Updated: 3 days ago
Have you ever read those Christian articles about the newest statistic of the decline of church attendance? I have. My algorithm knows me well. It seems like every other week another study comes out on how the American church is in decline. I read these articles and I think “Well that makes sense, God is pruning American Christianity”, but truth be told God needs to prune me and my own family of churches just as much. I need to ask if my response to these alarming articles is a sense of urgency, or a sense of complacency for seeking and saving the lost. This article is a collection of many statistics to reveal what it’s going to take to see disciples made, despite current church trends.
When I first prepared to move to Bend, OR to start a church with a group of disciples, we gathered on top of iconic Smith Rock State park to pray for the city we were about to plant the gospel in. Inspired by Jesus looking upon Jerusalem and weeping with compassion, I gave the charge to our amazing group: “God is calling you here, because through him you are the only hope for this city”. That afternoon we shared our faith in town, though I don’t know if it was because of a deep seated belief that we truly were the only hope. It doesn’t take me long to begin thinking to myself “Surely, someone else will get the job done. There’s plenty of big fancy churches here. They have the gospel handled. There is no need for missionaries. After all, their doctrine of salvation is close enough, and God will get the job done without me somehow.” That kind of thinking didn’t inspire me to urgently seek and save the lost as Jesus did. To combat this, I’ve begun asking myself:
“If you had thirty days to make disciples who make disciples in this city, what would you do?” & “Where do you not see the Kingdom and how can you bring the gospel to that place?”
This gives me a sense of urgency to radically evaluate my behavior and methods, and align them with Jesus’ teachings in my context to reach as many as possible to become disciples who make disciples. Knowing my community is the next step. I can easily assume that people are good and fine, but if I do exegesis on my street [as I would the word of God] and learn then names and needs of my neighbors, their context, history, and culture, I quickly realize that their is a need for God that someone needs to meet. It’s practices like this that I hope you will embrace after reading this bog.
My prayer is that this blog helps to give you a sense of urgency by revealing that our methods, and the methods of “those other Christians who will get the job done” are not actually going to get the job done. Satan will always seek to convince us that the war is over, when troops are still needed on the front. My goal is not criticism, but a call to take urgent action in aligning with God’s heart and God’s methods for seeking and saving the lost in our time and context. You are still the only hope for countless souls to enter the Kingdom of God by Jesus’ method of disciple making and discipleship.
Counting the cost
In 2014, Gordon Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity calculated the cost of baptizing one person globally at $753,000. Do you know someone with that much money who is “getting the job done”? CSGC forecasts that by 2025, the cost of baptizing one person globally will rise to $1.4 million . In 2001, researchers calculated the cost of baptizing one person in the United States at $1.5 million . Right now, in 2022, the US estimate is that baptisms cost around $1.2 million. That seems insane, but when you consider what church budgets “have to” cover [buildings, staff, benevolence, private jets] things add up quickly. These numbers are arrived at by simply dividing the annual budget by number of baptisms. You quickly see that our current American disciple making strategies are unaffordable. The church in America is the richest in world history and the most expensive to keep afloat. In my own church family, I estimate the cost per baptism to be around $10,000. This means if I want to see a church of 100 people planted, I need to raise a million dollars. It would take millions upon millions to make a small dent of baptisms in my state population.
Meanwhile, 60% of Christians live in the Global South, and they control only 17 percent of the wealth of Christianity . 70% of my own church movement’s membership is outside of the US. Could there be alternatives to the cost we see in America? Overseas, in multiplicative disciple making movements [DMM], it’s estimated to cost just 66 cents per baptism. It’s clear that the American church factor is driving up the cost, and that there are alternatives around the globe that are less costly. These alternatives often mean making disciples with no paid staff, or owned venues. It’s a cost to count, but it’s a possibility of hope offered to the American church.
One might argue that American church budgets are justified if that wealth is also redistributed to fruitful foreign missions. In my church movement, our annual largest fundraiser is for such “special missions” to support these regions. If that’s the justified model then we have an even bigger problem. What would happen if that money all disappeared? The American church is less generous now, after a half-century of unprecedented prosperity, than it was during the Great Depression . John Dickerson says, “Unless giving trends change significantly, evangelical giving across the board may drop by 70 percent during the next twenty-five to thirty years” . Giving trends show that the up and coming generation of the church is far less giving than previous generations. Whatever unaffordable strategy is currently in place, it’s about to get far more unaffordable. The generations that are currently bankrolling global missions won’t be around much longer.
Jesus tells us in the sermon on the mount that it’s an issue of the heart when we consider where our treasure lies. Considering estimates that just 5% of church goers normally tithe, how far can we get with only 5% of the hearts in the church ?
