The Incredible Shrinking Church

The church in the West is undergoing some massive changes:

A 1957 science fiction film called The Incredible Shrinking Man had to do with the alarming situation of a guy who found himself mysteriously beginning to shrink, and how he had to learn to cope with this. He ended up being the size of an insect, living in a doll house, and doing battle with his family cat.

A new article from the Gallop polling organisation offers some interesting – if not alarming – information about another case of shrinkage – in American church attendance. The headline says this: “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time”.

Here are some highlights from the article:

Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999. U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century….

 

The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.

 

As would be expected, Americans without a religious preference are highly unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, although a small proportion — 4% in the 2018-2020 data — say they do. That figure is down from 10% between 1998 and 2000….

 

Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.

 

The decline in church membership, then, appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong. The change has become increasingly apparent in recent decades because millennials and Gen Z are further apart from traditionalists in their church membership rates (about 30 points lower) than baby boomers and Generation X are (eight and 16 points, respectively). Also, each year the younger generations are making up an increasingly larger part of the entire U.S. adult population….

 

The U.S. remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion. However, far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship. While it is possible that part of the decline seen in 2020 was temporary and related to the coronavirus pandemic, continued decline in future decades seems inevitable, given the much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger versus older generations of adults. news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

Commentary

So what are we to make of all this? A few general thoughts come to mind. Yes, as the West continues to become more secular and less Christian, this sort of thing is to be expected. America and the West were once the centre of Christianity, and they sent missionaries out into the world to convert those in other nations.

Now things have pretty much turned full circle. As Christianity continues to decline in the West, in places like Africa, Asia and Latin America it is growing. So the centre of spiritual gravity has moved from north to south. And increasingly we are finding Christians from the developing world coming to the West to re-evangelise.

In the short term all these trends are likely to continue. Whether Christianity ever comes to again dominate in the West remains to be seen. At the most all the indicators seem to be pointing in the other direction. Without some mighty heaven-sent revival and reformation, the West appears to be toast. Things are not looking too good here at the moment, so we need to keep praying and keep working to see Christ and his kingdom restored here.

But a few other things can be said. Simply having a lot of folks staying away from church is not necessarily a foolproof indication of the state of Christianity in America – or elsewhere. One of course can be a Christian while not regularly attending a church. But the norm is for believers to meet together, to worship together, and to be taught together in a local assembly of saints. Hebrews 10:25 certainly comes to mind here in this regard.

And a related matter has to do with what are known as “dones” – people who are done with going to church. They are still Christians who still love the Lord, but for various reasons, they are done with attending a local church. The fact that so many believers seem to be leaving church certainly is something a lot of Christians are aware of and interested in.

Back in late 2014 I wrote a piece on all this, and for some reason, it has been my all-time most read, most shared, most liked and most commented on article ever. It has well over 500 comments, and it has been shared countless times. It seems I really struck a raw nerve or something in penning that piece: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/12/26/on-leaving-church/

A follow-up piece written a year later also received quite a bit of attention: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/12/12/on-leaving-church-revisited/

So we may not be able to say with complete certainty that Christianity is shrinking in America. What we can say is that church attendance sure seems to be. But the two are not identical, and many Christians still exist, even though for a whole range of reasons they seem to be done with church – or at least with the traditional established churches.

But there are other things happening with American Christianity, including the rise of minichurches. We have all heard of megachurches of course, and so many pastors aspire to have the biggest and the best. But it may be time to move in the other direction – to minichurches. Maybe smaller is better.

The rise of small groups, house churches, and much smaller congregations seems to be catching on in the US and elsewhere. Downsizing seems to be in. Of course COVID is responsible for some of this, but not likely all of it. Consider an article from late last year which spoke to this matter. It begins this way:

What is the future of the post-COVID Christian church in the United States? For a pair of millennial pastors, it meant leaving what they loved doing in pursuit of discipleship coupled with the sober recognition that existing church structures, even within those where the Gospel was being faithfully proclaimed, were not only woefully inadequate but hampering the Kingdom of God from advancing.  

 

Parker and Jessi Green started feeling what they described as a Holy Spirit restlessness amid full-time ministry in New York City. Despite being well-compensated and “successful” by several measures, something was amiss and the couple could not ignore how God was tugging at their hearts.

 

For the past four years, the Greens have been active with SALT churches, a network of microchurches they started in the region of Southern California. Earlier this year, they led Saturate OC, a worship on the beach evangelistic outreach. 

 

If you ask Parker, a microchurch is around 10 to 40 people reaching those who do not yet know Jesus, making disciples and, most importantly, who are on mission together. That “being on mission” aspect distinguishes it from previous home-based church movements. “Doing what Jesus is doing [in realtime], I find, is super helpful,” he said, chuckling lightly, in a recent interview with The Christian Post.

 

Jessi added: “We definitely think that this is the trajectory that the Church is going to move in and it’s funny because I think especially because of social media, we’re so afraid to almost innovate when it comes to church because we don’t want to appear like we’re bashing or against the current thing.”

 

“But if you look at church history, what we see right now is how many people would define ‘church’ is actually pretty new as of the last 100 years. What we see now as almost untouchable when it comes to church and how it’s done, most of the world would not define that as church at all.”

