The American Church in Crisis

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Groundbreaking research based on a national database of over 200,000 churches shows that the overall United States population is growing faster than the church. The director of the American Church Research Project, Dave Olson, has worked to analyze church attendance, showing that it is virtually unchanged from fifteen years ago while our population has grown by fifty-two million people. What does this mean for you, your church, and the future of Christianity in North America? The American Church in Crisis offers unprecedented access to data that helps you understand the state of the church today. “We live in a world that is post-Christian, postmodern, and multiethnic, whether we realize it or not,” says the author. This book not only gives a realistic picture that confirms hunches and explodes myths, but it provides insight into how the church must change to reach a new and changed world with the hope of the gospel. Readers will find a richly textured mosaic with optimistic and challenging stories. Charts, diagrams, and worksheets provide church leaders and motivated church members with a stimulating read that will provoke much discussion. Questions for discussion accompany the chapters.

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
“Dave Olson’s book documenting the state of the church in America provides the most strategic and helpful information available today for church leaders. It is absolutely an essential read.” — Dr. Jerry Sheveland, , President

“David Olson’s expert study of the state of the American church is eye-opening. Other more expressive words also come to mind—jolting, staggering, astounding! However, this wake-up-call book also provides answers on how to be proactive in turning the Church around. Read this book for the facts; then do something to change the state of the American Church.” — Gary L. Mc Intosh, , Professor

“David has put together the data and the challenge that every leader of the Christian World must respond to. Now is the time!” — Steve Andrews, , Lead Pastor

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780310277132
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Publication date: 3/1/2008
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

David T. Olson is director of the American Church Research Project and director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church. He is a graduate of Crown College and Bethel Seminary. He has pastored, planted, and supervised churches in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, and California. David and his wife, Shelly, have four children and live in the Minneapolis area.

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Read an Excerpt

The American Church in Crisis Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches
By David T. Olson Zondervan Copyright © 2008 David T. Olson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-27713-2


"Where is she? She was right here! How will we find her?"

Our family flew overnight to England, drove directly to downtown London, and caught a taxi to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. When we finished our sightseeing, the family began to walk eastward toward our car. At the incredibly busy intersection of Parliament and Bridge streets, we all agreed that we desperately needed food, as we had eaten our last meal somewhere over the Atlantic.

Our youngest daughter, Katie, believed that we were all following her as she headed into the crowd in search of a restaurant. Two minutes later, she looked back and noticed that no one was following her. Her heart began to beat rapidly, and tears welled up.

At the same moment, the rest of the family noticed that Katie had disappeared. Our daughter was lost in a city of 15 million people. Our London excursion had become every parent's nightmare. We divided up to search for our lost Katie. In the meantime, realizing her plight, Katie had reversed direction and began retracing her steps. Not long afterward, her older brother, John, became the hero by finding Katie and bringing her back to the appointed rendezvous site.

I remember our London experience when pondering the challenges the church faces. My daughter, thinking we were following her, looked behind and discovered that no one was there. If Christians were to look around, they would find that far fewer Americans are following their lead and authentically connecting to a local church than they might think. In a spiritual sense, so many Americans are lost.

That sense of "lost" haunts American culture. In spite of our technological advances and scientific certainty, our prosperity and abundant possessions, many people are miserable. In the 1990s a PBS documentary labeled this condition "affluenza," which was defined as both "the bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses" and "an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream." Greg Easterbrook, a senior editor of the New Republic, called this the "progress paradox," or "how life gets better while people feel worse."

Perhaps the most recent sign of this discontent in American culture is the success of The Secret, a get-rich-quick guide that debuted in December 2006. By March 2007, with 1.75 million copies already in print, the book's publisher announced plans for an additional 2 million copies, the largest print order in the company's history, according to Publishers Weekly. Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, described The Secret's success, saying, "Nobody ever went broke overestimating the desperate unhappiness of the American public."

However, most people know there is more to life than making money or achieving success. Christianity addresses the quest for meaningful answers to life's deepest longings and questions such as "Is there a God?" "What is my destiny?" "Is there a place for me in this world?"

