The State of the Evangelical Church

Ed Stetzer
Friday, May 1st 2015
May/Jun 2015

Ed Stetzer is executive director of LifeWay Research and a well-known conference and seminar leader. Holding two master's degrees and two doctorates, Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, and has written dozens of articles and books. We posed a series of questions about the state of evangelicalism: where people go to church, the diversity of church, worship trends, and church growth theories.

In 1970, Donald McGavran, a missiologist and founding dean and professor of Mission, Church Growth, and South Asian Studies at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, published a seminal book on missions titled Understanding Church Growth. How have church growth theories changed since Donald McGavran popularized the concept of a homogenous unit?
McGavran contributed much more than the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP), though that is probably what he will be remembered for. What he did was seek to apply some of the social sciences to missions. But yes, church growth theories changed from what McGavran said to what his disciples said, and it has continued to change.

Over the years, a lot of this headed into "methodological mania." Basically, some people turned missiological analysis into methodological strategies: "If you do these four things, then these nine things will happen." So the Church Growth Movement (note the capitals) ended up missing some key things. For example, I'd say the movement focused more on growth than on genuine conversions, more on fruitfulness at the expense of faithfulness, and ultimately more on enlarging a church rather than on what a church actually is. However, it would be a mistake to not learn how best to engage our culture so that we can proclaim the gospel most clearly. That's what McGavran was originally about, and he sought to apply that to the HUP.

The HUP basically said that people were more likely to come to Christ without crossing racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic boundaries. At the time, that was surprising and new to consider. Today, most consider that to be common sense’a poor, Gujarati church in Sindh, Pakistan, is more likely to reach the ethnic minority of Gujarati in Sindh.

An issue arose when people began applying those principles in ways that separated rather than brought people together, which can be tricky.For example, the Presbyterian Church in America has an African-American ministries department led by my friend Wy Plummer. Should it? Furthermore, doing research on how African-American church plants can be more effective would be the kind of research that McGavran would say is the correct application of his HUP. Wy and the leadership of the PCA became the lead sponsor of a LifeWay Research project that examined 290 African-American church planters. In their study they found that among the churches that closed, lack of financial support was the most common contributing factor. The survey identified three characteristics that had the most positive impact on worship attendance. Those characteristics were present in more than two-thirds of the churches: delegation of leadership roles to volunteers, leadership training for new church members, and a plan of personal spiritual formation for the church planter. The study also found that worship style impacts attendance. The most common worship style used by African-American church plants was blended, cited by 45 percent, followed by contemporary gospel, contemporary, and urban contemporary, ranging from 12 to 14 percent. However, church plants with a more distinctive style, urban contemporary for instance, had higher attendance than churches using a blended style. That's the best of Donald McGavran applied today.

In the past, megachurches have catered to specific musical tastes or worship environments by hosting multiple worship venues on one campus. Church plants have targeted specific populations in neighborhoods of large urban areas. Is niche marketing dead? Are those sorts of trends changing?
It's maybe not dead, but it's definitely changed. Years ago, particularly during the 1980s and '90s, there was a swarm of new or transitioned churches that moved into contemporary approaches. Today, most large churches are led like Saddleback and worship like Calvary Chapel. In other words, niche marketing may seem less common, but as most churches look alike now, that's not really a niche.

Now, of course, I know there are major exceptions’and many churches of the readers of this magazine would be among them. However, the fact is that what those niche churches did in 1987 was not what a normal large church looked like, whether Presbyterian, Baptist, or nondenominational. So you did not need a niche when there was a worship war and the niche churches won. Most churches are just generically contemporary with variants of that approach.

Are evangelical churches becoming more or less diverse in their congregations?
They are more diverse but probably not as much as in the general population. Interestingly, in a recent LifeWay Research survey, 85 percent of serious Protestant pastors say every church should strive for racial diversity. Yet about the same percentage say their church is predominantly one racial or ethnic group. The most recent National Congregations Survey from Duke University summarized that American congregations have become more ethnically diverse since 1998. A key point is that, although the population of congregations has itself become somewhat more diverse’for example, 7.7 percent of churchgoers attended predominantly Hispanic congregations in 2012 compared to only 1.4 percent in 1986’there also is meaningful change within congregations. That is, congregations, especially predominantly white congregations, have become more internally diverse since 1998. The percentage of people attending congregations in which no ethnic group constitutes at least 80 percent of the regular attendees increased from 15.3 percent in 1998 to 19.7 percent in 2012. So we have made progress, but we have a long way to go. Simply put, everyone loves the idea of diversity; they just don't want to do church with people who are different from them.

How do the percentages break down of people worshipping in churches? Are more people in fewer large churches? How does the research speak about church size? What is the segmentation from small church to megachurch or beyond?
The largest trend is toward large, nondenominational churches. The language differs, though, on how to describe this. For example, there is no real definition of a "small church." This probably seems odd, but the issue is that the "small" church is the "normal-sized" church. The National Congregations Study puts the median church size around 75. Although most people would say that's a small church, it's really a normal church. So the small church is the normal church. Yet most Americans don't go to small churches, even though most American churches are small. Let me explain: Just about everyone would consider a church with 1,000 people in weekly attendance to be a large church. More people attend churches with over 1,000 people than attend churches with fewer than 100’even though almost 60 percent of churches consist of less than 100 people. Fifty percent of church attendees actually attend the largest 10 percent of churches.

Friday, May 1st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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