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The Real Reason Churches Are in Decline

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2021 Nov 01

A survey of more than 15,000 religious congregations across the United States by Faith Communities Today (FACT), fielded just before the pandemic lockdown, was recently released. It found a median decline in attendance of 7% between 2015 and 2020.

It gets worse.

It also found that half of the country’s estimated 350,000 religious congregations had 65 or fewer people in attendance on any given weekend. In 2000, when FACT first began surveying data, the median attendance level was 137. That’s a drop of more than half in just two decades. 

And before you think this is reflective of only “mainline” Protestant groups, as opposed to more theologically conservative evangelical groups, think again. Yes, mainline churches are worse off (median average 50), but evangelicals reflect the median 65. In other words, this decline is across the board.

So what’s the problem? Why are churches of any and every stripe in such steep decline?

It would be easy to blame the cultural context, but that would be mistaken. The real reason was revealed in a recent survey of churches conducted in Canada that found 65% of church leaders say that evangelism hasn’t been a priority for their congregations over the last several years. In fact, only 9% said it was a high priority for members of their congregation to share their faith.

And again, before you think the survey was focused on mainline churches, think again.

The majority of those surveyed came from evangelical traditions, including leaders from Baptist churches, Pentecostal churches, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Evangelical Free Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Foursquare Church, and the Salvation Army.

So let’s be clear.

The church is in decline because we are turned inward instead of outward. Our hearts are not breaking for what breaks the heart of God, which is people facing a Christ-less eternity. And sadly, only a simple “invite” is all that is often needed: “Come and see, come and hear, come and explore.” 

I’ve long been taken by something Penn Jillette, of the famed Penn and Teller magic/comedy duo, once said in a vlog: “I [am] an atheist.... I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize.... If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell... How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?”

Apparently, a lot.

James Emery White


Yonat Shimron, “Study: Attendance Hemorrhaging at Small and Midsize US Congregations,” Religion News Service, October 14, 2021, read online.

Adam MacInnis, “Evangelism Not a Priority in Canadian Churches,” Christianity Today, October 13, 2021, read online.

Penn Jillette, “Penn Says: A Gift of a Bible,” Crackle, December 8, 2008, watch online.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. 

His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. 

Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.

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