See the post I coauthored with the editors of Leadership Journal at the Out of Ur blog:
Missional vs. Attractional: Debating the Research
What do the numbers say? It depends who you ask.
by Url Scaramanga & Andy Rowell
In the comments of a recent post, Scot McKnight, David Fitch, Dan Kimball and Alan Hirsch argued about what the church stats say. They called for evidence. So in this post, I lay out some quantitative data that is relevant to the discussion. (See my Following Dan Kimball's Missional vs. Megachurch conversation to get caught up on the chronology of the discussion). The evidence I present is not decisive for "either side" but it sheds light on what we know and don't know. My point is merely that we need to be careful about making broad claims about where the church is growing and declining. I agree that we need to be reasonably informed about sociology but that our direction comes from theology.
Here are the footnotes that they edited out:
Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 124-125.
Stanley Presser and Mark Chaves, "Is Religious Service Attendance Declining?" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 46 (2007): 417.
Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe (Waco: Baylor, 2008), 14.
Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 8-9.
Notes about interpreting David Olson's The American Church in Crisis statistics:
As I have noted before, David Olson's research is principally based on statistics from 20 or so denominations. It tells us something but not necessarily about all churches in the U.S.
The quote in the article from Olson was not suggested by me but by the Leadership Journal editors. It is from the following piece:
Rebecca Barnes and Lindy Lowry, "The American Church in Crisis", Outreach magazine, May/June 2006.
The claims by Olson are also made in his book:
David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
Olson tallies together headcounts from denominations and based on that argues that the attendance number is fairly stable but the American population is growing. First, I do not think his numbers adequately represent independent churches and smaller denominations. Second, I know of no other researcher who depends on headcounts as Olson does with so little clarification about establishing a comprehensive methodology.
D. Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, notes in response to Olson's research:
"Counting heads to estimate weekly worship service attendance is far less reliable than estimates based on survey responses . . . For researchers to generalize head counts to the entire adult population, they must be conducted as an exhaustive consensus or a representative sample."
D. Michael Lindsay, "Gallup's Research Remains More Reliable Than Counting Heads," Rev. Magazine (Mar/Apr 2008): 59.
It should be said that I appreciate Olson's research for what it does tell us and I used it in my previous post "Megachurch Misinformation" at Out of Ur. For example, one can look at the church planting statistics from 10 denominations. These stats do not tell us about church planting in America comprehensively but give a nice snapshot.
Additional notes about young adults:
I do not mean in the Out of Ur post to paint a rosy picture of American Christianity. As Andy Crouch notes in the comments, there is no room for complacency.
Robert Wuthnow points out that frequent church attendance among young adults is down from 31 percent in the 1970s to 25 percent more recently.
Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 52-53.
I love all kinds of churches. All need to be continually evaluated by good theology.
As I said in my earlier post Megachurch Misinformation,
All of us want "more and better disciples of Jesus" (a phrase I first heard from Brian McLaren). In the Church of England, they are talking about a "mixed economy" of "fresh expressions" of church being a good thing--in other words different churches will reach different people. I am hopeful about both missional and megachurch expressions of church.
See also my posts:
and my posts in the Sociology category.