by Craig Branch

Christianity Today reprinted a story from Outreach magazine last year titled “Special Report: The American Church in Crisis.” It began, “Attendance is down. The picture is bleak. New research reveals startling and sobering facts. What do they mean for you, your church, and Christianity in America?”1

What research?  Gallup and Barna’s statistics show that American church attendance has grown from 37% in 1996 to 47% in 2006. This is incredible if it were true.

But other, more valid studies demonstrate a significant decline, nowhere near those figures for church attendance. The difference is something called the “Halo Effect,” which is the difference between what people tell pollsters and what people actually do.

When sociologists Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler inventoried the actual hard data on actually recorded church attendance, the numbers dropped from 47% to about 18%, or 52 million people (66% Protestant, 32% Catholic, 2% Eastern Orthodox).   Tom Rainer, former professor  at the Southern Baptist Theological  Seminary and church growth specialist, found that only 6% of churches were growing while 94% were losing ground.

Ed Stetzer, missiology director of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that a significant growing number of people are finding alternative faith communities outside the traditional church.  He numbers them at 24.5% (see my article on the Emerging Church).

Projections based on current trends show that by 2050, church attendance will drop from 20.4% in 1990 to 11.7% in 2050 (16.6% in 2010, 15.4% in 2020).

These drops are accounted on the basis of lack of new growth plus the significant increase in the U.S. population.  The population has increased from 249 million in 1990 to 301 million in 2006, a 52 million increase. The Presbyterian  Church USA lost 43.5% from 1965- 2003.  The American Baptists lost 6.9%, the Disciples of Christ lost 57.2%.2   The Episcopal Church lost 36,000 in both 2003 and 2004, and 42,000 in 2005. Their average Sunday attendance is 787,000 compared to 2,205,376 members. 3  The United Methodist Church has lost 6% of its members between 1995-2005 and lost another 1.4% in 2006, over 80,000 people.

In 2000, 17.3 million Catholics attended Mass on any given weekend. By 2006 that declined to 16.5 million, or from 27.9% to 25 .5% of their membership.

The majority of the decline has been in the liberal Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church. We evangelicals point out that they have surrendered the inerrancy of the Bible and thus the life-giving gospel, so no wonder.

But we need to wipe the smug looks off our faces.  The fastest growing evangelical denomination is the Assemblies of God who have been only at about a 1% growth a year since 2003.  The Southern Baptist Church showed a .02% increase in 2005 but a 5 year decline in baptisms (new conversions).   They number (on paper) over 16 million, but only 37%  on average show up for Sunday worship  each week.4

Even my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), like the Southern Baptists, known for its commitment to the authority of Scripture, sound doctrine, and missions only had a 2.9% membership increase in 2006. We added only 5,683 new adult professions of faith with 240,027 members in 2006. 5

The decline in healthy growth is especially problematic with teenagers and those in their 20’s. Many teenagers disengage from the Church when they leave home for college or work, exercising their independence. But in the past, most of them came back to the church within a few years.

But Barna’s study last year revealed now 61% of “twentysomethings” who had been churched as teens are now spiritually disengaged from church, Bible study and prayer. 6

But it gets worse.  A recent New  York Times story titled, “Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers,” reported that evangelical leaders, on a tour of 44 cities are warning that even “teenagers are now abandoning the faith in droves.” 7  Barna’s research has shown that teenagers whose beliefs fit the evangelical category, has declined from 10% in 1995 to 4% in 2002. This is about one-half the percentage of evangelical adults. 8

The touring evangelical leaders and youth pastors are saying “teenagers” cannot compete against a pervasive culture of cynicism about religion, and the casual ‘hooking up’ approach to sex so pervasive on MTV, on web­ sites for teenagers and in hip-hop, rap and rock music.” 9

Another cause for alarm is a recent Barna survey that showed American’s views on fundamental Christian beliefs have waned. There has been a significant decline in their view of God, Jesus, Satan, Salvation, and in the practices of evangelism and Bible reading. 10

These facts have prompted the theme of this issue of Areopagus, “Troublesome Movements in the Church.” Actually the most troublesome movement for us should be the decline of the American Church, but because of this decline there have been several other movements that the decline has generated. Most of the controversial movements are in response to the deficits or failures in the Church, but are in some sense, also a result of the decline.

Well known Christian pollster George Barna recently published a very controversial book, Revolution, which served to help focus on and reinforce two of the controversial movements we are covering in this issue.  These two movements  are the Emerging Church Movement, and the New Apostolic Reformation Movement.   Barna went beyond reporting and began to analyze and to champion movements beyond his expertise.

Barna begins with quite a claim regarding Revolution, “It is a book about a single trend that is already redefining faith and the Church in our country. It is about an explosion of spiritual energy and activity we are calling the Revolution – an unprecedented reengineering of America’s faith dimension that is likely to be the most significant transition in the religious landscape that you will ever experience …the Revolution is designed to advance the Church and to redefine the Church.” 11 So does the Church need a revolutionary redefinement? Obviously something different, some corrective needs to occur.

The four movements covered in this journal  are The Church Growth Movement (largely identified with seeker-sensitive approaches of the Saddleback and Willow Creek churches), The Emerging Church Movement, The New Apostolic Reformation Movement, and Federal Vision (often called Auburn Ave. theology).

All four of these movements see themselves as needed reformation movements in the Church.  It is important that we understand them and to determine to discern in order to separate the “wheat from the chaff,” for the sake of the Church’s spiritual health.

New movements are usually motivated and characterized by (1) a dissatisfaction with an existing movement or culture; (2) a shared commitment to change the existing structure and replace it with something new; and (3) adherence to and guided by a foundational theological worldview.

