A new and exciting spirit for evangelism is coming into the American Christian community.
In the first seven years of the 1970s, the United Methodists lost nearly a million members, the United Presbyterians just over a half million, and the Episcopalians just under a half million.
Some evangelical churches, too, noted signs of decline: in 1977 baptisms among Southern Baptists in Texas decreased for the first time in history. Even the fast-growing Assemblies of God has seen a two-year decline in Sunday school attendance.
In light of this, what are the prospects for growth in the eighties? I am optimistic because of the potential. Church growth does not come about by accident or coincidence, but by a combination of the blessing of God and human planning. Most church growth is intentional. When God’s people desire growth, pray for it, and plan and work for it, it usually occurs. It can happen in the eighties.
To see what God has in store, look first at post-World War II patterns. The fifties can be characterized as a decade of church growth. Most denominations, whether mainstream or otherwise, experienced steady increases in church membership and attendance. New churches were being planted regularly. In 1950, for example, 57 percent of Americans were church members; by 1958 the number had increased to 67 percent. The decade of the fifties, in fact, capped at least a century of steady growth in most American church groups.
Few if any church leaders suspected in 1959 that the coming decade would bring a reversal to mainstream American denominations. It now appears, however, that the sixties can be labeled a decade of transition. The momentum of the fifties carried the churches through to just about 1965. Then the most severe decline in church membership and attendance in the history of the mainstream denominations began as if on cue.
In this decade of transition one highly significant fact must be noted: not all American churches began losing members in the mid-sixties. Between 1965 and 1975, for example, while the Lutheran Church in America lost 5 percent of its members, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod gained 3 percent. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S. lost 8 percent, but the Church of the Nazarene gained 8. The second largest American denomination, the United Methodists, lost 10 percent while the largest, the Southern Baptists, were gaining 18. The most drastic loss was 34 percent in the Disciples of Christ—but the Assemblies of God were growing 37 percent at the same time.
The Seventies: A Time of Reassessment
As nonchalant as some church leaders were about the drop in membership in the early seventies, they did eventually begin to face the unpleasant fact that if such losses continued, their institutional existence would be in jeopardy. By 1975 they were asking why Americans seemed to be turning away from mainstream churches but not from religion in general.
A key stimulus to this reassessment was the 1972 publication of Dean Kelley’s book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. It brought membership trends to widespread public notice and is on nearly everyone’s list of the most influential American religious books of the decade.
As a result of the reassessment, for example, two thoroughgoing official studies of membership trends in the United Presbyterian church and the United Methodist church were published. Also, the Hartford Seminary Foundation was commissioned to establish a two-year think tank from a cross section of religious researchers, sociologists of religion, and denominational executives from the main denominations. Financed by the Lilly Endowment, the group’s study, Understanding Church Growth and Decline 1950–1978, was published in 1979. Sixteen scholars contributed under the general editorship of Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen. The book was the capstone of the decade of reassessment.
The Hartford consortium, however, concentrated on only one of the two areas up for reassessment in the seventies. They dealt largely with trends in membership in the main American denominations, mostly (with the exception of Southern Baptists) those belonging to the National Council of Churches. Equally important was reassessment among denominations in the evangelical stream that were growing, but not at rates commensurate with their potential. Look first at the Hartford assessment.
Analyzing the drop in membership in mainstream denominations is complex. As Hoge and Roozen show, trends in church membership are caused by a sometimes delicate interplay of four factors: contexts at both national and local levels, together with institutions at national and local levels. Dean Kelley’s book stressed the national institutional factors. The Hartford consortium generally (though not unanimously) thought contextual factors were more significant in explaining membership trends.
Though a member of the Hartford consortium, I believe Kelley’s position has much merit (he was also a member of the consortium). To me, the chief causes of the great decline were national institutional factors, meaning decisions made by denominational bureaucracies and translated into policies, programs, and budgetary allocations. Contextual factors do not seem to be the key because, for instance, while mainstream denominations were declining, in the same contexts evangelical denominations were growing. Both were happening in the same nation and in the same states. On the local level, in many suburbs where all could have grown, conservative churches were growing more vigorously than mainstream churches. In transitional urban areas, while Anglo-American churches were leaving, whether evangelical or mainstream, new churches taking their places tended to be of the evangelical stream. The central institutional problem concerned priorities of ministry. Though complex, clearly the relation of the ministries of evangelism and social service is crucial.