 

And distinctly missional microchurches are actually closer to what is seen in the pages of Scripture, they maintained. The “traditional” model that has become the norm for many in the Western world is not as normal as many think. www.christianpost.com/news/microcongregations-and-the-future-of-a-post-covid-church-part-1.html

You can have a read of the entire piece, but there might be something here worth looking at more closely. Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention, and perhaps Western Christianity needed something like COVID to help it think again about what it means to be and do church.

New wineskins may well be needed. Smaller Christian fellowship groups is likely one of the ways we will proceed in the days ahead. So while the rise in secularism and the decline of Christianity in the West is a genuine worry, God is not yet done with his church there, and new things may well be happening.

Sometimes a bit of shaking and sifting is a good thing. If that results in the Bride of Christ becoming more and more what she was meant to be, then that is a welcome thing indeed.

[1622 words]

13 Replies to “The Incredible Shrinking Church”

  1. Here’s a personal anecdote/measure of the ‘shrinking church’ in Australia.

    In the 1960s/1970s, I was the only one in my state school RI (Religious Instruction) class who didn’t go to church.

    In the 1990s/2000s, my children were the only ones in their state school RI classes who did.

  2. When we migrated to Australia 1972; then moved to a new area, and joined the local baptist church fellowship, about 80 to 100 members. I served as a deacon, the membership grew to between 300- 400, as it grew it had lost that closeness Feel, that was within the smaller membership. So after nearly forty years in membership, retired from full time employment, more time to share on the churches community page. I shared scripture to edify other members, that came to an end, when I had a visit from a member of the pastoral team, unexpected visit, but not to inquire about our health, being in our seventies, but to let me know, a complaint was made about my scriptural Writings, I was told I should not be doing that, and I will not go in to further details, but since then we have not attended that fellowship, and will not for obvious reasons. The church community page is where people share, and find information, I would have thought my sharing scripture would be welcome, seems I was wrong. Forty years membership, and this ended just like that.

  3. Thank you so much for this article and the links. The Western Church at large seems under judgement 1 Peter 4:17 style. Lots of possible reasons. The judgement, while severe and getting even more so daily, is refining Job 23:10 style. Remember, historically massive global Church does not equate to Church holy and honoring to Christ. Rather the opposite. For all the statistics of huge Church membership historically in the Western Churches, these data coincided with the drug revolution, the sodomy revolution, the abortion revolution, the cult of death and destruction through ‘just wars’. Church membership maybe inversely correlated with holiness, and correlated with the rise of diabolical practices. Judgement is purification. The Lord is now cleansing His visible Church, purging the false professors, thinning the ranks – not of believers but of goats who harbor the false assurance of those taught by false teachers. The time is quickly coming for us to rejoice 1 Peter 4:11-13 style. Time to share the gospel to the lost now that the lost no longer falsely think their saved. Thanks for shining a light on the small churches of true brothers and sisters who meet to worship for no other reason than because they belong to Christ and that is what His sheep do.

  4. If people like Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, has his way, meeting in small churches in homes may be forced upon us. It is clear by his latest push he doesn’t like Christians, much preferring to bow the knee to homosexual theology. Watch this space.

  5. If this could be anonymous, I would appreciate it.
    During the last two years I have seen small reformed church after small reformed church tear itself apart.
    Our church home did so in 2019, and another sister movement was doing the same in 2020. There are others.
    It is a Corona-trend that I have observed with grief. These churches obviously had cracks before these last couple of years, but I think the little bible-based churches are getting a shaking.
    I would have thought that, seeing the enemies of God gathering outside the house of God, folks would knuckle down and try to love one another and do what it takes to preserve unity, but no. Something is happening in the spiritual that I don’t understand, but I trust God.
    We are currently attending a larger Bible-based, quasi-reformed church (about 300ish), and we live in QLD, so I am just thankful to hear God’s word read and preached week after week in public. My husband and I came from New Apostolic Reformation charismatic groups (hesitate to say church as never heard the teachings of Christ or the true gospel there). So we have loved hearing the Word wherever we find it. Certainly I never thought in Australia we’d see churches not allowed to assemble. So, as I said, I am thankful.
    But a large church is not like a family in the way that a small church is. I would love to be in a smaller fellowship again.
    I guess I am commenting to say- smaller fellowships are more scriptural, but the scripture doesn’t paint a rosy picture.
    If this IS the future of the church in much of the West (and I actually really hope it is), we have to learn how to truly pursue unity in Christ, and know how to do biblical conflict resolution, not to mention biblical submission to the authorities (I mean in church- so many people hammer on about submitting to government and then gossip about the pastor etc) and probably really really really study the ‘one another’ verses. I am speaking to myself here mostly of course.

    May God lead, build, and preserve His bride, for His glory, Amen.

  6. This is a tangent, but I read your On Leaving Church article. Spot on. I’ve done extensive googling to find something like it before and there’s effectively nothing. It’s always the ‘leaver’ having too high expectations, being shallow, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah.

    I know a few people who loved the Covid lockdown, because they got a legitimate break from church and devised their own mini church services at home with a small group of people. They didn’t want to go back!