Status quo is not acceptable.  Instead, one of the principles of the original Reformation is semper refomanda, “always reforming.”   But this concept should not be misapplied to mean that nothing is ever true or final. The Reformers believed that the Church had become so corrupt that a radical change must occur for the restoration and preservation of more authentic faith and life – a church reformed and always being reformed according to the truth revealed in the Word of God.

So these challenging movements provide important opportunities to reflect and reform where necessary our understanding our own calling and collectively the Church’s calling.  What do we need to do to become the vibrant, contagious,  and fruitful congregation of Acts 2:42-48?

But we also must recognize error and even heresy when it appears and clearly call attention to it.  We are to “test everything and hold fast what is good,” and “By the Holy Spirit who indwells you, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (1 Thess. 5:21; 2 Tim.  1:14).

Our first article, “Emerging Error? An Evaluation of the Emerging Church Movement,” written by me was a difficult task as I agreed with much of what they are saying to the Church , but strongly disagree with the some of their leader’s “remedies.”

Barna writes of the Emergents, “Millions of devout followers of Jesus Christ are repudiating tepid systems and practices of the Christian faith and introducing a whole­ sale shift in how faith is understood, integrated and influencing the world …They have no use for churches that play religious games, whether those games are worship services that drone on without the presence of God, or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit.” 12

There are some radical and positive challenges and directives to be learned from the Emergents, but there are also some significant errors embedded that must be discerned and corrected as well.

Next is an article, “The Package Matters: Problems with the Church Growth Movement” by Phil Newton, who was a product of Peter Wagner and Donald McGavran’s church growth program at Fuller Seminary.

The most notable promoters of the seeker-sensitive market-driven pragmatic focused church growthers are Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels and Saddleback’s Rick Warren.  Valid issues are raised regarding the difference between a healthy church and a numerically  growing church.  The question is what are we growing?

The third article is written by ARC staffer Keith Gibson.  Keith has been ministering in Kansas City and has seen first hand the development and effect of a growing pernicious movement called the New Apostolic Reformation.  This group emerged out of the Prophetic Movement, especially the now infamous Kansas City Prophets. Peter Wagner who helped develop the Church Growth Movement at Fuller Seminary, and then John Wimber’s 3rd  Wave Movement, has now digressed to claim that in order for the Church to recover and prosper, we must identify and submit to God’s appointed Apostles and Prophets. This movement is largely predicated on a faulty understanding of Ephesians 4: 11. Referred to as the Five-fold ministry, they believe that God’s original foundation of Apostles and Prophets is an ongoing requirement for the Church.

Keith exposes the errors of some popular leaders (“prophets”) such as Rick Joyner, Mike Bickle, Bill Hamon, and Dutch Sheets in his piece, “Speaking for God? A Response to the Apostolic and Prophetic Movement.”  Keith and I are writing a book on this issue as it has a harmful effect on the charismatic and non-charismatic communities.

The last article is written by ARC staffer Brandon Robbins, “Seeing is Believing: Federal Vision and ‘Objective’ View of the Christian Faith.”  Brandon wrote the article on the New Perspective on Paul in our last issue of Areopagus which has some foundational moorings with Federal Vision theology (FV).

Federal Vision has been somewhat of a issue in the Presbyterian Church of American (PCA) and in the Reformed tradition circles.  The PCA and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church just approved position papers rejecting the FV, but the FV leaders still claim to be misunderstood and right.  Brandon attempts to correctly under­ stand them and still separate “the wheat from the chaff.”

There has always been diversity in the Body of Christ. But we must determine what the Scripture gives as the essential boundary lines. False teaching can range from fairly insignificant to fatal heresy.

The leaders of the Church are given repeated warnings and exhortations to protect the Body from false teachers (and prophets). We are called to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort with great patience and instruction” (2Tim. 4: 1- 5; 3:1-9; 1Tim. 6:3; 4:6-7; Titus 1:11-13; 2:15; 3:9-11).

Heresies provide both a great danger to the health of the Church and can also provide a great service to the Church. They force the Church to seriously reflect on and define what the Bible actually teaches (2Tim. 3: 16-17).

Read carefully and prayerfully the contents of this journal. But then, do not be the “man who looks intently at his natural face in the mirror [the conviction from the Word] and then goes away forgetting” (James 1:23-24).

We are called to a radical, missional lifestyle, seeking first His kingdom, and to count all things as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ and making Him  known.

Craig Branch is director of the Apologetics Resource Center,  Birmingham, Alabama.

(This article was first published in the Areopagus Journal May-June 2007)


1             http:/ / outreach/ articles/ ameri­ canchurchcrisis.html

2             Touchstone Magazine, “Lost Sheep, Bad Shepherds, and Weak Tea,”   1/23/06.

3             The Christian Century, “Episcopal Membership LosaPrecipitous,” John Dart,  11/14/06.

4             Christian Century, 5116106 , http: pl articles/ mi_ml 058/is_l 0_123Iai_nl 6462 508/print

5             2007 Yearbook of the PCA, Lawrenceville, GA, 2007, p 641.

6   ,  “Most Twentysomethings  Put Christianity  on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years.”

7             New York Times, Oct. 6, 2006, Laurie Goodson.

8   , “Teens Change Their Tune Regarding Self and Church.”

9             Ibid, New  York Times, “Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers.”

10 ,  “Barna’s Annual Tracking Study Shows Americans Stay Spiritually Active, But Biblical Views Wane,” May 21, 2007.

11           Revolution,  George Barna, Tyndale House Publishers,  Wheaton, IL, 2005, p. viii-x.

12           Ibid, Revolution, p. 11,13.