“The evangelical church in the United States is not nearly as large as we’ve been told. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a huge deal… Overestimating the size and ‘value’ of the evangelical church is—much like housing prices—one of the silent triggers, one of the unexamined fault lines under the Great Evangelical Recession… The fuel of American evangelicalism—dollars—is disappearing and will dwindle over the next three decades. We’re losing millions of our own people—about 2.6 million per decade, just from one generation studied. The evangelical church is not winning new believers fast enough to keep pace with rapid population growth in the United States. While these forces eat at the church internally, the external climate is turning against evangelicals. The fastest growing subcultures in the United States express a militant antagonism against Christians who take the Bible seriously. What’s left of a smaller, shrinking, strapped church is also splintering and splitting itself over politics and postmodern views of God and the Bible.” - John S Dickerson, “the great evangelical recession”
Before we get too critical of the church, remember that we are the church. God never called us to be professional church critics, but he does call us to look to our own households. Helping the house of God starts with our own household. Before critiquing a church strategy, we must look at our own compassion and hospitality in the harvest field. Take your households budget and divide it by the number of people you’ve brought to the Lord. Consider which neighbors on your street you’ve shared the gospel with. You begin to sympathize with the American church’s costly struggle. It’s just as much our individual struggle and the only way to change it is to own it. Similar to the way we would view our carbon footprint, what is your personal financial and gospel footprint in contributing to advancing God’s Kingdom?
The Great Evangelical Recession
Money aside, remember that the goal is to save the world. Jesus calls you to make disciples of the nations. It’s a vision that shapes our life and strategy. It forces us to our knees in dependent prayer, it unifies us to work with other Christian’s. It calls us to make disciples and not just converts. How are we doing with Jesus’ mission?
Staticians estimate there is a minority of about 2 billion believing Christians around the globe. If we confined ourselves to evangelicals, then the total numbers would shrink from 2.3 billion to 400 million followers of Jesus worldwide, or 5.7 percent of the world’s population. The Joshua Project reports 6,974 unreached people groups (42 percent of all people groups), who do not know of Jesus. Of the 350 thousand churches in the United States, less than 1 percent is growing by conversion growth.” . Globally, even though we see 19 million conversions each year, we also see 19 million depart from the Christian faith . In America, 9 out of 10 churches are declining or growing at a pace slower than the rate of their communities . The average established church declines by 2% per year . Rather than true adult converts, the great majority of people being baptized in evangelical churches are already baptized Christians and the children of believers .
Amen, even 400 million is cause for celebration, but is that enough to sit back and rely on others to reach the lost on our behalf? Can that evangelical minority get the job done on their own, or de we once again have to look at our gospel footprint in disciple making? Evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general.” Between 60% and 88% of churched youth will not attend church in their twenties . James Kennedy, founder of Evangelism Explosion, is often quoted as saying that 95% of Christians today have never led a person to Christ. Worldwide, eight out of every ten non-Christians don’t even know a Christian .
Dave Ferguson laments in his book “BLESS”, that When Christians were asked if knowing Jesus was important 96% agreed, however 28% believed it was wrong to share their faith with someone of a different belief in hopes that they would become a Christian. That number jumps up to 46% with practicing Christians in their 20s and 30s. Those who call themselves Christians are no more likely to give help to a homeless person on the street than non-Christians.They are no more likely than non-Christians to correct a mistake when a cashier gives them change. A Christian is just as likely to have an elective abortion. Christians divorce at the same rate. 50% of Christian churches year after year do not help one single person find their salvation. There are virtually no differences between the two groups in their attitudes and their actions .
Barna conducted a study of the U.S. Church’s ideas about missions in the new report “Translating the Great Commission”. When asked if they had previously “heard of the Great Commission,” half of U.S. churchgoers (51%) say they do not know this term. Only (17%) who know this term know the Bible passage it’s associated with. Meanwhile, “the Great Commission” does ring a bell for one in four (25%), though they can’t remember what it is. 6% of churchgoers are simply not sure whether they have heard this term “the Great Commission” before. So place yourself at the feet of Jesus once more, who calls you to make disciples of the nations. Can you point to the progress of other Christians as an excuse for you to not personally obey him? We cannot, and we desperately need other Christians to join us in taking this responsibility of knowing and living the great commission.
