In many secular endeavours, success is often measured in terms of numerical growth: more, bigger and better are usually indications of doing something right. But it does not always work that way in the kingdom of God. Indeed, one principle that seems to run throughout Scripture is the concept of the remnant: the idea that God usually gets his work done, not by the majority, but by a faithful minority – a godly remnant.
The story of Gideon in Judges 7 is a classic case in point. Israel had come under attack by the Midianites and other enemies, and was mustering his troops to take them on. He had 32,000 men, but Yahweh commanded them to pare down to ten thousand. But these were still too many, so eventually Gideon was left with a fighting force of just 300 men.
But this was the preferred option. Why? Because Yahweh informed Gideon that the reduction of numbers was necessary so that when they achieve their victory over the enemy, they will know that it was Yahweh, not their own strength, that delivered them. And a great victory indeed transpired.
As Zechariah informs us, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zech. 4:6). Or as we are told in Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me.”
Victory and success in the secular arena usually come by way of force, power and sheer weight of numbers. But it is usually the reverse in the Christian arena. Big is not necessarily best, in other words, and mere numerical growth tells us little about the vitality and spirituality of a church, a movement, or a denomination.
With these considerations in mind, two recent analyses of church growth figures tell us much about the current state of play of Western Christianity. They both speak of church decline, and where the various strengths and weaknesses of the church lie today.
The American Scene
The first report comes from the US, and is one year old. Despite these two factors, the information is still of relevance to believers in Australia today. The report, entitled “The American Church in Crisis,” lists seven “startling facts” about church attendance in American churches. They are pretty startling indeed.
The first fact is that contrary to common understanding, less than 20 per cent of Americans regularly attend church. The figure is usually put at 40 per cent, but it seems the reality is far different. Part of the reason for this is the “halo effect” whereby people tend to over-report socially desirable behaviour to pollsters.
Second, church attendance is steadily declining. “In 1990, 20.4% of the population attended an Orthodox Christian church on any given weekend. In 2000, that percentage dropped to 18.7% and to 17.7% by 2004. [Researcher Dave] Olson explains that while church attendance numbers have stayed about the same from 1990 to 2004, the U.S. population has grown by 18.1% – more than 48 million people. ‘So even though the number of attendees is the same, our churches are not keeping up with population growth,’ he says.” The biggest drop in attendance has occurred in the Catholic Church.
Third, the only state where church attendance is outpacing its population growth is Hawaii. Fourth, mid-sized churches are shrinking, but the smallest and largest churches are growing. Fifth, established churches – those 40 to 190 years old – are, on average, declining.
Sixth, the increase in churches is only one quarter of what’s needed to keep up with population growth. Just to keep up with this growth, 10,000 new American churches are required. And seventh, in 2050, the percentage of the U.S. population attending church will be almost half of what it was in 1990 – that is, a drop from 20.4% to 11.7%.
The report finishes with a number of responses from noted church leaders and thinkers such as Bill Hybels and George Barna. I quote from just one, Bob Coy, pastor of a Calvary Chapel church in Florida:
“I’ve never been impressed with our numbers. Even the larger churches in this country have not made the impact they think they have. I think most of us know that we’re not changing the world. So what do we do now? I believe we have to get serious about what God has called us to do – and be seen as a place that’s doing, not just saying. I believe we need to mobilize and ask ourselves some hard questions: What is our church doing in the downtown city? Is there a village in Africa where people are dying of AIDS? Are we just building big buildings? Jesus challenged us to pick up the cross, and it seems everyone wants a balsa wood cross with rhinestones.”
The Australian data is a bit more recent, but just as worrying to believers. The Christian Research Association’s assessment of recent census figures leads them to conclude that church decline will also be the pattern here in Australia. The CRA – as reported in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article – suggests that the number of Australians identifying themselves as Christian will plummet over the next 20 years as an ageing generation of dedicated churchgoers dies out.
Dr Philip Hughes, the association’s senior researcher, said rates of Christian identification were likely to fall to less than 60 per cent by 2025, reflecting declining interest in religion and spirituality in general. The rate of Christian adherence was likely to settle at 50 per cent within 30 to 40 years, depending on immigration patterns.
Some denominations were showing growth, such as the Pentecostals. But even this is not all good news. Says Hughes, “Given all the effort that is put into evangelism among the Pentecostals, a net growth by conversion, apart from births, of 13,800 people in 10 years across Australia by all the Pentecostal churches combined is not great growth.”
Those exhibiting the greatest decline were the Uniting Church and the Salvation Army. The greatest growth of any Christian denomination was for the evangelical Christian Brethren Assemblies, which has no formal links with the Exclusive Brethren. Of non-Christian religions, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam had the fastest growth.
Of course all trends are just that: trends. They are not set in concrete, and things can and do change. From a purely human point of view, it looks like church decline is the order of the day, both for the US and Australia. But that is not the end of the story.
There is a God who exists, and many of God’s people are on their knees, fervently seeking revival and reformation. So who knows, these trends may well be reversed, if God’s people humble themselves, repent of their trivial pursuits, and get serious about following after God.
That has been the verdict of history. Periods of decline are often followed by periods of growth. Which way Australia goes largely depends on God’s people, and their willingness – or lack of it – to take seriously their Christian calling and responsibilities.