Do We Really Need More Churches in America?
A Helpful Article by Roger McNamara
Some years ago I was given the assignment of researching the New Testament and listing every verse in which we are commanded to plant churches. Initially, I thought that was an easy assignment and entered into it with gusto. A week later, I handed in the results of my research. The paper was blank except for my name! I couldn’t find one single verse in which we are commanded to plant churches! There are all kinds of verses in which we are commanded to preach, to witness and to make disciples, but not once are we commanded to plant churches!
That doesn’t mean church planting isn’t taught in Scripture. It is taught by example. It is illustrated over and over throughout the book of Acts, but it is never commanded. Church planting, you see, is the byproduct of preaching, witnessing and discipling. Jesus doesn’t send us out to build churches. He sends us out to build people who are disciples. When you do that you naturally end up with a local church.
We have all kinds of churches in this country. They are everywhere. All together we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000 churches in the United States. It’s not hard to find a church. So, the question naturally arises, “Do we really need any more churches in America?” After all, this is the most churched nation in the world. If you want to hear the gospel here, you can hear it. So, why plant churches here?
That is a valid question and I want to answer it today. Let me give you six reasons why we should be planting more churches all across this great country of ours.
We need to plant more churches to enhance our evangelistic effectiveness – Thom Rainer has written a number of research books about how to effectively reach and minister to unbelievers including: “The Effective Evangelistic Church,” “High Expectations” and “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched.” He defines an “effective evangelistic church” as one that has at least twenty-six conversions per year and a baptismal ratio of 20:1. In other words, at least twenty-six unbelievers are won to Christ, baptized and taken into church membership every year with an average of one baptism for every 20 members on the roll. For sake of discussion, let’s use Rainer’s thoughts as a starting point.
How many churches do you know that win and baptize twenty-six people every year? Research indicates that only about ten percent of churches in America are growing at all and reaching their communities either through conversion growth (winning new converts), through transfer growth (people coming from other churches) or a combination thereof. The fact is most local assemblies only have a fifteen to twenty year growth period. Ninety percent of congregations peak in attendance, outreach and giving by their fifteenth birthday and seldom grow beyond that point.
Second generation churches often value edification over evangelism. Traditions begin to set in and comfort zones are established. Sometimes prosperity and success replace sacrifice and service. There is a subtle shift from multiplication (reaching new people) to maintenance (serving those you already have).
In contrast, often new churches are more effective evangelistically than older, larger established ones. One cross-denominational study in California found that established churches average four baptisms per 100 members whereas newer churches average sixteen baptisms per 100 people. Believers in newer churches seem to have a higher degree of motivation to win their lost friends and neighbors to Christ than do older churches. They tend to be more innovative, more energetic, more growth-oriented and more focused. To put it bluntly, they have to reach people in order to survive. One church planter may have been correct when he said . . .
“The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is PLANTING NEW CHURCHES.”
Generally speaking, newer churches do a better job reaching people with the gospel, so we need to plant more churches to enhance our evangelistic effectiveness.
We need to plant more churches to reverse current trends of decline. The church in America is in serious trouble. If only ten to fifteen percent of churches in America are growing, guess where that leaves the other eighty-five to ninety percent? They are either plateaued (they’re not growing) or they are in a state of decline.
Like people, churches go through predictable life cycles. On average, most churches will experience about fifteen years of growth after they are founded. This is followed by a period of about twenty years of ups and downs before a slow decline sets in. In the past, the average life span of churches was seventy to ninety years. Today, the life expectancy of churches is considerably less because of the rapid changes in society. Some day your church is going to die because all churches eventually die. That is the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Every day an average 3,500 professing Christians walk away from the church never to return again. That translates into 2.7 million members turning their backs on the church each year. The average church loses six to ten percent of its congregation every year to death, job transfers and attrition.
The bad news is that over the next ten years thirty-seven thousand churches in America are expected to close their doors. The good news is that during that same timeframe approximately forty thousand new churches will be established. That is encouraging until you realize we need to start 7,300 new churches every year just to keep up with the population growth in America. While the number of churches will increase only slightly in the coming decade, the population will increase significantly meaning that the ratio of churches to population will continue to decline as it has since the beginning of the last century:
In 1900 there were 27 churches for every 10,000 people. In 1950 there were 17 churches for every 10,000 people. In 1996 there were 11 churches for every 10,000 people.
In relationship to the population, we have 30% fewer churches today that we did in 1950. Not a single county in our nation has a larger percentage of churches today than it did a decade ago. If the current rate of decline continues for the next hundred years there will be few churches left in America unless we plant thousands of additional churches all across this great country.
We need to plant more churches to confront our culture. There is a cultural war going on in America and the enemy is you and me along with our Christian beliefs, our biblical standards, our Christ-centered value system and our Bible-teaching churches. Satan and the world hate the church. They hate biblical Christianity. It has always been that way. Jesus said, “Ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake” (Mark 13:13). Don’t get paranoid over that. Just understand there is a spiritual and cultural war going on for the hearts, minds and souls of the American people.
Know something? We’re not doing too well. In fact, we’re taking it on the chin. Christianity in this country is on the ropes. The ACLU and People for the American Way are aggressively seeking to remove every visage of Christianity from the public arena and they are having great success at it. The Bible and prayer have been taken out of our schools. Manger scenes have been removed from public property, the Ten Commandments have been banned from our courthouses, and the Pledge of Allegiance is being challenged as unconstitutional because it includes the words “one nation under God.” This is no longer a Christian nation (if it ever was). It has become a secular nation that increasingly denies its Christian heritage.