Orthodox Christianity confesses that an experience with the true God and belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord brings salvation-moving people from the category of lost to that of found. Lionel Basney described this Christian experience:

For it is finally a matter of how belief is born in the new believer. That it occurs is plain; how it occurs may be told, and the narratives can, within a given community, be formalized, but finally we will have no evidence but the narrative. I once was lost, but now am found.

"Those who are awakened to the light," Tillich wrote, "ask passionately the question of ultimate reality. They are different from those who do not." ... The truth is that religious believers are always asking themselves this question ... and that if there is a subjective answer in devotion, the objective evidence is the persistence of the community that believes.

Don't Ask; Observe

This chapter asks, "How many people belong to 'the community that believes'?" This complex question is best answered by looking at four categories of belief expressed through behavior:

1. How many people attend an orthodox Christian church on any given weekend?

2. How many people regularly participate in the life of that community? (Not all are present every week.)

3. How many people have some level of occasional connection to a Christian community?

4. How many people report belonging to a particular church tradition, even though they have no authentic connection as shown by their actions?

A growing number of religious researchers believe that weekend church attendance is the most helpful indicator of America's spiritual climate. Attendance gives a more accurate picture of a person's religious commitment than membership. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "If you want to know whether a man is religious, don't ask him, observe him."

Attendance is a real-time indicator, a weekly appraisal of commitment. Membership reflects a commitment to a church made in the past but may not be reflective of current actions. The value of membership also differs by generation. The builder generation (born 1920-45) loved to join organizations. The boomer cohort (born 1946-64) resists institutional commitment. Looking at attendance rather than membership diminishes the effect of this generational difference.

Should church attendance numbers matter to Christians? Yes, they should. When church attendance declines, fewer people hear the gospel for the first time, take the sacraments, or hear of God's love for them. Fewer marriages are restored. Fewer teenagers find a listening ear. The question "How many people attend church?" matters deeply because people matter.

Recently, a pastor sent me an email asking about the importance of church attendance. He attended a presentation in which I pointed out that church attendance lagged behind population growth. He asked me why that mattered. I compared the dramatic growth in the number of children in his home state, Arizona, with the more modest increase in church attendance. The church in Arizona grew in attendance by 1.4 percent each year from 2000 to 2005, while the general population grew by 3 percent each year. During that five-year period, 22,000 additional children and teenagers began to attend church regularly. Yet from 2000 to 2005, the under 18 population of Arizona grew by 207,000.

In the short span of five years, 185,000 children and youth were born in or moved to Arizona who had no consistent connection to a church. Does that matter? Attendance numbers are significant because they represent people who are loved by God.

What Percentage Attend?

How many people attend church each week? This remains a surprisingly controversial question. Since 1939 Gallup pollsters have asked Americans if they went to church in the last week. In February 1939 Gallup asked, "Did you happen to go to church last Sunday?" and 41 percent of people said yes. And every year since, while the question has changed to "Did you yourself happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?" the answer has remained the same. Around 40 percent of people say yes, they went to church this week. From 2002 to 2005, the yes answer to Gallup polls ranged from 40 to 44 percent. During that same period, the Barna Research Group reported similar findings: 43 to 47 percent of American adults surveyed said that they attended church on the past weekend. Clearly, both polls accurately describe what people say about their church attendance pattern. Whether the answers accurately describe people's actual behavior is another story.

As well as reporting poll numbers, both Barna and Gallup comment on changes in church attendance patterns. George Barna writes,

From the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, church attendance was on a roller coaster ride. In 1986, 42 percent of adults attended a church service during a typical week in January. Attendance rose steadily, reaching a peak of 49 percent in 1991, before beginning a very slow but steady descent back to 43 percent in January 2002.

Barna often microanalyzes the polling data for each year. In 1997 he made this comment:

The escalation of interest in religion and spirituality has brought about a significant influx of adults back to the church. These gains have been steadily increasing since last January, when just 37 percent of adults were attending religious services during a typical week. Since that time attendance has consistently grown, reaching 43 percent in January of this year.

