Evangelicals love to count, and the higher the numbers the better. After all, the more people we count in our pews, the more people are "coming to know the Lord." In our better moments we know that is not necessarily true—most church growth is transferred growth, people just changing churches. But in our best moments, higher numbers mean people are coming to know Christ.
We've taken church growth statistics to new levels in the last few decades, and have created all sorts of formulas to determine whether we're growing or not. I recall as a pastor having to figure out how to determine "decadal growth rates" and "conversion rates." The goal of any card-carrying evangelical leader is to learn to count as high as possible, and there is something invigorating about that. But I wonder if we'd be wiser if we learned also how to count to one.
The Religion News Service just published its annual story on U.S. church growth, with the prosaic headline "U.S. churches continue growth, decline trends." What they reported is that for another year, yes, mainline churches continue to decline. This trend has for decades given evangelicals a cause for self-congratulation as they've looked to their own churches and seen them growing.
This started in the early 1970s after Dean Kelley published his Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (HarperCollins). Kelley noted how badly mainline liberal churches were declining and how conservative evangelical churches were growing. Kelley more or less just reported what he saw, and noted the correlation between high-demand churches (which conservative evangelical churches were at the time) and church growth. Conservative evangelicals took pride in the correlation, and many began assuming that the ...1