Church Attendance Decline: A Diagnostic Analysis of Issues

by | Aug 23, 2023

Church Doctor Report

Special Issue #5 — 2023

PURPOSE: To connect with those who have an active relationship with Church Doctor Ministries as peers in ministry, clients, and partners in prayer and support.

The Church Doctor Report provides a quick read of strategic and influential information. This information is free to share as long as the source is respected: The Church Doctor Report,

In late 2022, the Public Religion Research Institute conducted a research study surveying 5,872 American adults. The results were published in May 2023. The survey showed that 57 percent of Americans “seldom or never attend religious services.” Another 24 percent of those in the US belong to a religious organization other than the one they grew up in.

Back in 2020, a survey conducted by NPR (National Public Radio) quoted a survey by Public Religion Research Institute indicating that “the average congregation size across Christian denominations is less than half of what it was in 2000, down to 65 from 137. A third of churchgoers are 65 years old or older.” This survey included Protestants, evangelicals, and Catholics.

However, almost everyone knows of some congregations that are growing in numbers of people. Most of these churches are nearby declining churches. What are the issues? What are the issues behind the issues?

The Declining Context

When Jesus arrived in Israel, He was in the middle of a major disruption in the nation. The Romans had overtaken God’s Promised Land. What is interesting to note is that Jesus primarily ignores the politics. In His own words, He says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

In the Holy Land in those days, the “guardians” of religion appeared to be stuck in the past. The scribes and Pharisees majored in irrelevance. Most of them missed the Jesus that was promised in their own Scripture: the Old Testament.

There is a lesson here about the troubles of society as well as the challenges for religious people. When things are at their worst, God is often ready to provide His very best. What does that mean? It means that troubled people are receptive. People who are looking for hope and direction are those who are ready to hear about Jesus. In the midst of these challenging times, churches everywhere should be exploding with growth. That is what happened in the Mediterranean world, in Israel, and throughout the pagan Roman Empire—even under Roman occupation.

In many ways, our world today is quite disrupted. Government and politics are often in gridlock. The news is filled with crimes of horrific murders and widespread corruption. Homeless people in unprecedented numbers are sleeping in the streets. The erosion of cultural values is evident on many fronts. We live in an unsettled world, with ongoing war in Ukraine and Russia, Middle East tensions, and conflict in other countries throughout the Middle East—even in Africa, where there are great struggles. There are macro challenges with economics, climate change, and safety. This is a perfect scenario for churches to flourish!

What Is the Missing Piece for Those Churches Plateaued, Declining, Aging?

First, it must be said that most pastors are well-trained to lead their churches. Likewise, the disciples were well-equipped by Jesus. They had learned a lot about the Kingdom of God. That would also be true of most pastors and church leaders today. They generally know much about how to “do church.”

Honestly, most pastors are hardworking, faithful to the Bible, and shape their messages accordingly, as well as their ministry priorities. There are many church leaders who are gifted to lead God’s people. Most of them desperately want their churches to grow. They sincerely desire that more people come to know Jesus as their personal Savior and Lord.

Pastoral Training

In pastoral training institutions, there is great focus on what could be called the “ologies.” The concept of an “ology” is “a word, or words about—and that describe—an important concept.” They are, in spiritual terms, soteriology, the study of salvation. There is ecclesiology, the understanding of what it means to be church.

So, what is often missing? It is the focus on missiology, how to reach lost people for Christ with effective strategies. It might seem that we believe lost people are not a priority in Scripture. On the contrary! Jesus clearly taught, “Go, make disciples.” He told parables about issues such as “the lost coin.” His followers lived, breathed, and gave their lives “growing” the Kingdom of God. They were believers on a mission. They lived and breathed missiology. Their priority was to grow the Kingdom of God—and the early church exploded across the Mediterranean world.

Over the years, those of us at Church Doctor Ministries have consulted hundreds of churches from 78 denominations as well as nondenominational and independent churches. As part of the process, we listen to a recording of one of the pastor’s sermons. (We do this before we arrive on-site for the consultation interviews.)

Honestly, most pastors are great preachers. They are accurate with Scripture. Yet, rarely do they weave into the message the priority for believers to share their faith. Why would that be the case?

My Theory

Actually, it’s more than a theory. It resembles my own story. In high school, I was a minimal believer—in spite of great, practicing Christian parents and excellent pastors. In my senior year, God got ahold of my life, and I received the call to ministry. After four years of college, three years of seminary classes, and three more years of graduate school, I had a great education. I had a PhD in theology, yet knew very little about reaching lost people for Jesus. In other words, with all that education, I was not trained in missiology.

As a pastor, I was sent to a church that had declined greatly in the previous decades. The leaders of that church desperately wanted the church to grow again. Many of them remembered “the good ole’ days.” I tried everything to energize our people to reach our community, which was racially mixed. Many of our neighbors did not attend a church. It was frustrating. And I was discouraged.

Then, one day, I received some information about a school that trained pastors to become missionaries in our own country. This seminary provided two-week intensive sessions, taught by career missionaries who were effective on the mission field, beyond our own country. The whole course included three two-week sessions a year for three years. The professors required thousands of pages of reading before each class session and a paper, based on what we learned, when we returned back to our church. That paper would be a plan of action for our congregations. When I started that process, I couldn’t believe all the books I had to read about missiology—how to do mission, based on Scripture. I didn’t even know these books existed, in spite of all the years of my previous education. There’s a message there!

As a pastor, I became a missionary to our community. But that’s not all. I taught what I learned to those in our church who were willing to learn. And our church, after 20 years of decline, experienced outstanding growth in a cross-cultural community.

Guess what? Missiology is not rocket science. It’s in the Bible. In fact, it’s all over the New Testament. It’s what Jesus modeled and taught His disciples. The New Testament is all about the mission outreach of the early church, which expanded all over the pagan Mediterranean world.

My Prescription

Every preached message should have a reference to the priority for mission. In other words, church leaders need to develop a mission-minded culture. Every Bible study should include the connection to personal outreach. Every church leader should develop the passion to consistently encourage the culture of reaching lost people for Jesus.

There are so many congregations where the people would love to see the empty seats filled with those for whom Christ died. There are leaders in every church who would be spiritually energized by new people who were “once lost, but now are found.” The Scripture says, “All heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents.” It’s exciting for those who are Christ-followers as well!

Most pastors are really good at sharing the wisdom of Scripture. Yet, it is so easy to stick to a specific text without understanding the environment, the context, in which Scripture is provided. It is the context of a God who would do whatever it takes to reach people with His salvation. That theme should dominate everything we think, say, pray, and do in the church. It is a major influencer for whether your church will be here in the coming years. Yet, that’s not the motive. The real result is that those people you touch will be with you in eternity. Thriving churches bring Jesus to people, and people become missionaries to their friends, neighbors, relatives, and those at work or school.

What will you do to effectively help reach those who are not yet believers?

Kent R. Hunter has served as a pastor, blogger, podcast teacher, international conference leader, author, radio commentator, church consultant, and conference speaker. As founder of Church Doctor Ministries, Kent’s passion is helping the local church become more effective for making disciples of Jesus Christ.

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