What happened in the sixties? The social climate is well known. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the hippie movement, the death-of-God viewpoint, situation ethics, and other social and psychological factors convulsed the religious world. Those already inclined to be “public Protestants,” as Martin Marty might say, particularly developed strong guilt feelings about the politically conservative nature of the American church. Those in power used this guilt to give social service top priority on the agendas of the mainstream denominations. Some were advocating theologically that “the world should set the agenda.” Evangelicals in general were not convinced, believing that the Bible should set the agenda.
Here is the major point: the studies cited show fairly convincingly that a strong emphasis on social service is not in itself a cause of decline in church membership. Churches can be very active socially and still grow vigorously—and here is a large if—if they do not give social service a higher priority than evangelism. But precisely this mistake was made first in the national offices, then on the level of judicatories, and then in many parishes in the mainstream denominations in the midsixties. Evangelism and the multiplication of churches, the primary stresses in the fifties, took a back seat. In their enthusiasm for social service, some leaders went so far as to ridicule evangelism as “scalp hunting” or “the numbers game.”
The result? In a seven-year period (1970–1977) the United Methodists, for example, lost 886,000 members, the United Presbyterians lost 526,000, and the Episcopal Church lost 467,000.
During the seventies—the decade of reassessment it might be called—some of the mainstream denominations began to reevaluate their priorities. Few, if any, did it with more determination than the United Methodists. In their 1976 Quadrennial Conference in Portland, Oregon, they established three priorities for programming over the following four years. Reportedly only two of them, reducing world hunger and strengthening ethnic churches, were previously recommended by denominational executives in Nashville and New York. The third, evangelism, gained its place among the three as a result of grassroots pressures. Theoretically all three have equal priority, but in practice the budget for evangelism is minuscule compared to the other two.
Reassessment by Evangelicals
Were churches in the evangelical stream slowing down during the seventies? While mainstream churches were reassessing their ministries, evangelical churches, which by and large had not reversed priorities, tended to coast along. Most of them were growing. Toward the end of the decade, however, some conservative churches and denominations saw they were not growing as fast as they could.
Southern Baptists are a case in point. Under the motto, “Bold Mission Thrust,” they had determined at home and abroad to confront every unbeliever with the gospel by the year 2000. During the seventies, while the American population was growing 7 percent, the Southern Baptists were growing 17 percent. But in 1977 an ominous statistic began to appear. In 1976, 1977, and 1978 the number of baptisms decreased nationwide. In 1977 and 1978, for the first time in history, there were fewer baptisms in the Texas State Convention. Some say, “As goes Texas, so goes the Southern Baptist Convention.” In 1978 Southern Baptists netted only 121 new churches—a meager 0.4 percent increase—and over 6,000 churches did not report baptisms. These figures are well known to SBC leaders who refuse to rationalize the lack of growth and are making changes before they, too, face a drop in membership.
Several other evangelical denominations are gearing for accelerated growth even though they have not experienced actual decline. It is true that Pentecostals, for example, grew 48 percent during the seventies while non-Pentecostal evangelicals grew only 10 percent. However, two of the most vigorous Pentecostal denominations, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) and the Assemblies of God, have noticed signs of slowing. A two-year decline in Sunday school attendance, for example, was a clear danger sign to general superintendent Thomas Zimmerman. He introduced a program for expansion, and the Assemblies of God now call the eighties “The Decade of Church Growth.”
In the Church of the Nazarene, home missions executive director Raymond Hurn noticed a gradual decline in the rate of membership growth in the midseventies. With the backing of the general superintendents, he launched an intensive training program in church growth throughout the denomination. Prof. Paul Orjala wrote a denominational study, Get Ready to Grow, which sold 50,000 copies in the first six months. Every Nazarene district superintendent has now taken formal church-growth training. The scholars in the Nazarene colleges and seminary have been introduced to these concepts, too. Change has already occurred.
Many other examples could be mentioned. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has provided church-growth training for all their district presidents and executives of evangelism and missions. Many Churches of Christ and others have accelerated their growth through consultation with Paul Benjamin of the National Church Growth Research Center. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, already one of the nation’s most rapidly growing denominations, in 1979 took what has to be the boldest step of all: they set a seven-year goal of doubling membership by 1987, their one-hundredth anniversary.
