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 righteousness of orthodox theology was confirmed by the growing numbers.
That has worked for decades, but the last few years have given us pause for thought. The recent RNS story reports that, again, even evangelical churches like the Southern Baptist Convention are now in decline. One conservative church is growing—the Assemblies of God—but it's nothing to write home about: a mere half a percent.
A couple of churches are doing remarkably well. The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) are up 1.42 percent. And the membership growth sweepstakes winner is the Jehovah's Witnesses, coming in at an astounding 4.37 percent growth rate. These are certainly high-demand groups (many would call them legalistic), but they are hardly models of Christian orthodoxy as traditionally understood.
Some evangelicals defend the paradigm ("We're growing, so we must be right") by shifting their eyes overseas to marvel at the exploding numbers of Christians in the developing world. It's not a stretch to see that nearly all of that growth is coming through evangelical and Pentecostal efforts. But when we look beneath the numbers, we see troubling signs. Lots of strong, mature, orthodox churches, to be sure. But also a lot of disciples of the prosperity gospel, those who practice syncretism, and those who pander after religious experience rather than the narrow road of discipleship. Overseas church growth does not automatically signal orthodoxy or church health, by any account.
And then, sadly, there are the outright lies. Christianity Today editors were talking with a Christian journalist from India a couple of weeks ago. He could not emphasize enough how many Indian Christian organizations exaggerate their numbers. The reason? If you can demonstrate numerical growth, the money from America will keep rolling in. What is true in India has been an infection in evangelicalism on every continent for as long as anyone can remember. One thing that made Billy Graham's team so unusual and so remarkable was their effort not to exaggerate their numbers. But Graham was made of extraordinary stuff. Your average evangelical—as Graham well understood in his day—cannot resist the temptation to exaggerate numbers once he starts counting.