The Southern Baptists are losing numbers, too. Yikes!

The fact of the matter is that church attendance in American is shrinking almost across the board, presenting congregations with a huge problem, or perhaps an unprecedented opportunity.

The Southern Baptists were here in Phoenix for the annual convention last week — 5 or 6 thousand of them.  That’s way down from the mid-1980s when there might have been almost 40,000 Southern Baptists at their annual gathering.

Even though in the last year alone, the Southern Baptists have targeted, and in fact, planted many multi-ethnic churches, including scores of Spanish and Asian-speaking churches, their numbers overall continue to decrease.  They are down from 16.3 million million members in 2003 to the current number of 15.2 million.  Yes, they still are the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.  By far.  Still, the baptisms in Southern Baptist Churches are as low as they have been in many decades. And let’s be honest, most baptisms result from children in the church, or folks who were previously baptized but have now rededicated their lives and want to be baptized again, for whatever reason, than they do from converts.

While many Evangelical denominations have plateaued, the Assembly of God churches continue to grow.   Of course, I think that’s wonderful.  Largely, I’d venture to say the growth is because 42% of their church membership is nonWhite, including 10% Black and 23% Latino. Sadly, church attendance in a large percentage of church denominations in American is shrinking precipitously.

Assembly of God churches are benefiting from immigration — particularly from Central and South America, and from Africa — much more than the Southern Baptists. (And to be frank, the Assembly of God denomination has for decades stressed and valued including Latinos, African-Americans and, more recently, Asians and Africans.  And not just including them, but letting them be part of the authority and power structure in the churches.  That’s the game changer, to my mind.)

Southern Baptists are now doing that, too, but they are late to the party. It’s one thing to say “You are welcome in this church.” It’s quite another thing to say, “You are welcome in this church, and you get to lead in this church.  We are traditionally an almost all white denomination, but in recently decades we truly are trying to change. You are now not only welcome here, but you get to make decisions that will affect my life, whether I may totally agree or like it or not.”

Or consider the Presbyterian Church USA.  Do a couple of google searches on the Presbyterian Church USA, for example, and you’ll see that this denomination is hemorrhaging. It’s scary to try to image what it will look even 10 years down the line.  The average age of the members in the Presbyterian Church USA is about 60 years old. I recently talked with a very well-educated Presbyterian woman [And by the way, most of them historically have been well-educated]. She said to me, “I am 80 years old, as are many people in this church. We’ve looked in the mirror 5 years down the road. To be blunt we don’t like what we see!” And then she started to cry.

I read an article in today’s Sunday Arizona Republic (6/18/2017) by Tom Simplot that I thought really spoke to one of the main reasons churches in America are not growing.  Simplot is the president and CEO of the Arizona Multihousing Association.  He says in the next dozen years the Phoenix metro area is expected to need 150,000+ new apartments to keep up with local demand. Currently, he says there are 406,000 apartments in the Phoenix valley.  Add another 150,000 apartments and you can only imagine the building that will be happening in the Valley of the Sun.

Can you guess who will fill these apartments?  Young University of Arizona and Arizona State University graduates? Nope. Actually, people 65+ will account for a large part of the population growth in these apartments and frankly, in condos across the whole of the United States. (If you are an entrepreneur, and are thinking of selling sturdy yet light-weight bicycles to retirees, well, Phoenix may be your market.  The Snowbirds already are here from January through early May, but tens of thousands more apparently are coming. Just sayin’.)

Indeed, all the research shows that older renters are helping drive future apartment demand. (No, maybe not in a college city like Champaign-Urbana, IL, where I live.  But in Phoenix and Tuscon, AZ, and San Diego, CA, and Sarasota and Orlando, FL, and Fort Collins, CO, and San Antonia, TX, and Eugene, OR, and well, even Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN.)

Can you say, “What in the world are we going to do with millions of retired baby boomers?” Careful now. I am a baby boomer!  I, too, have looked in the mirror.  I’m with my 80-year-old Presbyterian friend.  “I don’t like what I see!”

Ever considered helping lead worship services for older folks?  Let me tell you, if that interests you, I promise you you’re going to have innumerable opportunities.  Right here in Phoenix the Snowbirds are gone for the summer. Even so, there are many, many chances to lead worship services every single Sunday in assisted-care units all across the valley — this very summer. Yes, week in and week out.  And that multiplies exponentially every January when the Snowbirds return.  You can take your pick as to where you want to serve. (“Sorry sonny, I think your preaching is probably really good, but I can’t hear a word you are saying.”  Very fun, huh? Call it whatever you want. It is what it is, and the number of retirees across this great land just keeps a growing!)

And then this, which I think may be the main reason churches are not growing…

The principle indicators of home ownership historically have been life events such as marriage and children.  In 1960, 44% of all households in the U.S. were married couples with children.  Today, that percentage is 19% and dropping sharply. The number is expected to drop several more percentage points in the next 5 years.  Wow.  

Try to imagine that? So your congregation wants to reach out to intact families, does it?  Really?  I do think that’s good. Lord knows those family need an enormous amount of help — badly.  No argument, there. But look at the statistics.  What do you think that means for your church?  For any church?  For the next generation of church leaders?  Big changes a coming, friends.  I’m sure in many ways we can only imagine.

With the traditional family home almost evaporating before our very eyes, is it any wonder churches are losing numbers?  Sunday is not a day of rest. Not any more. It hasn’t been for decades of course, but it’s getting even more pronounced.

Most stores are open on Sundays, certainly. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Sunday is a work day for an entire country of single-parent households. Sunday may not be the going-to-work-to-your-week-day-job (although that’s increasingly normal, too), but Sunday is a busy, full day for you.

Just this weekend I talked to a single mom here in Phoenix who usually drives her 3 kids to their dad’s place on Sunday, a 45-minute drive.  They switch off.  She said the kids dad doesn’t take them to church. When her kids are with her on the weekends they go to church with her. “But they have a hard time getting settled and liking the church because they are not there all the time.  Well, really only about half the time or less. Sometimes when I have them they complain and whine about going, and so I just give up and we all stay home.”

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

“Guilty and defeated,” she said.

The woman sometimes doesn’t even go to church herself after she drops her kids off with their dad, even though she said, “I’m definitely a Spirit-filled Christian. But I often spend the time shopping, doing laundry and doing what cleaning the house gets during the week. I have no choice. And besides, it’s no fun just going to church by myself.”

Now, take that single mom and dad by several million and you have one of your main reasons church attendance continues to drop across the United States.

Frankly, can the church reach out and offer help to these folks?  Is there anyway to stand in the gap for these kinds of folks?  I have my doubts.  Maybe the way we traditionally have done church is going to have to change, and change dramatically.  Because, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.”  Maybe we could really turn up the heat and ask it this way: “What does God want the church to do about this?

Yes, I suppose there are creative ways to reach these folks, but for the most part, it just is not happening. Church attendance, across the board, is shrinking.

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