According to George Barna, 75 churches close their doors every week. While Christianity is experiencing explosive growth in most areas of the world, North America is the most notable exception. While part of the problem may be our theology (if evangelicals are in decline, mainline churches are in a free-fall), the bulk of our problem is our practice and our priorities.
The fact is that 80% of North American Churches are stagnant or in decline. And of the 20% that are actually growing, only 2% of grow because of conversions. Last year less than one half of all churches led anyone to the Lord at all. Why are conversions so low? Because most churches aren’t remotely interested in reaching out to the unchurched. An overwhelming 85% of Christians believe that the church exists exclusively to meet the needs of its members. Not surprising then that 87% of churches have 100% of their programming targeted exclusively at themselves. Even more sad, is that pastors who lead their churches into growth are more likely to get fired than those who lead their churches into decline. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, growing a church is hazardous to your career!
It is said that a spiritually healthy church will grow every year by a factor of 10% due to conversion. This means that on average it will take the typical member of a healthy church 10 years to reach one other person for Christ. However, the average North American church will only grow by little more than 1% per year due to conversion – which isn’t enough to keep up with a church’s natural decrease. Put in other words, it takes the average member of the average church 87 years to reach just one other person for Christ. And just think, because that is the average that means that 50% of all churches do even worse! When I started at a previous church it took our average member 500 years to reach just one other person for the Lord – it can get that bad!
What lies at the root of such dismal North American performance? There are probably a number of answers to this question and most of them are spiritual in nature. Too often we confuse having a personal relationship with Jesus with having our own private god. Instead of understanding that we belong to the church, we think that the church belongs to us as our personal possession. We think that the church exists to serve us and meet our needs – newcomers just take away from that. The most common complaint I’ve heard pastoring a rapidly growing church is that “this doesn’t feel like my church anymore. I don’t recognize half of the people in here”. If we think the church is supposed to be just our own cozy club filled with nothing but our closest friends, we will deeply resent growth, and certainly won’t lift a finger to support it. I remember speaking to a pastor of a small rural church who remarked that when his congregation called him to grow the church; they didn’t mean bring in new people. What they wanted was for him to bring back those who had left, move back those who had moved away, and raise from the dead those who had passed on. But they most certainly did not mean bring in outsiders!
It’s been said that all great revivals begin with a spirit of brokenness. But it is not those outside the church who need to feel broken, but those inside it. It is when we recognize that God doesn’t exist to serve us, but we exist to serve Him that things begin to happen. When we abandon our self-absorbed lives and allow God to fill our hearts with compassion for the lost we will rightly value outreach. While it is true that a talented pastor may bring in new growth in spite of his congregation he will have a very difficult time hanging on to it. Sustained growth can only happen when the hearts of the people in the pews turn their hearts to God. When those who have been Christians for 50 years start acting like they’ve been Christians for 50 years.
The good news is that these old bones may yet live again. I have seen one church (but only one) that had lost everyone under the age of 60, bounce back and become a young and growing church again. Their great secret? A change of heart and a willingness to do whatever it took to reach out. It was only when they repented were they restored.
*Note: Much of this series is based on an eye-opening seminar I took in Detroit back in 2001 called The Four Laws of Effective Outreach. This outstanding resource can be ordered here from Outreach Marketing.