Statistics never tell the whole story, but they can validate a story exists. A chart detailing a decline in worship attendance cannot explain why the church is dying, but it does reveal the decline is actually occurring. During a recent church consultation, we interviewed a long-time member who refused to believe the church was declining. Even when we showed her a chart of their own numbers, she said, “You must have the wrong numbers.” If facts are our friends, then stats are our teachers. If we listen, we’ll learn.
Two simple statistics help explain the American church. There are other important church stats, but these two may surprise you.
- The median church size is 75 people.
- The median church age is 73 years.
Most American churches are smaller—under 100 people. Most American churches are older—existing for several decades. The story of the American church is one of small, established congregations.
First, a note about the term median: The median is a midpoint, not the average. If you want to make a statistician cringe, then say something like “The median average is . . .” Here is what we can learn from the above two stats. In the United States, half of the churches are younger than 73 years and half are older than 73 years. Half of the churches are smaller than 75 people and half are larger than 75 people.
Wait, isn’t much of the talk about younger megachurches? Yes, and I can understand why. They grew large in short amount of time. That’s worthy of a discussion.
What doesn’t get discussed as much is the segment of established churches that have under 100 people in average weekly worship attendance. They are the majority of churches in the United States!
Smaller churches are more normative than larger churches. Churches of 25, 50, and 100 are common. If you pastor such a church, you may feel abnormal because of the attention given to larger churches. However, it’s larger churches that are more the exception than the norm.
Established churches have one distinct advantage: Real estate. I’ve got lots of respect for the church planters setting up and tearing down every week in movie theaters and schools. Some pastors in established churches don’t know how good they have it. Sure, your roof leaks. I get how frustrating it can be. We have an old, tiny one-seater bathroom at our church. The light switch also turns on a fan that swirls so loudly the first time I went in there I thought the rapture was occurring. But we have a permanent location and an address everyone knows. Our real estate is a huge benefit to our ministry.
Small, established churches have a future. When I see a church on three acres buried in a dense neighborhood, I don’t think landlocked. I see an opportunity. Who else is better situated to reach the people there? These little churches dot the landscape of many cities. I realize many of them are dying and in desperate need of revitalization. But they have a future. Megachurches alone cannot return the American church to health. It’s going to take small, established churches too.
Two simple statistics reveal a lot about the American church. It’s smaller and established. If you belong to one, if you pastor one, then you are the future, not the past.