But aren’t some churches making true Biblical disciples like we see in scripture? Certainly, but not multiplicatively in the United States, not yet. Two of the most influential disciple making organizations in the US “Exponential.org” and “Discipleship.org” partnered to conduct a professional study seeking out which churches are multiplying disciples, released at the beginning of 2020. The study concludes that fewer than 5% of churches in the US have a reproducing disciple-making culture. No viral disciple making movements, common in the rest of the world, are present in the US today, except among some immigrant and prison populations. 2% to 3% of US churches are evangelistic, where 1 person was reached for every 20 who were in attendance. Keep in mind that these are pre pandemic numbers. Lastly, the study found that pastors frequently over estimate their impact and the presence of disciple-making cultures present in their churches, frequently overrating their effectiveness in discipleship and disciple making .
85% of churches are currently declining or plateaued . After 2020, “One in three practicing Christians is still and only attending their pre-COVID church”  Meanwhile, agnosticism is on the rise, with more than three out of every ten US adults no longer holding any religious affiliation . At this point, twenty citations into the research, you get the picture that the graph is not going up and to the right.
My own church planting movement, with about 700 churches worldwide seems to confirm this narrative of a lack of multiplication in the US. Overall growth for our movement of churches in 2015 was 1.9%. Overall Growth for the US/Canadian church was 1.3%. Our 20 churches with over 1000 members grew less than 1% combined. In those largest churches, it took 1175 members to produce a growth of 1 person. 70% of our total churches are under 100 members. In 2015, we had 667 congregations overall, 381 of which baptized between 1 and 10 people, and 122 had zero baptisms. Thus, of our 667 churches, 503 (75%) baptized between 0 and 10 people in a year's time. I share this of my own movement to suggest that something needs to change in order for us to be moving again .
“We reach one person a year per every 85 churches in the US. ” - Tom Rainer
To offer some solace, God is still doing great things! I don’t want this blog to discourage Christians. I hope that it can spur us on to think outside of the box and to become more intentional in our disciple making. Great things are possible. Currently in the global southeast disciple making movements are exploding in ways that have been described as “the book of Acts on crack” . They look radically different in practice and methodology than the US and churches in the global northwest. That doesn’t mean we should jump to a new growth strategy, but we should learn from these brothers and sisters. Innovation is the only hope to reach the lost. What worked for you five years ago, will not work in the next five years. Let’s look at just two more alarming factors that should give us a sense of urgency when it comes to church leadership and Biblical education.
The Great Ministry Resignation
“Studies suggest that more than a thousand pastors quit their job every month. If this is not evidence of a vocational burnout, we don’t know what is.” - Mike Breen, 3DM
Clearly, professional clergy alone cannot reach the world, however they are essential in equipping and catalyzing movements beyond themselves to reach the world. Leadership, paid or unpaid, is vital in any movement of God. What would happen if a third of current church leadership resigned without equipping a replacement? If you follow the trends, the current model of professionally paid ministers has an incredible turnover rate, that is difficult to climb out of.
According to recent polls from Barna, roughly a third of pastors are quitting or considering quitting, this goes up to half of all ministers when looking at those under 45 in mainstream denominations. Only one out of every three US pastors is considered healthy and not at risk of burn out .
“There is a crisis of minister shortages in churches of Christ [and other denominations]. It turns out if you neglect your minister, undermine them, sabotage them, etc...that few of them will stick around and few young people will want to become the person they saw that happening to.” - Matt Dabs
Experts have determined that 65 core competencies are required in order to lead a church. No one can possibly do all of these things, setting up the ministry candidate for failure. According to Fuller seminary, 50% of ministers drop out within the first five years. According to a Duke study, 85% of seminary grads leave ministry within five years. 90% of all pastors do not stay until retirement. By the end of 2021, 38% of US pastors were seriously considering resigning. It would not be inaccurate to describe these numbers as a crisis.
Would you get a degree that you only have a 15% chance of using? Would you start a career that only has a 10% chance of being completed and a 50% chance of failing early on? Even if you do reach success one day, most church planters are in agreement that you can expect to see at least half of your launch team leave within the first year. Speaking form experience, that isn’t fun.
So what about the ministers and teams that do make it? Surely that minority is Biblically sound and they can go out and win the world, right? There’s no chance that false doctrine or false gospels would thrive, surely. Unfortunately, only half of Christian pastors possess a Biblical worldview . Only one out of every 10 churchgoers has a Biblical worldview. This worldview includes things like salvation through Christ alone, the authority of the Bible, heaven and hell being real, etc. That’s important, right?
Speaking of important, discipleship is still desperately needed. Your family, friends, and neighbors are all being discipled all the time by structures in the world. Have you guided them to discipleship from Lord Jesus? Has their church? Is it any wonder so many leave the Lord, when so many do not practice discipleship? There are many well intended churches that want discipleship and encourage it in classes, small groups, or mission statements, but the reality is pastors frequently over estimate their impact and the presence of Jesus style disciple-making cultures present in their churches. Only 22% of pastors are actively discipling someone, making it nearly impossible for the other 80% of non discipling pastors to have a discipling culture within their church. .
