3- Plateau

Australian Christian Churches: Growing and Slowing

Since the late 1970s the ACC (formally AOG) has been one of Australia's fastest growing denominations.

From 1977-2007 attendances grew from 9,446 people to 215,000. A staggering 2276%. The number of churches grew from 152 to 1120 — or 736%.

Around 2007 the rate of growth in attendances and number of churches slowed.

Since 2008 growth in the number of constituents was still a very healthy 20,407 people, or 9.4%.

ACC Constituents 2008-2011.jpg

Yet for the first time in it's 75 year history the ACC has gone backwards in the number of churches.

The ACC peaked in 2008 at 1133 churches. Three years later the number of churches had slipped to 1073.

ACC churches 2008-2011.jpg

The decline is around 5% — modest when compared to most other denominations, but a dramatic decline when compared to the ACC's history of explosive growth since the late 1970s.

The number of people attending ACC services is still growing. Yet history shows that no movement can sustain growth in numbers of people without increasing the numbers of churches.

Growing movements plant churches.

Australian Christian Churches: Growing and Slowing

Since the late 1970s the ACC (formally AOG) has been one of Australia's fastest growing denominations.

From 1977-2007 attendances grew from 9,446 people to 215,000. A staggering 2276%. The number of churches grew from 152 to 1120 — or 736%.

Around 2007 the rate of growth in attendances and number of churches slowed.

Since 2008 growth in the number of constituents was still a very healthy 20,407 people, or 9.4%.

ACC Constituents 2008-2011.jpg

Yet for the first time in it's 75 year history the ACC has gone backwards in the number of churches.

The ACC peaked in 2008 at 1133 churches. Three years later the number of churches had slipped to 1073.

ACC churches 2008-2011.jpg

The decline is around 5% — modest when compared to most other denominations, but a dramatic decline when compared to the ACC's history of explosive growth since the late 1970s.

The number of people attending ACC services is still growing. Yet history shows that no movement can sustain growth in numbers of people without increasing the numbers of churches.

Growing movements plant churches.

Southern Baptist plateau? Maybe.

Roger Finke raises three problems with the trend of Southern Baptist success measured by larger churches and professional clergy.

  1. Congregational size is inversely related to converting new members, activating the existing membership, and maintaining high membership standards. Small churches are more effective in generating commitment and conformity within a movement.
  2. Formal theological training is a secularizing force and feeds the trend towards religious bureaucracy and religious doubt.
  3. A fully paid professional clergy is a financial hinderance to the survival of small churches and new church starts.For all of the above reasons, it was the upstart Methodists and Baptists that captured the US frontier, not the resource rich and highly educated Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists.

Long ago the Methodists surrendered to the temptation of respectability. Will the Southern Baptists follow suit? Are the Southern Baptists headed south?

Southern Baptist success? Maybe.

I keep bumping into church leaders of different persuasions whose goal it is to see their church plants grow to 500+.

If you want a case study of how it's done, try the Southern Baptists. I've just finished a 1994 article by Roger Finke that shows between 1920 and 1990 the average size of a Southern Baptist church soared from 115 to 396. Impressive.

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The other trend he noticed was the dramatic increase in seminary trained professional clergy. Before 1950 the Southern Baptist seminaries produced 10,000 graduates. From 1950-90 the number grew to 60,000.

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The Southern Baptists heritage was all about small churches and lay leadership. Today it's professional staff and large churches.

Bigger churches. Trained clergy. Sounds like a recipe for success.

Maybe.

Looking down from the mountain

Tongariro-1
I've just spent a day trekking through the Tongariro National Park, New Zealand. Here's a shot I took from Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings) looking out across to Mt Tongariro.

Lost the trail and wandered through the snow for an hour or so in gale force winds. Terribly irresponsible of me. But lots of fun and I lived to tell the story.

The experience made me think of two recent conversations about the increasing scarcity of church planters. . .

The first with a leader whose denomination has a strong history of multiplying new churches. He was concerned because the younger leaders in their movement aspired not to pioneering but to gaining a position on the team of the larger, successful churches.

The second conversation with a leader in another church planting movement. She and her husband have planted three churches in their ministry together. When I talked to them about helping a new generation plant churches she told me, “I not sure if I can do that. I feel they'd be ”cannon fodder“. I'd be sending them out to face possible failure.”

It's natural to want to gravitate to what is successful. It's natural to want to protect people from ‘failure'. It's also a sign that a movement is transitioning out of it's dynamic phase and beginning to settle down.

When you're at the top of the mountain, you're at the height of your success. You look back and you remember when you had nothing. You remember when you risked it for a cause you believed in. Without the resources, without the know-how. In spite of the opposition.

But now you have accomplishments to protect. Instead of thinking about risk, you think of securing what you've achieved. At that point a movement plateaus. Decline has not yet set in, but the rate of advance tapers off.

People who change the world have a cause that is worth risking everything for. Their lives become like grains of wheat that fall to the ground and die and in doing so produce much fruit. They count the cost but consider the rewards worth the risk. They keep climbing the next mountain and the next. . .

God's business

According Adele Ferguson in the Business Review Weekly:

Religion is big business in Australia. If it were a corporation, it would be one of the biggest and fastest-growing in the country, accounting for more than $23 billion in revenue in 2005, employing hundreds of thousands of staff (salaried and volunteers) and wielding unsurpassed political and social clout.

Read on. . .

The tone of the article is revealing. It portrays churches as greedy corporations and largely ignores that much of the funds raised go towards education, health and aged care and emergency relief.

The article picks up the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement and its growing financial clout. Some of the larger churches are effectively corporations with turnovers in the millions. There's also a growing trend for Pentecostals to direct their energies into the business and political worlds with increasing success.

Movements begin on the fringe and then move to the centre. Pentecostalism is moving into the cultural mainstream of Australian society. I expect Australian Pentecostalism to continue to grow and adapt much to the dismay of those on the theological and political left. If history repeats itself, eventually we'll have a Pentecostal Prime Minister. Meanwhile the secularized mainstream denominations will barely survive on external life support.

Given a generation or two, success may eventually change the Pentecostal movement. As movements shift into the mainstream they become more rational, conformist and risk adverse. Expect “How to speak in tongues” to lose out to “10 Rules for Business Success”. Expect “How to plant a church” to lose out to “Growing what we've got bigger”. Expect “brother Ted Smith” to become “Rev Dr Edward Smith”.

Plateaued movements have too big a stake in this world to worry about the next. Led by the clergy, they begin to reflect the views of the cultural and social elites.

That's the bad news. The good news is that (1) there are exceptions to this trend and (2) God is in the business of raising up new movements—on the fringe.