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Questioning Reports of Declining Church Attendance

I have read many news articles over the past year in various sources claiming that church attendance in the United States is dramatically decreased.

The statistics vary a lot, so I won’t bother to offer any here. My point is simply that according to many journalists and other observers and commentators Americans are flocking away from churches.

As I work on my editing project for the 14th edition of the “Handbook of Denominations in the United States,” I am, indeed, seeing somewhat alarming decreases in many denominations’ reports of membership.

However, I believe this has to be kept in perspective; certain ameliorating facts have to be taken into account. They rarely are.

First, many denominations have finally begun to cull from their membership lists members who have not darkened the door of any of their congregations in years.

I have personally been involved in several such projects. One church had twice the number of “members” as regular attendees and many of the “members” had either died or moved far away.

They had been reporting them to their associations or denominational entities as their members for many years.

Second, on the other hand, many denominations have many more attendees than members.

This is a little-known fact about especially Pentecostal churches and denominations. There are other examples that are not Pentecostal but also “high demand” in terms of real membership.

Third, during the past several decades, totally independent churches and unaffiliated denominations have simply exploded on the American religious scene. By “exploded” I mean come into existence and grown by leaps and bounds.

Here are two examples:

1. A large bowling alley near my house recently closed and was purchased by an independent evangelical congregation that is unaffiliated with any denomination. The church renovated the bowling alley into a church building. Every Sunday morning I see the parking lots filled with around 300 cars.

I am quite confident that this congregation is unknown to statisticians of religious bodies to say nothing of journalists who seemingly joyously report about the downturn in church attendance in America.

2. I was staying in a large hotel in a major northern U.S. city a few years ago when I witnessed the enthusiastic gathering of around 200 people in the hotel’s first-floor ballroom on a Sunday morning.

It turned out to be a Pentecostal congregation begun by a husband and his wife primarily for older Christians who were tired of “contemporary worship” and began gathering to sing “old-time hymns” and worship in the “old ways.”

Anyone who is paying attention knows that these completely independent Christian congregations, accountable to no denomination or hierarchy, have popped up in vast numbers across America in the last few decades.

Along with that phenomenon have arisen many new denominations or “denomi-networks” – often growing out of large, very enthusiastic, independent churches that “plant” satellite churches.

Who is keeping track of all of them? How?

So far as I know, nobody is counting these churches or fellowship of churches in their estimates of American church attendance.

These case studies are not rare; the phenomenon of totally independent churches and new “denomi-networks” is absolutely astounding to anyone who is paying attention.

But it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of them in terms of statistics because most of these newer churches and denomi-networks do not report their numbers to anyone.

Nor is this phenomenon only regional.

When I travel in any region all over the U.S., I pay special attention to the churches I see in towns and villages and cities. Very many of them appear to be independent.

I then look up some of their websites and find that, indeed, they were simply started by some “called of God” evangelist or self-appointed pastor. Often they are not even incorporated.

So why do most people – including journalists who crow about declining church attendance in America – not know about this phenomenon?

There are very few religion journalists working for major magazines and newspapers anymore. That’s another thing I have noticed.

Everywhere I go, I scour the local newspaper’s religion page if such even exists anymore (used to be in Saturday editions).

Rarely do I see the name of any reporter especially assigned to that “beat.” If so, he or she is also assigned to the food “beat” (or something else).

There used to be “big name” religion reporters who worked for the major news magazines and major city daily newspapers.

There are hardly any anymore whose sole “beat” is religion or, if that is his or her sole “beat,” knows much about religion below the surface.

So, when I read or hear that “church attendance in America is down,” I wonder to myself if the reporter knows about the phenomenon of totally independent, unaccountable congregations often simply started in entrepreneurial fashion by some self-appointed evangelist, minister or whatever.

I doubt it.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.