American Church Research Project:
Surprising Stats in New Church Research - Nationwide Church Attendance Less than Half of Previous Estimates
St. Louis, MO (Oct. 12, 2006) Attendance at American churches is less than half of what we have believed in the past, according to Dave Olson, director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, and director of the American Church Research Project. The northeast U.S. is the only region where the church is growing faster than the population.
Olson addressed the Mission America Coalition annual conference on its closing day with groundbreaking new research about the state of the American church. Instead of relying on limited survey data which is then extrapolated to the entire population, Olson has worked for years to build a database of actual recorded attendance in over 300,000 churches across America. His vision was to present a much more accurate picture of what is really happening to the American church at both the national and local levels, and with information refined down to individual zip codes. "I'm not relying on what people say, I'm measuring their actual behavior," he told nearly 170 national church, ministry, and lay leaders gathered.
According to Olson's research, overall church attendance is virtually unchanged from 15 years ago, even though the United States population has grown by 52 million people—mostly unchurched. The northeast U.S. is the only region where the church is growing faster than the population, and no state has seen a net increase in the percentage of church attendance in the last five years. Even in the southern states, the traditional Bible Belt, the population is growing faster than the church. “Having information about actual attendance at churches in individual communities is a significant leap forward by itself,” said Jim Overholt, executive director of the Coalition, “but even more important is that we can now overlay the church data with census and other demographic information to tell us more about the dynamics of change within income, education, and other key sociological indicators that are also available by zip code.”
Olson's research revealed a number of surprising and often counter-intuitive statistics. For example: the evangelical church is growing fastest among the higher income, college-educated, suburban population, and declining fastest among the least educated, and in areas with the highest poverty rates. "The evangelical church is becoming suburban, affluent, and educated," Olson said.
"We live in a world today that is post-Christian, post-modern and multi-ethnic, whether we realize it or not," he said. To reach this "new world" with the gospel, the church needs to change, he told the leaders gathered, echoing one of the key elements in the Coalition’s new initiative, Calling God’s People Together to Love Our Communities to Christ."
The church needs to have an attitude of brokenness, humility, and repentance," he said, admonishing that as evangelical Christians we tend to have an attitude of triumph -- that we are right and the world should live like us. That attitude will keep us from reaching the lost for Christ, he said. He emphasized that the world simply acts the way it is supposed to -- as unbelievers. "This is the way it's always been, this is the way it's described in the Bible. The problem is that the church has not been acting like the church."
"The Christian community needs a restoration of its understanding of the message and mission of Jesus. It needs to be less self-righteous, individualistic, and materialistic. It needs to be more biblical, Christo-centric, and holistic." He said that when the Church talks about Jesus, it often does so in a second-hand way. "In a Christian world we can get away with that," he says. But not in the emerging 21st century culture.
The Mission America Coalition is a network of national church leaders, representing denominations, ministries, and other key Christian leaders with a shared vision to collaborate in prayer, evangelism, and revival. Since its inception, leaders from 81 denominations, over 400 ministries and dozens of ministry networks have been involved in the Coalition. Mrs. Vonette Bright (Campus Crusade forChrist), Dr. Billy Graham (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association), and Dr. John Perkins (ChristianCommunity Development Association) serve as honorary co-chairs.