    More on this topic please.

  7. While I agree that small churches were in scripture we must also remember the church was in her infancy then and under direct threat from officials. A larger church, several hundred, is fine if they are biblical. Size, within reason, isn’t a problem as much as theology. I personally draw the line at mega churches with thousands because I question if a Shepherd can lead such a large flock competently.

    At one time your picture could be laughed at – now you could probably fit the true believers of most given churches inside that with room to spare!

  8. I personally do not go to church anymore and have not for maybe 10 years now. I am constantly told that I should be in are church, but yet I feel strongly within my spirit that the Lord wants to teach me personally. I spend hours every morning with him and I cannot start the day without starting it with him first. This started when the virus first reared it ugly head, so there you go. Good things come out of bad things always.

    When I first became are born again spirit filled Christian I would hear his voice talking to me all the time until I started to go to church, than it was other voices that I started listening to. Voices that continuing feel the need to correct you and mold you into their own doctrines, beliefs or their own personal experiences with our Lord. There is are word that says “you need no one to teach you but the Holy Spirit”. God is Spirit, and we are spiritual beings and we all need to stop living in our flesh and start learning to live in the spirit.
    Most people going to church I think, have become lazy and want the leaders to connect them to God, but truly only we ourselves can do that. To be honest with you I look forward to Sunday where I sit down in front of my TV and through the course of the morning I have been abundantly blessed to be able to listen to at least four different Prophets or Teachers and everyone gives me are different message that has meaning and many times confirms what the Lord has been showing me. I do not fellowship with others a lot, other than with one or two close sisters in the Lord and usually at times when I most need them, my Lord always see to that.

    It does not surprise me that the bigger churches are getting are shaking and starting to shrink down and I believe that there is many reasons for this.
    One is that somewhere along the line the large churches made contracts with the Corporate Governments that now rule over them (and that is another story) rather than trusting in the Lord and his provision.
    Also the Lord gave me Ezekiel 34. Many of the Shepherds who were called to take care of our Lord’s sheep have failed to do so. Some of these Shepherds (including those dressed in sheep’s clothing) have merely been using the sheep to feed off them themselves. In other words provide for their own needs through tithes and offerings. The more sheep you have, the bigger your pay cheque, which is greed. Others will not trust in the Lord for their provision, so therefore have both themselves and their sheep under bondage because of fear of losing their jobs. Sad but true. Others have failed to go after the sheep who have left their fold and have allowed them to become food for the wild animals. In other words their sheep have gone back into the world and are dragged into other belief or worldly systems, and unfortunately many of these sheep were badly hurt by the churches they attended and still many hate the church today.

    There is so much division amongst the churches, none can agree on doctrine, yet fail to understand they true Christian are recognized for the love that they have for one another, not doctrine. The word even talks about division amongst the brethren, why because some follow this apostle/church and another this apostle/church and are reminded that it was Jesus who died for us all and there is only one church and that is his under his name only. Could this be the Babylon that is mentioned in the world? I don’t know. So much confusion amongst the churches, so much so that people of the world no longer trust them.

    You only have to read the letters in Revelations to know that our Lord is calling for repentance from his churches not the people of the world. Somewhere along the line we lost our salt and the light stopped shining because we allowed ourselves to be contained within the four walls of our churches rather than going out into our Communities. We the church are to blame I believe and it is time we had ears to hear and eyes to see what is actually happening with the churches today.

    So small churches is where we are definitely headed. We are going back to the beginning and starting anew I think. When I was just are babe in Christ and he spoke to me in my spirit regularly, I can clearly remember the Holy Spirit telling me this through illustration. I was standing in are local car park one day talking to some people when the Lord asked me to look down at the path that I was standing on. As I looked down I saw ants everywhere. All of them had different ant holes that they would take their food too. The ant holes were everywhere hiding in amongst cracks and under rocks etc. So many you could not count them and each community watched after its own for food source and shelter. The Lord then told me so clearly that was going to be his church in the last days. He said each time someone tries to destroy any one of those ant holes, the ants would scatter and more ant communities would emerge to takes its place and start new colonies. That no matter how hard the enemy tries he will never be able to destroy his church. They will be hidden everywhere and his church/followers will keep growing.
    Makes sense when you think about it, because when we are congregated in one large church or churches we can be controlled, but scattered the enemy can never defeat us, let alone control us.

    Thank you Bill because while not all your articles talk to me specifically, there are some that do. Why? Because they clarify or make more clear what the Lord has already been showing me or trying to show me. Confirmation is good for the soul, don’t you think? Thanks Bill, you are appreciated.

  9. As with other places in the West, the church is leaving the believers, not the other way around. When the hierarchies deviate from the correct doctrine, when you have denominations preaching a different gospel from the true one, believers who are well planted in the Word stand firm while the church moves away.

    It just means they don’t attend what isn’t church anymore. They seek out like-minded believers.

    I can see there being a mix of state sanctioned churches and house churches in the future. When persecution comes, the true church flourishes but not in the way that has become the current measure for dying churches – income, bums on seats and programs.

    PS. Thanks again Bill for your steadfastness.

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