If the American church grew in attendance by 6 percent in one year, then 16 million additional people began to attend church in that year. With that sort of growth, worship attendance at every church in America would have increased by an average of 54 people. Since the average size of a Protestant church in America is 124, most churches would have noticed such a large increase. However, no reports surfaced of churches swamped by new attendees.

In 2004 George H. Gallup Jr. reported on changes in the polling numbers for Roman Catholic church attendance. He wrote, "Weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics appears to be on the rebound from an all-time low of 35 percent last February (2003).... The November 2003 data show that 45 percent of Catholics and 48 percent of Protestants say they attend church services weekly." According to Gallup, 6.5 million absent Catholics returned to weekly Mass attendance in a nine-month period in 2003. The average parish would have grown in attendance by 325 in those nine months. That would be an astounding increase, considering that Catholic parishes average 792 in attendance.

Instead of Roman Catholic churches being filled with the returning faithful, attendance counts actually dwindled. Two of the nation's most prominent archdioceses illustrate the significant decline during this period. In early 2004 the Boston Globe reported that in the Archdiocese of Boston, weekly Mass attendance had dropped 15 percent in the wake of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis. According to archdiocese figures, Mass attendance in October of 2003 was 304,000, down 15 percent from October 2001. The Archdiocese of Chicago reported a 5.9 percent decline in Mass attendance from October 2002 to October 2003. Mass attendance counts throughout the country showed a significant decline during this period rather than a strong recovery.

Attendance polls can also be internally inconsistent with other polling information collected by the same organization. In 2005 Barna reported that 47 percent of Americans went to church each weekend. With the U.S. population then at 296 million, church attendance would have reached 140 million people each week. However, Barna also reported that the average attendance at a Protestant church service was 90 adults. When adjusted for children and multiplied by the number of Protestant churches in America, and Catholic Mass attendance is accounted for, this calculation would show that 52 million people attended a Christian church each weekend in 2005. Which number is correct: 140 million or 52 million?

In 2006 Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, told Christianity Today that the results of their poll "should not be taken as a precise indicator of actual churchgoing behavior." Why? Because the question about church attendance is part of a larger opinion survey, not part of a specific study to determine actual churchgoing behavior. To obtain a "more precise" figure, Christianity Today reported, Gallup "would have to approach the problem differently-using multiple surveys, having respondents keep track of actual churchgoing behavior, and doing follow-up calls." Newport also wondered, according to Christianity Today, "if people tell pollsters what they usually do, rather than reporting actual behavior for a given week."


Excerpted from The American Church in Crisis by David T. Olson Copyright © 2008 by David T. Olson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword     8
Acknowledgments     9
List of Figures     10
List of Abbreviations     14
Introduction: Why Examine the American Church?     15
How Many People Really Attend Church?     23
The Trajectory of the American Church     33
The Millennium Effect     47
The Church's Remarkable Regional Landscape     61
"Poor, Uneducated, and Easy to Command"     81
Denominational Winners and Losers     92
The Survival of the Species     117
Why Established Churches Thrive or Decline     129
In the Birthing Room of the American Church     142
Cultural Change in America     161
Sober Reflections on the Future of the American Church     174
What Is the American Church to Do?     185
The Message of Jesus     193
The Mission of Jesus     200
The Message and Mission of the Church     208
The Restoration of the American Church     220
Notes     225
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2008

    A reviewer

    As a resource book 'The American Church in Crisis' is a good foundational tool to help understand the big picture within your denomination. The book will help explain some of the policies coming out of the national bodies of the major denominations. Leaders at the local levels need to be aware of the driving forces behind those policies while they attempt to balance their local situations with the national and global situations. Mr. Olson first brings to light a great deal of statistical information and then does a good job of evaluating trends and connecting those trends to the formulation of the policies adopted by the denominations at the national and global levels. Within Part 4 'Action' the local leader may find some helpful suggestions of how they can approach their own unique situations. This book is worthwhile as a tool to understand or at least be made aware of the different factors affecting the churches in our ever changing world.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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