The Shrinking 40%

I recently came across this post by Tim Stephens of Granger Community Church: 10 Hard Questions Every Planter Needs to Ask.  A couple of paragraphs grabbed my attention:

Just about every church in America can be described by three words: “Come to us.” That is it. We put on amazing services and do everything we can to communicate truth to the people who make the effort to come to “the box” for worship. Some boxes are beautiful, and others are utilitarian. Some boxes are ornate with stained glass and a pipe organ, and others are located in an empty Walmart. But most of what we do is at, through and around “the box.” Many times even the mercy and justice ministries we engage in outside the walls are done for the primary purpose of inviting people to “come to the box.”

I remember being at a leadership conference where Alan Hirsch was teaching through the main thesis his watershed book, The Forgotten Ways. We had opportunity to ask questions, push back and consider the practical application for our churches. Alan said he believed that this “come to us” model of church still works for around 40 percent of our population. Does that mean 40 percent attend? Not at all. But there is probably around 40 percent of the population for whom the model still works. We can put on great weekend services, and 40 percent of the people in our community are still attracted to, or at least not repelled by, that model….

Maybe the number is much lower in the Northeast or Northwest. Maybe it’s much higher in the Bible Belt states. But every pastor I have talked to agrees that the number, whatever it is, is shrinking. Whatever you decide the number is for your community, it is likely getting smaller every year.

I believe in Burlington, Vermont, and across New England that far less than 40% of the population responds to the “come to the box” approach.  Much more gifted leaders than myself have tried that approach in this area with limited impact.  Every poll and study I’ve read over the past five years has confirmed that people in our city and state are increasingly disinterested in coming to the box.  A 2009 Gallup Poll discovered 23% of Vermont residents frequently attend any kind of church service, lowest among the states.  The more recent Barna Cities report states that in the Burlington-Plattsburgh area only 33% of the population attends any type or church service over the last month.

Some would suggest this means people here will not respond to the message of Jesus.  I don’t buy that.  Others wonder if churches can even be started here: I obviously believe the answer is “yes!”… but it may not be through the institutionalized centralized approach we’ve grown used to.   We may have to rediscover the message of Jesus.  We may have to rediscover how to make disciples.  We may have to rediscover how to be the church.  Thankfully, Jesus is willing to teach us how.

4 thoughts on “The Shrinking 40%

  1. In 1970 my wife Linda and I began our ministry as church planters in Vermont without a “box” to invite people to come to. Thus, out of necessity we had to minister “on the go.” (Matthew 28:19, “As you are going…”)

    Various ministries out in the community (ies) eventually led to some “boxes”, but even then we saught to use them as places for instruction, training, and fellowship, insisting that the real ministry was still outside the “box.”

    Keep on working and serving outside the box. You are in my prayers.


  2. I have been ministering in Burlington Vermont since 1974. I have found that most people have no problem with Jesus at all. But they do have serious problems with our boxes. Our solution to this problem was very easy for us, we simply got rid of the box! Now we go to them! How radical of an idea, we got it from Jesus!


  3. Dude, yes! I was talking to Dave about this when we talked on the phone for a minute a while ago. I’m not feeling the churches in the Hamilton area, and might go back to the Point Community Church even though it’s 40 minutes away. Which made me think, is it worth it to drive farther to go to a church and hear a message I can hear online, listen to worship music when I can do that onmy phone, and I know Christians around her I can have fellowship with even though I don’t go to their church.

    At the point last sunday, we had a discussion at Equip about this kind of thing. Thomas Wong said the church is a family and has a father/mother with the pastors and elders who have some authority. Yet we can choose to go to a different church, so what authority do they really have?

    Dave Dabney made a great point when we talked. The mission unites us. When we are serving together, we are united. A lot more than just by going to church on Sunday together. I say, why not have church less, and spend that time helping others in the community/just spending time with them who aren’t Christians. Then make small group more of the church time. And let’s unite the different church denominations during the year, hear different people speak, hear different worship bands, have some fun with people who speak in tongues and people who follow a guy in a white hat.


  4. I have to reply cautiously to Matt’s comment about uniting church denominations…..I admit I am known as a flatllander since everyone knows Texas is completely flat and without trees..I only lived in Vermont from 1988-1990. But I attended the Congregational Church when they were trying to round up all the kids in the community–SAVED OR NOT–for their first Communion. And the American Baptists, who were meeting with them for the summer, didn’t say anything about that, but would argue about “debts or trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer. Or the Unitarians advertising their gospel according to John Denver or over in central New York, the Methodist lady preachers sermon was on “How to apply make-up effectively”, or at an ecumenical event in New Hampshire, the A of G minister walking around putting his hand on your shoulder expecting you to be “slain in the spirit”…
    No it’s not denominations we shoud work with but individual Christians we know and trust, regardless of their label….


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