Just how bad is the bad news about churches today?

The numbers are serious, but there's hope for the future

Brad M. Griffin Image Brad M. Griffin | May 31, 2016

Photo by: Jack Toohey

You may have heard the sky is falling.

Churches are closing their doors.

Young people are walking away from faith.

So how bad is the bad news, really? It’s a question you may have wondered, and one we certainly ponder here at the Fuller Youth Institute. Our FYI team approaches research with a hopeful posture, so we wonder not only what the bad news may be, but also what good news is out there. First, the bad news:

Churches are shrinking

Most churches in America are not growing.

According to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center, the share of adults in the US who identify as Christians fell from 78 to 71 percent between 2007 and 2014. The increase in those who identify as “religiously unaffiliated” (meaning atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”) jumped by almost seven points, from just over 16 to 23 percent.

This well-publicized “Rise of the Nones” varies by denomination.

Mainline Protestantism has experienced the greatest dip in numbers. From 2007 to 2014, mainline Protestant adults declined by about 5 million.

Roman Catholic adults dropped nearly 3 million.

Adults in evangelical denominations, as well as adults in nondenominational churches with evangelical leanings, actually grew from 60 million to 62 million.

However, while total number of evangelicals has increased, the percentage of Americans who identify as evangelicals has actually decreased almost one percent from just over 26 percent to just over 25 percent.

Even though these shifts represent major downturns in three of our nation’s largest Christian traditions, not all denominations are experiencing a slump. In particular, several historically Black Protestant denominations remain relatively stable. And outside the US, some traditions are seeing growth globally.

To summarize, no major Christian tradition is growing in the United States today. A few denominations are managing to hold steady, but that’s as good as it gets.

Churches are aging

Most churches in America are also aging.

While young adults ages 18-29 make up 22 percent of the US adult population, they represent less than 10 percent of churchgoers.

In a recent 10-year study of congregations, people over age 60 increased by five percent and people under age 35 decreased by five percent.

Many churches see their average congregant age increase year by year and wonder what all the graying heads mean for the future of the church.

Young people do walk away

Alongside this shrinking and aging, churches are watching young people walk away.

A major turning point for young people’s faith in America tends to be high school graduation. Multiple studies highlight that about half of youth group seniors drift from God and the faith community after they graduate from high school. We’ve spent the past decade studying how to reverse this trend through our Sticky Faith work.

Some—perhaps more than half—of those who drift from the church end up rejoining the faith community, generally when they get married and have children.

But even those who return have made significant life decisions about worldview, relationships, and vocation—all during an era when their faith was shoved aside. The consequences of those lasting decisions are often tough to erase.

But bright spots are on the horizon

The data is clear that shrinking and aging are the default for most American congregations today. But that’s not the way it has to be. And it’s not happening in every church. Four years ago, we set out to learn from churches that were bucking this trend.

As Kara shared recently, our team at the Fuller Youth Institute spent the past four years studying over 250 congregations of diverse sizes, ethnicities, and geographic regions that are unlocking the potential of teenagers and emerging adults.

These churches joined us for one of the largest and most collaborative studies ever conducted on the topic, involving over 20 denominations, 25 expert advisors, 1,500 research participants, and 10,000 hours of staff research time.

All that work was focused on learning more about what’s going right in the church.

There is hope

Yes, it might feel like the sky is falling for the church in the US. And some days it may feel that way in your own congregation.

But we have great hope that God is still—as always—at work in the church, through the church, and for the church so the church can be all it was meant to be in the world.

Stick with us—we can’t wait to share all we’ve been learning about churches growing young!

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Brad M. Griffin Image
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content & Research for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based resources for youth ministry leaders & families. A speaker, writer, and volunteer pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over fifteen books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager & 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, Growing Young, and Sticky Faith. Brad and his wife, Missy, live in Southern California and share life with their three teenage and young adult kids.

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