Insights Into the American Church

On Wednesday, March 30, 2011, the Rev. Eileen Lindner shared some insights into the current state of the church in the United States with a combined gathering of the General Assembly Mission Council Executive Committee and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. Here is some of what she shared:

62% of Americans say they are affiliated with a church, compared to 32% of Europeans.

In the United States, there are approximately 163 million Christians, 10 million Mormons, 7 million Jews, 7 million Muslims, and 3 million Hindus.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been in a membership decline for the last 47 years (since 1964). The first thirty years of that membership decline was because of a birth dearth – church members were dying faster than they were being born.

Out of the largest 10 religious groups in the United States, only three are growing in membership: the Catholics, the Mormons, and the Assemblies of God.

The 15 largest megachurches in the United States have an 80% turnover rate. They are not good at retaining their people. A lot of people enter the church through megachurches, but then they move on to other churches.

There are six main factors in the decline of denominations in the last 50 years:
1. The birth dearth – membership loss – more people are dying than being born.
2. A decline in a moral consensus in the church. We don’t have as much agreement on moral issues.
3. An accompanying decline in the moral authority of the church.
4. An accompanying loss of revenue. With the membership loss of #1 comes a similar decline of financial income.
5. An accompanying loss of identity/brand authority. There has been a loss of Presbyterian identity. We don’t know what makes us unique or special any more.
6. An accompanying divisive ethical debate. As the moral consensus in the church has declined, we have become more divided on ethics – what are the appropriate behaviors that are consistent with the Christian life? As the debate becomes more divisive, some people have left.

Middle Governing Bodies (MGBs) (presbyteries and synods) face STRESS factors from ABOVE:
1. From the dissolution of denominational focus – people question where the denomination is going.
2. From the dissipation of denominational resources – there are fewer things that come from the national office.
3. From the diminution of reinforced authority
4. Middle Governing Bodies have been functionally replaced by parachurch organizations. Parachurch groups do what many church groups used to do – e.g., Habitat for Humanity
5. Denominational resources are inadequate to maintain MGB structures
6. The assignment of unfamiliar tasks. Persons and positions are eliminated at the national level and the MGBs step in and try to pick up the slack.

Middle Governing Bodies (MGBs) (presbyteries and synods) also face STRESS factors from BELOW:
1. We have become more congregational than connectional
2. There has been a decrease in financial and human resources coming up from congregations
3. MGBs have been functionally replaced by parachurch groups in some ways, e.g. Habitat for Humanity
4. Local resources are inadequate to maintain our structures
5. MGBs are an endangered species

Both the national and local levels have expectations of Middle Governing Bodies. Both look to the MGBs for their own revitalization.
The denominational redefinition is closely linked to the MGB redefinition.
The question of ‘what does it mean to be a denomination?’ is changing rapidly

5 Emerging Aspects of Church Institutional Life
1. Presbyteries are taking multiple approaches to redefine themselves
2. Old functions are being done in new ways
3. Presbytery leadership will have to be cultivated as well as identified
4. The measures for church vitality are in flux – by 2030, church membership could be meaningless
5. Congregational crises reveal both continuity and discontinuity with the Middle Governing Body crises


One Response to “Insights Into the American Church”

  1. Michael W. Kruse Says:

    Nice summary, Clark! Thanks.

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