Statistics tell us 80% of North American churches have either stopped growing (plateaued) or are actually shrinking. We’re talking all churches, including those with a high view of Scripture. Just the other day I heard a pastor of a very conservative Lutheran church say that they used to have 1200 people, but now they have 600.
People in declining smaller churches suspect the “big” churches are growing largely at the expense of the little churches—that we’re just relocating people who are already believers and calling it growth. We assume that churches offering the best programming—the best Sunday School, the best youth group, the best fellowship opportunities, the best worship experience—these churches will grow. But stop and consider this: Who is attracted by Christian-oriented programming? People who have no church background and know very little about Jesus? Or people who already know Christ? Could it be that churches are all competing for a slice of the same pie—current Christians—and all the while that pie is shrinking?
Something changed in the way the average person in North America perceives church, and many of us had no clue it was happening.
For me, the change came abruptly. I pastored the CLB church in Grand Forks, North Dakota from 1985-2000. We saw modest growth, but it was actually significant growth. I studied the church records and calculated that we had gained hundreds of people over the years, and hardly anyone left us to attend another church in the area. No “backdoor” problem. However, we lost hundreds in that time frame as our people moved out of town—it was a very transient community for several reasons. But God kept bringing replacements. For many years there was this predictable steady trickle of visitors looking for a church home, and many of them would join us.
Then, somewhere in the late 90s, the trickle just stopped, as if a faucet had been shut off. It was mystifying. Where were the new people? What were we doing wrong?
Many years later I heard the concept from our seminary missions professor, Dr. Gaylan Mathiesen, that “Christendom” is dead. People no longer have that “old world” mindset—that everyone needs to be connected to a church, if only to be baptized, married, and buried. It’s just gone.
We’re not going to reverse this culture change, but we can adapt to it. This means change for our churches. Churches, even small ones, are like big ships. A small boat can change direction easily. But a big ship turns very, very slowly. Yet change we must, and the first step toward change is acknowledging it’s needed.
Rev. Brent Juliot serves as pastor of Oak Ridge Lutheran Brethren Church in Menomonie, Wisconsin.