Home > Brian's Blogs, Missional Church > The American Church in Crisis?

The American Church in Crisis?

David Dunbar’s (Biblical Seminary) latest Missional Journal quotes excerpts from a book titled The American Church in Crisis.  It doesn’t paint a pretty picture for American churches.  I wonder if it resonates with your experience…

Let me just copy and paste the pertinent paragraphs from Dunbar’s Journal:

  • ·Ever since 1939 polls have indicated that on any given Sunday about 41% of the American public attends church. But Olson presents evidence that actual attendance is really 17.5%. If we measure the category of “regular participants” (those attending church three out of eight Sundays), the segment of church-going Americans only rises to 23% (pp. 26-29).
  • During the period from 1990 to 2006 church attendance on any given Sunday remained steady at approximately 52,000,000 people. However, during this same period the population of the United States increased by a similar 52,000,000. In other words, church attendance has not kept pace with population growth (pp. 34-36).
  • While the evangelical wing of the church shows stronger growth than Protestant mainline churches or the Roman Catholic Church, it still declined in 22 states during the period from 2000 to 2005. In the period from 1990 to 2005 evangelical churches almost kept up with population growth (pp. 36-38).
  • And lest those of us in the evangelical tradition begin to feel smug about our “success,” we should recognize that a significant portion of the growth in evangelical churches comes from mainliners and Roman Catholics who “switch in” at a higher rate than evangelicals who “switch out.” (pp. 58-59). Obviously this kind of growth has no impact on the larger, un-churched population.
  • Dunbar goes on to note that about 4,000 churches were planted annually from 2000 to 2005, but during this same period about 3,700 churches closed annually.  For the mathematically challenged, this means that for all of our efforts we have only planted 300 churches per year.

This book certainly paints a dismal picture.  However, there is always another side of the story.  Other bloggers have pointed to Rodney Stark’s research in What Americans Really Believe as evidence that Christianity is alive and well in America.  So what in the world is really going on?

I wonder if we aren’t seeing postmodernity in action.  For decades the academics have been telling us that postmoderns are very spiritual (i.e. religious) but are also less dogmatic.  In other words, postmoderns may believe in God (a fact confirmed by recent Pew research that shows 93% of Americans believe in God), but postmoderns do not believe in the traditional, orthodox version of God.  Rather, the postmodern god is a tolerant and benevolent guide who will help you in your life’s journey but not demand a specific set of beliefs.  This is basically the thesis of Mike Wittmer’s Don’t Stop Believing.  It is also basically the thesis of Christian Smith’s Soul Searching which argues that American youth are moralistic, therapeutic deists (belief in a god who is a lot like Oprah, helpful with your problems but not overly involved in the world).

So, is spirituality thriving in America?  Absolutely.  Is orthodox Christianity that views Christ as the only path to salvation thriving in America?  Probably not.  If this is right, the church needs to ramp up not only its outreach to the unchurched but also its discipleship of the churched.

May God grant us the wisdom!

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  1. mikewittmer
    January 21, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Amen to that!

  2. January 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

    Thanks for the summary.

  3. Andrew Ford
    January 22, 2009 at 9:07 am

    I think that everything is about the same. In the past – church attendance was propped up by the cultural pressure to be a part of a church. This means that a good chunk of people going to church in the 50’s were there because their Mothers told them to be there, or they thought it was culturally proper. This does not mean they had genuine faith. I think this is seen with a segment of our older church attenders who’s children grew up going to Sunday School and Church, but once they moved out – nothing. So our present post modern era is no different, except they feel no pressure to go to church. I do think this is presently helpful – at least they are not thinking they are all set with God, like so many who grew up in church – Vampire Christianity: “Give me the blood of Jesus and I’ll go and live the way I want to live.”

  4. Ryan Prudhomme
    January 22, 2009 at 10:14 am

    For another take on the issue read Barna’s “Revolution” or “Revolutionaries”. His main point is that the church is less needed and people are becoming more spiritually self dependant.

    Unfortunately it should be a yes and, not an either or. The local body is necessary and should be a part of a believers worship, however I applaud the spiritual maturity to be motivated internally to seek God, rather than externally to perform for God.

    All in all it a fairly thought provoking book tha t comes down hard on Churches but pasters should be aware of it’s implications.

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