Although it may not look like it from the streets of Upstate South Carolina – where there seems to be a church on every street corner – but the church in America is declining in proportion to the population.
Gallup reports that 78 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, compared to about 95 percent a half century ago, and 85 percent as late as 1998. The fastest-growing sector in the religious identification category in 2011 was “none.” And a substantial number of those who self-identify as “Christian” are without any meaningful connection to a church or other body of believers – that “functionally-unchurched” label may include as much as 70 percent of the population of Anderson.
There are many reasons for such a trend, but one reason is that churches are not even keeping up with population growth. Early in the 20th century, there was one church for every 430 Americans. Today there is one church for every 6,194 Americans. (That number in South Carolina is one church for every 2,184 people.) Every year approximately 4,000 new churches are started, but another 3,500 churches close their doors. That net increase of 500 churches a year is not enough to even equal population growth in the U.S.
If you are a Christian who believes that it is important to reach others for the gospel, then these numbers produce an unacceptable scenario. There are many things that can be done to counter these trends, but one of the most valuable things we can do is to start new churches, and lots of them.
Why are new churches so important? As Rick Warren points out, “The single most effective method for fulfilling the Great Commission that Jesus gave us is to plant new churches! Two thousand years of Christian history have proven that new churches grow faster, and reach more people, than established churches. The growth on any plant is always on the newest branches.”
The numbers are clear. Among Southern Baptists, for example, established churches average 3.4 conversions per 100 resident members; among new churches, however, that number jumps to 11.7 people reached and baptized – almost three times the average.
Why do new churches reach people more effectively than established ones? In their book Viral Churches, Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird explain: “New churches today tend to remain focused outward and in tune with their communities, which helps explain their higher ratio of conversions and baptisms. They also have the advantage of being at the front end of their life cycle, not yet struggling with mission drift.
“Mission drift occurs as a church is established and new ministries are formed that serve the needs within the congregation. . . . These ministries may be effective but they are often inwardly focused; they are more about keeping churched people comfortable than about reaching out.
“Unfortunately, many churches have not only experienced mission drift but have redefined their mission according to where they have drifted. We know we’ve drifted when church planting becomes about expanding an earthly kingdom or making church more comfortable and convenient for believers. New churches typically have fewer programs and therefore less to distract them from the main thing” – reaching people for Christ.
That’s why the reality of existing churches with empty pews is no justification for failing to plant new churches. Ideally, we should focus not on addition but on multiplication – planting reproducing churches that will also plant churches, which will also plant churches, and so on. We need to be about planting churches in our area, our state, in other parts of the nation, and around the world.
One way your established church can experience a new vision and have a new lease on life is to become a reproducing church – launching and supporting new church plants. The healthiest churches are those who are helping produce new churches – it is a way to revitalize your established church as well as to be part of the most effective evangelistic strategy of the early 21st century.