declines are a temporary blip or represent a long-term trend—but church closures are, by definition, long-term in nature.

Perhaps we can better understand the decline that is plaguing the American church if we think about stewardship—what you and I put into the collection plate every Sunday morning, or on the Sundays we actually make it to church.  The inescapable truth is that the church runs on money.  We could all wish that fervent prayers and heartfelt blessings would be enough to pay the salaries, cover the utility bills, and foot the bill for building upkeep and maintenance, religious programming, and consumables like bulletins, communion wine, toilet paper, and coffee.  But prayers and blessings are not enough.  Dollars are needed, and the more people who attend church, the bigger the church budget will be, and the more dollars that will be required to support it.

Now think about your own level of giving.  And think about why most churchgoers don’t tithe 10% of their income to the church, and don’t give much money to their denominations.  It’s not because folks don’t love their church, or their Bishop or Conference Minister.   Rather, it’s because they are overextended financially.  Most of us are giving all we can.  Many older people live on fixed incomes, while younger congregants have families and tight budgets.  This is true in the New York Conference, and it is true in denominations and churches across America.

In Facing Decline, Finding Hope, Jeffrey D. Jones, associate professor of ministerial leadership at Andover Newton Theological School, suggests that instead of denying the reality of decline or struggling to “turn things around,” pastors and church leaders should reframe the questions that they ask of their congregations.

  • Instead of asking, “How do we bring them in?”, they should ask, “How do we send them out?”
  • Instead of asking, “What should the pastor do?”, leaders and congregants should be asking, “What is our congregation’s shared ministry?”
  • Instead of asking, “What’s our vision and how do we implement it?”, they should ask, “What’s God up to, and how do we get onboard?”
  • Instead of wondering, “How do we survive?” or “How do we re-structure?”, they need to be asking, “How do we serve?”
  • Instead of asking, “What are we doing to save people?”, the church should be asking, “What are we doing to make the reign of God more present in this time and place?”

Here’s what seems likely:  While some churches will die, the church as a whole isn’t going anywhere—it will endure.  But increasingly, it will be taking on new and less-institutionalized forms, and we will be encountering more virtual churches, more house churches, and more churches that are intentional about not owning their buildings (so that congregants’ financial donations can go directly into outreach and mission—rather than getting eaten by building maintenance).  Already some churches are meeting in bars, bowling alleys, and theaters—they are thriving!—and they have no intention of purchasing land and constructing ornate edifices.

Existing churches will not all go away—but some will get smaller.  Some will become “chaplaincies”—with tiny budgets, part-time (or very part-time) pastors, and no community outreach.  Many church buildings will fall into disrepair due to high maintenance costs.  Other churches will experience renewal, re-birth, and phenomenal growth.  Those of us who are churchgoers and leaders may well wonder what our churches and ministries will look like 30 years from now.  I ask those questions of the churches I have pastored.

Many of the shifts that churches are experiencing are cultural, and are impervious to “trying harder,” to new techniques, to slick stewardship campaigns, and to “Bring-A-Friend-to-Church” appeals or “Firefighters-and-Police-Officers-Sunday” type promotionals.  Adding younger people to committees and boards, and the last-resort solution of firing the preacher and bringing in a new minister who is younger and more dynamic do not seem to work either.

In the final analysis, what is happening in many of our churches may be what Sandy Gregory, our organist at Groton City Church, calls “a God Thing.”  We may not fully understand it, but God seems to be doing something new.  For this reason, we should not despair.

What do you think?  Is church decline part of your experience?  Or is your congregation undergoing renewal, re-birth, and amazing growth?  If your church is thriving, do you know of other churches that are in decline?  What signs do you see, in your church or in other churches, that are suggestive of renewal—or of decline?  Do you agree that what many American churches are experiencing as decline may be “a God Thing?”  Please post a reply, and share your comments, thoughts, disagreements, ideas, amplifications, rebuttals, and opinions!

Welcome to this blog!  I will try to make entries periodically (on a fairly regular basis if not every month).  I will “talk” with you again next time.


Published by

Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.