Recently, I mentioned a startling figure making the rounds in Christian-Land: this notion that 6000-10000 churches per year close in the United States. At the time, I couldn’t find the source for the figure. Today, though, I want to dive into it and see where it comes from, if I can, and figure out if it’s accurate. Then we’ll look at what it might mean and why it might be important.
The Problem of Statistics.
One of Christianity’s biggest problems is its high degree of fragmentation. When we wonder about statistics regarding the religion, we slam face-first into a wall made of many tens of thousands of denominations and other assorted religious groups. Many times, they don’t like to share information that is very detrimental to their overwhelming interest in recruitment and retention of members.
Even when we only look at one church, we see this evasiveness. Recently, we looked at a weird evangelism strategy pulled straight out of J.D. Greear’s nether region. It actually wasn’t easy to tally up his strategy’s effectiveness from year to year! We saw the same thing happening with the SBC’s annual Beach Reach evangelism program.
Another big problem in Christianity is its members’ dishonesty. Even as Christianity loses millions of adherents a year, Christians still tell Gallup pollsters they attend church about as often as they always have: about 40% of Americans say they attend church on any given Sunday. Largely, Americans have always responded like this. But other methods of counting butts in pews reveal that this number is dropping quickly.
Worse, even when we think we have solid numbers from Christians we can’t count on them to be disinterested neutral reporters. Indeed, I’ve noticed that they overstate or understate their case depending on what they wish to sell or what they want to strong-arm other Christians into doing.
And worst of all, once a really dramatic idea enters Christians’ heads, way too many of them simply accept the claim reflexively–especially if it comes from a leader.
So, That 6000-10000 Number.
I found that 6000-10000 number freakin’ everywhere online. Everywhere. People just repeated it constantly among themselves. I found mentions of it on Infowars–Alex Jones‘ site, which still chugs along fine, it seems like. Meanwhile, some guy spread a dozen or two blog posts across a dozen or two Christian Right websites capitalizing on this ominous number. That same guy even tried to hawk his stupid Rapture prediction book with it. And you can bet that evangelicals wring their hands over the figure.
Literally, the only people I saw pushing back against this number were atheists, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.
I saw only two sources given for the figure, and those were provided only in the vaguest fashion: the United States Census and records from the fundagelical denomination Assemblies of God (AoG). And that’s a problem. First, of course, the United States Census stopped asking anything about religion in the 1950s. They do offer a very complex set of tables concerning economic activity–which includes churches. I downloaded the past five years available of these databases. However, I didn’t see a huge lot of change in the overall number of religious establishments. Second, of course, I doubt that the AoG’s numbers can be extrapolated that far outside their own denomination.
Another site that tracks self-reported congregation numbers turned up more churches added since 2000. (That said, they also recorded almost three million fewer members than Christianity had in 2000.)
Calling in the Experts.
But we know churches are closing–every denomination in the country has a bunch of churches that struggle to keep their doors open. Years ago, many churches instituted measures like church-sharing and bivocationalism (that’s Christianese for a pastor with a day job).
Consequently, I fell back on a peer-reviewed paper written on the topic last year by Simon G. Brauer for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. In this paper, he describes exactly the same problems I ran into. Mostly, the problem is one of self-reporting biases. Denominations don’t always keep great records, and they often feel a vested interest in inflating their membership rolls. (We’re getting to why that is, sometime soon.)
Statistics folks have been busy behind the scenes figuring out some equations that can estimate these numbers more correctly. They go off of the most reliable records they can find and extrapolate outward to the religion as a whole. Doing this, Brauer came up with these figures:
- 1998: 336,000 congregations
- 2006: 414,000 congregations
- 2012: 384,000 congregations
Each of these numbers comes with some plus-or-minus, of course.
The Question of Church Plants.
A few things might be happening here in those rising-and-falling estimates.
For a start, we know that many Christian denominations that focus on evangelism will fling a church plant at anything that moves. Church plants represent a big risk for these denominations, but one that their leaders feel happy to allow members to take on their behalf.
As just one example, the still-declining Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has fretted for years now about how few church plants they’re starting. They know that this is a numbers game, just like evangelism itself is. They need X number of churches to start so that they end up with Y number at the end of the year. If X churches don’t start, then they won’t–can’t–keep pace with the churches that must close.
Because Christians are so happy to start new churches everywhere, they’re going to see a lot of those new churches close. Indeed, I noted some speculation that it’s usually the weaker churches with smaller, less-deep-pocketed congregations that are closing–while megachurches and other large groups bleed off and cannibalize those weaker churches’ membership.
And, too, Catholics are losing some humongous old churches, but I don’t often hear of the same thing happening in Protestantism–yet.
