All across America, smaller churches are struggling to attract new members

(Photo: Unsplash/Travis Gergen)

The US may be home to famous multi-campus megachurches and celebrity pastors but the full picture couldn't be more different, new research reveals. 

A study by Exponential for LifeWay Research suggests that for the average American church, keeping the people they have and attracting new faces is a struggle. 

In a survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors, only 3 per cent added new multi-site campuses last year and only a third (32 per cent) were involved in planting a new church. Six in 10 were leading churches that have plateaued or seen a fall in their attendance. 

Over half of the pastors surveyed (54 per cent) said fewer than 10 new people had become Christians in their church in the last 12 months.  For eight per cent of pastors, there had been no new converts at all at their church.

The majority of the churches had under 100 people worshipping in the pews on a typical Sunday.  For a fifth of the churches surveyed (21 per cent), average Sunday attendance was below 50. Only one in 10 of the churches (11 per cent) were exceeding 250 people at their weekly worship service. 

The majority of pastors (61 per cent) said their churches had experienced a decline in attendance or seen growth of only 5 per cent or less over the last three years. 

Over a third (39 per cent) said their congregation had grown by at least 6 per cent since the first quarter of 2016.

Growing churches tended to be evangelical and those with larger congregations and younger pastors. 

Over half of pastors aged 18 to 44 (55 percent) said their church was growing, compared to 33 per cent of pastors aged 45 and older.

While 42 per cent of evangelical churches said they were growing, only 34 per cent of their mainline counterparts said the same. 

Among churches with a weekly congregation below 50, less than a quarter (23 per cent) said they were growing, but over half of those with a congregation of 250 or more (59 per cent) reported growth. 

When it came to denominations, pastors of Holiness (56 per cent) and Baptist (45 per cent) churches were more likely to report growth than those at the helm of Methodist (33 per cent) and Lutheran (25 per cent) churches.

Pentecostal pastors were far more likely than those in other denominations to report new converts, with 57 per cent saying there had been 10 or more new commitments to Christ in their church last year per 100 attendees.  This was far beyond the number of Lutheran (39 per cent), Holiness (38 per cent) and Baptist (35 per cent) pastors who reported the same rate of success.

Nearly half of all the pastors surveyed (46 per cent) said giving had gone down or stayed the same, and two in five churches were being run by only one full-time staff member.  Seven per cent of churches said they had reduced their staff since 2017. 

"Growth is not absent from American churches," said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. "But rapid growth through conversions is uncommon."

Todd Wilson, chief executive officer of Exponential, said: "The primary purpose of this study was to obtain a set of objective measures on churches' reproduction and multiplication behaviors today as well as to understand their core context of growth. By combining these measures, we can help churches think about multiplication."