Speculation runs rampant these days as prognosticators and researchers attempt to predict how many churches will be closing within the next 12 to 24 months. Recently, Barna president David Kinnaman indicated that as many as 20 percent of churches could close within the next 18 months.
Speaking to the NPR’s “Here and Now” gathering, he stated, “In the long run, I think we’ll look back at this pandemic as a fundamental change to the way Americans attend church. I think the digital church is here to stay, and I think it’s going to really change the way people think about their donation relationship with the church.”
Even before the pandemic, Barna reported that Americans were church hopping more and church attendance was declining among young people. The July Barna report stated that one in three practicing Christians has stopped attending church, whether online or in person, since the COVID-19 outbreak.
The financial struggle that churches are encountering was part of the reasoning behind Kinnaman’s estimate that one in five churches will close within the next 18 months. He said, “That prediction was based on data about two and half months ago (in July), and I think we’re even more likely to see that to be the case today.”
The Southern Baptist Convention and most state conventions have been decreasing for years. Pew Research stated that the country is in a time of “specific religious change.” The “nones” category (people who answer no to the question of which religion they embrace) has been growing, while those identifying as Christians have been decreasing.
The Hartford Institute said 40 percent of Americans say they attend church weekly, but only 20 percent actually attend. Before the pandemic, they reported that 3 million churchgoers became “religiously unaffiliated” each year.
There are more than 300,000 Protestant congregations in the United States. If Kinnaman’s prediction is applied to Protestant churches only, approximately 60,000 would close in the next 18 months.
Thom Rainer, former president of LifeWay Christian Resources, wrote that estimates range from 5,000 to 10,000 church closings each year in America. He cited some developing trends he sees as the pandemic comes to an end:
• More pastors than ever will be moving from full time to bivocational roles
• More churches will develop a foster relationship or merge with another church
• Some churches that cannot sustain their congregational health will be adopted by a stronger church
• Churches will start more churches, particularly “micro churches” (25-30 people)
• More churches will emphasize conversion growth (church growth, he says, has basically been transfer growth for the past 30 years).
Jay Hardwick, associate executive director-treasurer and chief strategist for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, said, “If something dramatic does not happen within five to 10 years, many churches will close their doors.” Mergers and churches adopting or fostering other churches are anticipated to increase following the pandemic, Hardwick said. “For some churches, the most faithful choice they can make is to close and invest their resources elsewhere,” he continued. “That is the final step. Our goal is to direct at-risk churches to the options that are available to them:
1) REVITALIZATION — churches rethink strategy, structures, etc. At this stage, they still have enough resources to grow into a strong church;
2) RESTART — new leadership and resources are required at this stage, along with an infusion of new life;
3) RE-INVEST — a church would celebrate what God has done and re-invest its resources, such as donating its property to another church, the association or state convention.”
Hardwick also encourages struggling or declining churches to go to a convention website (hopeforchurches.org) to gain some insights and help.
According to Barna, about 58 percent of pastors who were surveyed said they felt very confident their churches would survive the disruption related to decreased giving arising from the pandemic. About 31 percent of the pastors believed their church attendance would rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
Kinnaman pointed out that simply reopening a church does not solve the underlying problems. He said, “To address these challenges, there will have to be an even greater demonstration of the value a church brings, not just to those who attend but also to those who are part of its community.”
Who knows how many churches will close in the next few years? Researchers and prognosticators, like the rest of us, are not infallible. Even at-risk churches can experience revival and re-dream the vision for their church. Perhaps the pandemic will have positive changes for our churches that otherwise might have never occurred.