Strip away the stats on leadership, discipleship, worldviews, evangelicalism, etc. and reduce urgency back to the gospel. Why should anyone hear the gospel twice before everyone has heard it once?
The reality is, if you took all the churches in your area and filled them to capacity it wouldn’t nearly make a dent relative to your local population. According to studies, those who want to go to church are already going, and those who don’t want to go to church increasingly see it as a negative thing, full of abuse, bigotry, racism, and hypocrisy. The people who need Christ the most aren’t planning on coming to your church building; you will need to enter their world. In my own region of the Pacific Northwest, it’s estimated that our cities are 20 years behind post Christian Europe and 20 years ahead of the rest of the US. I don’t mean post Christian as indifferent to Christianity. I mean post Christian as violently opposed to Christianity. For many, church has become the box on the corner that makes no real difference in the community. We have to think outside of that box, because we need Jesus to not only fill the box, but every nook and cranny of our society. We need to be missionaries into the community, rather than forcing the community to become missionaries to us [where the lost are expected to come to a new place, with new people, to learn a new Christian language all on their own]. We need thousands of disciples in thousands of garages, willing to fail thousands of times to figure out how to invent the light bulb of what will bring the gospel to our towns and villages.
Maybe you are one of those disciples. Maybe you want to discover that same light bulb of where God is working. This blog may have discouraged you. You may read it and have an apathetic response. But if you feel as I feel, then I am asking you to return to urgency. I am asking you to reimagine where and how and to whom Christ has sent you. I am asking you to stand once again with him on a hill in Galilee where he is authorizing you to go with him to all the nations. I am asking you to be as urgent about saving others as you are about saving yourself. I am asking you to once again take Jesus’ hand and say “Father, not my will but your own. I don’t know how, but if you go with me and show me, I’m yours”.
I am asking you to urgently get on your knees and pray for a disciple making movement in your area, by whatever method necessary. If this blog has blessed you and resonated with you, please reach out to let me know if you will join me in that prayer. We can only move forward on our knees if we hope to see disciples made.
Prayer points for disciple making movements:
1. Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send workers into His harvest field.
2. Pray for open doors to engage the lost.
3. Pray that God will reveal persons of peace.
4. Pray for the gatekeepers of the community.
5. Pray for the protection of the Lord.
6. Pray for miracles.
7. Pray for disciple making movements around the world.
8. Pray for the movement of God.
9. Pray for more partners.
10. Pray for more boldness.
11. Pray for deliverance.
12. Pray for spiritual breakthroughs as it relates to strongholds of the enemy.
13. Pray for provision because the commission is greater than my resources.
14. Pray against my own personal strongholds.
15. Pray for my family.
16. Pray for the disciples in my care (church).
1. “Christianity by 2014: Independent Christianity and Slum Dwellers,” Center for the Study of Global Christianity, January 2014, 29
2. David Barrett and Todd Johnson, World Christian Trends (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2001), 841
3. Kirsteen Kim and Andrew Anderson, eds., Edinburgh 2010: Mission Today and Tomorrow (Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2011), 194.
5. Alvin L. Reid, Radically Unchurched: Who They Are & How to Reach Them, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002), 23.
6. “Status of Global Mission, 2014, in the Context of AD 1800–2025,” accessed July 29, 2014, http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/documents/StatusOfGlobalMission.pdf.
7. Thom S. Ranier, I Am a Church Member” (Nashville: B&H publishing group 2013)
8. Daniel R. Sanchez, Church Planting Movements in North America (Fort Worth, TX: Church Starting Network, 2007), 18.
9. Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 93.
10. Michael Horton, “Beyond Culture Wars,” Modern Reformation, May–June 1993, 3.
11. Brett Kunkle, “How Many Youth Are Leaving the Church?,” February 24, 2009, http://www.conversantlife.com/theology/how-many-youth-are-leaving-the-church.
12. John L. Ronsvalle and Sylvia Ronsvalle, The State of Church Giving through 2002, 14th ed. (Champaign, IL: Empty Tomb, 2004), 36.
13. John S. Dickerson, Great Evangelical Recession, The: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church . . . and How to Prepare, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group; 2013), 84.
14. Johnson et al, “Christianity in its Global Context,” 8.
15. Ferguson, Dave “BLESS: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World” 2021
20. Ferguson, Gordon “My Three Lives”