More importantly, 2006 represents what might be the high point of Christian dominance in America. I’ve said that for a while now. Brauer’s paper seems to confirm that hunch; his count of congregations hits its highest point in 2006. His figures show a leveling-off between 2006 and 2012 to the tune of about 30,000 churches, which means that roughly 5,000 churches a year closed in those six years.
That high point of 2006 might well be a time when churches expanded and got planted with more abandon than usual. Ever since then, we might have been experiencing a leveling-off effect. As people disaffiliated from the religion–either by deconverting entirely or simply disengaging from devotions–church leaders discovered they’d written checks that their downsized congregations could no longer cash.
Also worth noting: other estimates of church closings don’t always count non-denominational churches, which Brauer tried to do. Their inclusion might have shifted a lot of estimates around.
How Many Churches Are Closing, Then?
That’s a good question. I couldn’t even tell you with 100% confidence where the 6000-10000 figure comes from. (Probably from Thom Rainer by way of LifeWay–but who knows?)
Last time we met up, I found myself reluctant to just parrot those numbers without offering a big caveat beforehand. However, Christians themselves seem quite satisfied with that number. I saw nobody rejecting it, arguing with it or even wondering about its source. The only adjustment I saw to the estimate came from Thom Rainer, who initially went with a higher starting number at one point–without sharing why he later revised it downward! (Why start transparently sharing sources and data now, right?)
In itself, Christians’ open-armed acceptance of the number tempered my own feelings about it. Right now, I’m leaning toward that 5,000 figure. But I’m very open to amending it, if better information comes out.
As long as Christians can game numbers about their strength and penetration anywhere, they’re generally going to do it. It is no accident at all that it was almost impossible to find any good, reliable counts of congregations in America.
So it seems to me that the estimates that the AoG and the Census use might come from inflation of numbers, while that 6000-10000 closing number might represent fudging in a whole other direction. If it serves Christian leaders’ interests to look strong, then they go one way. If they want to scare the pants off their congregations to get them moving and voting in the right directions, then they go the other way.
How This Figure Serves Christian Interests.
Church leaders and right-wing “news” sites are getting a lot of mileage out of this 6000-10000 figure.
Thom Rainer, always a fella I can count on for a peek into fundagelicalism’s hive-mind, uses the figure to motivate his followers. To him, the figure means they must Jesus harder–by which I mean they must do all the stuff Rainer’s always told them to do, except harder and more of it. In Rainer’s hands, this figure become an alarmist prediction of what will happen if Christians don’t Jesus just as hard as they can. It becomes a rallying call.
And that’s how other Christian leaders appear to be engaging with the figure. It’s their goad, their cudgel, their prod. If the flocks could not be roused in victory, then perhaps they will be roused by simple self-interest.
This figure–as real or fake as it is–rouses Christians to anger and defiance, and it makes them feel like underdogs who must get into the game before the game ends forever. And hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, their earthly shepherds think, it might just get them to start listening to their masters’ orders.
But I doubt it. I don’t think these leaders have fully reckoned yet with their losses of dominance, nor with just how passive so many of their flocks have become after years of ruthless authoritarian leadership.
We shall see.
Why We Should Maybe Care Somewhat About This Topic.
This whole discussion might sound a little out of left field. Nobody who hangs out on this blog is fundagelical that I know of; even our Christian members aren’t the type to be swayed by alarmism. So if 4,000 churches close a year, or 5,000, or 6,000-10,000, or 15,000 even, what do we care about it?
To a great extent, I’m sure most of us don’t. It’s not our circus, nor our monkeys. Most of us (including me) are probably just glad that Christianity is declining.
Here’s why I care anyway:
First, remember how I was talking about how Christians just accepted this figure that, for all we can tell, just magically appeared one day out of the blue without context and without citations?
Well, I don’t want to be someone who just takes the word of anybody like that. Even if it aligns with my hopes for the future, even if it makes me happy, I don’t want to just embrace anything without scrutiny.
Second, the hysteria that Christian leaders are ginning up around this 6,000-10,000 figure sure looks like part of their overall last-gasp attempt to regain dominance in America. I like to keep abreast of their strategies.
Third, we know that churches are closing. The rate might be a bit up-in-the-air, but it’s happening. And that’s going to affect a lot of people and communities as time goes on–as well as Christianity itself, as those smaller, money-challenged churches start to vanish and congregations start to consolidate and work out how to pay their bills. I’d like to keep up with that development too.
One thing’s for sure. We can count on Christians themselves to generally avoid engaging with any real figures about their religion’s decline. That avoidance, itself, might well be part of why Christianity is declining in the first place. And if they can’t engage with reality, then they sure ain’t in a headspace to fix anything wrong.
NEXT UP: We look at Thom Rainer’s advice to dying churches. Then, we tackle how prosperity gospel affects so many Christians’ thinking. See you soon!
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