The vast majority of Christians are afraid to speak up about their faith in the public realm. As a result, Christian influence is rapidly disappearing. Religion is in. Spirituality is in, but Christianity is out. The fastest growing religion in this country isn’t Christianity, but Islam. There are seven million Muslims in this country with some 1,400 mosques, 3,000 Islamic centers and more than 300 student chapters on U.S. college campuses. There are more Muslims in the United States than are Methodists. . . or Episcopalians and Presbyterians combined!
The key to winning this cultural war is to plant thousands of Christ-centered churches that train their people to not only articulate their faith effectively in the public arena, but also to teach them to apply biblical principles to their lives on a daily basis in the work place, in the home and in the community. If it is to survive, Christianity must once again become a caring, compassionate, serving and sacrificial force that is willing to die for what it professes to believe. This will require thousands of new churches.
We need to plant more churches to reach the multitudes of unchurched people in this country. China has the largest unchurched population in the world followed by India and then the United States.. Thom Rainer defines an “unchurched person” as someone “who has not been in church, except sporadically, for at least ten years. George Barna defines an “unchurched person” as anyone who has “not attended a Christian church service during the past six months other than a special event such as a wedding or funeral or holiday service.”
There were 281.4 million people living in the United States according the 2000 census. At the end of 2015 that number stands at about 322 million people and is expected to almost double to 571 million by the end of the century. Most of those people will be unchurched requiring the planting of an additional 300,000 churches. Even today (2015), it is estimated that as many as 195 million people living in the United States are unchurched and unsaved.
The unchurched population in this country has grown by twenty-eight million people since 1990. It increased by eight million in just eighteen months during 1998 and 1999. One-third (31%) of the adult population (65 million) are unchurched. Let me break that down for you a little more:
• Forty percent of the residents in the Northeast are unchurched. • Over half of the residents of Maine, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Florida, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington state are unchurched. • Yolo County, California where the University of California at Davis is located is seventy-two unchurched. • Menifee County, Kentucky is eighty-seven unchurched.
While forty-one percent of Americans say they attend church, new research demonstrates that only seventeen and half percent of Americans actually attend church on a typical weekend with each succeeding generation becoming more unchurched.
• Slightly over half (51%) of the “Builder” generation (born before 1946) attend church on a typical Sunday. • That drops to 41% of “Boomers” (born between 1946 and 1964) attend church. • That declines to 34% of “Busters” (born 1965 to 1976) who go to church. • And less than 30% of the “Bridger” generation (1977 to 1994) are affiliated with a church.
Many existing churches are not effectively reaching the third largest unchurched population in the world. The only hope we have is to launch thousands of new, vibrant churches which are often more evangelistically effective than older, established churches.
We need to plant more churches to win our ethnic neighbors to Christ. America is the most ethnically diverse nation in the world. Virtually every language, every culture, every ethnic group in the universe resides on our shores. The same God who sent us into all the world has brought the world to our doorstep. America is a vast mosaic of languages, cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
Of the three hundred twenty million people living in the United States, 105.3 million or 37.4% are classified as ethnic Americans. That is approximately two out of every five people. There are over five hundred ethnic groups speaking more than six hundred thirty languages and dialects in this country. Minority groups are now in the majority in fifty of America’s largest cities. Racial and ethnic minority groups are growing seven times faster than the non-Hispanic white majority. We are told that by the year 2056, white Americans will be in a minority group in this country.
Since the majority of people like to hear the gospel in their own “heart” language and to come to Christ without crossing racial and cultural barriers, our affluent, white, middle class churches will never reach the vast majority of these people by offering them an ethnic Sunday School class. We spend millions of dollars to send missionaries around the world to reach these people with the gospel message and to plant churches among them. We must do the same thing right here at home by planting hundreds of foreign language and culturally relevant Hispanic, African-American and Asian churches to reach these people with gospel and to disciple them for Christ. God has given us a unique opportunity to reach the world with the gospel in our generation without even leaving home. We must not miss it. The eternal consequences are too great.
I have one final pragmatic reason for planting new churches in this country. Here it is . . .
We need to plant more churches to promote world evangelism. I was twenty-two years old when I joined up and headed for the mission field. This year my wife and I completed fifty-one years of missionary service. Together, we will have over one hundred years of church-planting ministry and we’re not done yet. But you know what? My time as a church planter is drawing to a close. My life ministry is almost over. Who is going to take my place? Who will take my wife’s place when she, like me, is too old, too feeble or too sick to go any longer?
There are tens of thousands of missionaries scattered all over the globe, but if you attend a gathering of our church planters in North America, do you know what you will see? By and large, you will see a wonderful group of Seniors who are still young in spirit. You’ll see people who are bent over from years of toil in out of the way place and you’ll see dozens of people who are no longer able to serve on the foreign field, but who are still serving on THIS mission field. Missionaries and church planters today are older, grayer, and fewer than any time in the past hundred years.
A good friend of mine died a few years ago. Her name was Carol Peterson. She and her husband were faithful church planters, but she is now gone. Who will take her place? Will you? Will you take my place? Will you go for my wife? If you don’t go, who will? Replacements come from churches. The money to send them comes from churches and the prayer support needed to stay on the field comes from churches. THAT is why we must plant thousands of additional churches from San Diego to Boston, from Seattle to Miami and in ten thousand places in between.