Thom Rainer on “Where Have All the Churches Gone?”

Thom Rainer recently posted Where Have All the Churches Gone? at

Interesting insights from the post and the comments section. Here are the bullet points:

1. The primary metric for measuring church size in 1969 was Sunday school attendance. Today, the metric is worship attendance.

I wonder what caused the shift?

I have yet to read a book that tackles the place of Sunday school prior to the cell church movement and why it was literally phased out from most churches in the late 90s. I started attending church in mid-90s. We still had Sunday school back then but little by little, we just sort of chucked it out from our weekly activities. Now when I hear the word Sunday school, ancient images of flip charts and poorly attended meetings come to mind.

2. The top ten largest churches in America in 1969 were mostly Baptist churches- eight were independent Baptists, one was Southern Baptist and the last one was an independent church. Today, non-denominational churches are common among the larger churches, and only a relatively few independent Baptist churches make the list. Many of the largest churches today did not even exist in 1969.

I’m curious. Is this a reflection of the intellectual life of a nation? I mean, somehow these figures mean that in the past, Christians are more inclined to attend churches that have strong theological emphasis (the Baptists). Today, the largest churches are mostly in the Pentecostal side, meaning, the churches that are not known to emphasize doctrine. Of course that borders on over-generalization but still, it’s a fair question, isn’t it?

3. Richard Hopper pointed out in the comments that part of the problem was the lack of long term appointments of pastors. I think this is a very sharp observation. I’ve seen that in our churches too. Pastors get appointed, they make plans, they start executing those plans and suddenly, for some reasons, they resign. The next pastor goes through the same motion again. The problem is that they have different visions and methods. Because of this, the church keeps on rebooting every time there’s a change in leadership.

4. Another comment from myjersey30: “One factor not mentioned is the super-star senior pastor who oversees explosive growth during his long tenure but does not prepare his church for his eventual departure — instilling and modeling values of change and adaptation woven into the very fabric of disciple-making while also intentionally raising up a generation of leaders to replace him.”

I don’t think I could add anything to that eloquent statement. When a church is very successful, there’s only one thing that should be asked: What if the pastor is gone? If no one can give a good answer to that question, it’s time to launch a search party. Seriously.

5. Jim Michaels and Myoung both mentioned marketing in a negative sense. I kind of agree with them. It used to be that the “selling point” of Christianity is nothing but the pure, unadulterated gospel of Jesus. Today, people talk about branding, market share and human resources. Evangelism is almost treated like a sales presentation where the expected result is a decision card. We still do the church motions like they used to in the past but I think the major shift in the terminologies is a bit of a clue as to what’s really going on in our hearts. We have reduced the church into a business entity, and instead of living right as a testimony to the unbelievers around us, we spend lots of money in advertising.

6. Discipleship. This was mentioned many times in the comments. If the power brokers in the church would just stop being critical and maybe get busy making disciples, things could be different. Or maybe it’s the pastors that need to emphasize discipleship.

7. The church is trying to reach today’s people with yesterday’s methods. This was not fully explained but I’m thinking this stands opposite to point number 5 above. There are two opposing camps on this issue: those who favor adapting to new methodologies and those who want to stay traditional. I believe both sides have valid points. Now if we could just find the right balance, maybe it’s better?


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Jojo Agot

Pastor at Victory. Teacher and writer at Every Nation Leadership Institute (ENLI). MA in Theology and Mission at Every Nation Seminary.

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