(This week’s blog postings are adapted from the theme address, “Preaching Under Pressure,” presented at the EK Bailey International Conference on Expository Preaching in July.)
Despite the myths we may hear, there has never been a “golden age” for churches in America. There have been times when the church has been stronger and other times when it was under increased stress, but the myth of a “Christian America” has never been the case, at least in terms of a vast majority of Americans being faithful, committed, involved believers.
Yet that struggle has, in many ways, intensified in recent decades, for several reasons. One is that, in our nation, the church is declining. There are fewer people attending church on a regular basis, and as a percentage of the population there has been a serious decline in the percentage of those who are involved in a local church.
Gallup polls have for many years shown the percentage of the population who attend church as running in the 40 to 45 percent range – Gallup said 43.1% in 2010. But a recent survey shows that when talking to pollsters, people tend to over-report their church attendance. Actual counts show that the real numbers are more like 20 percent or less of the population who are actually attending church each weekend. If you drive by a Starbucks or an athletic field on the way to church on Sunday morning, you see it yourself. People are finding somewhere else to be on Sunday morning.
Those of us who serve churches in the South and Midwest still see the strongest attendance – Louisiana and North Dakota are at the top, with nearly 30 percent of the population attending a Christian church – while the Northeast and West are at the bottom. But all regions are seeing a decline in attendance, and in no region is the church keeping up with population growth.
So existing churches are at best plateaued or declining, and church starts are about one-eighth of what would be needed to keep up with population growth. And if present trends continue, in four decades only about 10 percent of the population will be regularly attending church. (“12 Surprising Facts About the American Church,” 2006) So many people now claim no religion at all — 15% in a 2008 survey – that this group now is the third largest category in studies, behind only Catholics and Baptists. (Charles Stone, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them)