Action for Growth in the Eighties
If the fifties were a decade of church growth, the sixties of transition, and the seventies of reassessment, what lies ahead for the eighties? These years all will be more like the fifties than the sixties or seventies, with great potential for evangelism, church planting, and church growth. Consider four groups:
1. Mainstream denominations. To me, the most exciting possibility for the eighties is the potential turnaround in the declining growth patterns of many denominations. If this happens, it will be a first in American history. Given the sociological life cycle of institutional churches, declines of this nature are seldom reversed. But they can be. The key to significant change, I believe, will be a reexamination of priorities. Evangelism and church planting need to regain the top position in denominational philosophies of ministry.
Evangelicals in these denominations realize that social service need not suffer as a result. Holistic mission can be held high. In fact, as the Gallup surveys tell us, churches that have held to the biblical priority of evangelism have actually ended up making more of a contribution in the area of social ministries than churches that have reversed their priorities and allowed evangelism to slip down the list.
2. Evangelical denominations. Fundamentalist and evangelical denominations should continue to grow and accelerate. In general, they have not been tempted to reverse biblical priorities. They believe in the evangelistic mandate. Probably Pentecostal denominations will continue to lead the way in growth, and non-Pentecostal evangelicals can learn much from them.
As we move through the eighties, I see an increase in the number of superchurches on the one hand and of house churches on the other. We will probably see the building of a significant number of sanctuaries seating 2,500 to 5,000. One is under construction in Orlando, Florida, to seat 7,500 and another planned for Birmingham, Alabama, seating 10,000 (both Assemblies of God). Many unchurched Americans will be attracted and won to Christ through these superchurches.
But many are repulsed by them and are more inclined toward house churches. Perhaps the model in Los Angeles by the Open Door Community Churches, under the supervision of Robert Hymers, merits careful study. Membership and the number of house church congregations have both doubled each year for the last three years. They seek to maintain that rate of growth and project 1,000 house churches of 35 members each by 1985.
As evangelical churches grow in the eighties, it will be instructive to watch the development of new, creative denomination-like structures that are not members of the National Association of Evangelicals or even listed in the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. They do not like to be called “denominations.” Many even refuse to count their members. One example is the group of Calvary Chapels, offspring of Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, California. An unofficial goal of some of their leaders is 10,000 churches by the end of the decade. Their target is the “rock generation,” young adults, ages 18–29, who, according to the recent CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll, are most likely to drop out of more traditional churches. Churches that want to learn more about ministering to this segment of the population can get good clues from the Calvary Chapels.
3. Local churches. In the final analysis, all church growth takes place in local churches. While many find themselves in areas of low potential for growth with some even suffering from terminal illnesses, many others—probably the majority—can grow if they have determination and are willing to pay the price. Churches belonging to denominations need not wait for denominational programs to come along: a large and growing number of resources is available to them. So many institutes and agencies geared toward helping local churches grow have emerged that they are forming a professional society called the Academy of American Church Growth. They produce films, books, home study programs, seminars, games, Sunday school curricula, computerized surveys, long-term planning models, and many other aids. These combine with an increasing number of denominational resources to make church growth a possibility for most local churches.
4. Those who share the faith with others. I perceive a new and exciting spirit for evangelism coming into the American Christian community, both Protestant and Catholic. We all need to encourage one another in this. Less energy should be expended in criticizing and demeaning, and more in praying and supporting. Anyone can find fault with the Four Spiritual Laws, or a Crystal Cathedral, or buses in Hammond, Indiana, or a 100-foot banana split in Sunday school. But after reviewing Philippians 1:15–18, one wonders whether the apostle Paul would use his energy that way. He would at least be pleased that Christ is preached.
Support in prayer and encouragement for evangelism can be shown through the American Festival of Evangelism scheduled for Kansas City in the summer of 1981. If the anticipated 20,000 clergy and lay leaders from all denominations come together, the festival could provide a major impulse for evangelizing our nation in the eighties. The planners hope it will feature the kind of evangelism that produces not merely decisions for Christ, but people who accept responsible church membership as well.
What does the decade of the eighties have in store for the church in America? It will present unprecedented opportunities for growth if only God’s people redeem the time, direct their prayers to the Lord of the harvest, and dedicate themselves and their resources to appropriate action.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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