The Disappearing Church

In recent years, economists have been watching the phenomenon of the shrinking middle class. One of the major reasons for the shrinking middle class is that there are fewer middle class jobs that support a middle class lifestyle. Without jobs, there is less upward social mobility for lower class families who are working to climb into the middle class. As the middle class shrinks, the lower class grows and the wealth of the nation becomes increasingly concentrated in a smaller percentage of people at the top.

The church is also experiencing a shrinking middle class. It seems to me today that there are less mid-sized churches. Many of the historically mid-sized churches from my own denomination (including my own) are struggling as smaller churches. Even after attempts to revitalize our church, what was once a church of 300 is now a church of 100. I don’t think we are alone. The number of mid-sized churches (100-250) seem to be shrinking and the number of average churches (100 or less) seem to be growing.(1)

 When I look at this data, I see a trend some trends in church size. Small churches (50 or less) are growing slightly and middle size churches (100-250) are declining slightly. This may not be enough data to show a massive trend, but it does suggest a few things about the future that I have also seen from my experience.

More average churches. It used to be that the church of 50 could be revitalized to grow to 100 or more just by bringing new life, adding programs and improving the worship. But not any more. It seems harder today to grow churches that will move into the middle class. I certainly thought I would move our church past 100, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Less mid-sized churches. 250 people used to be a big church. Not any more. In many urban communities, 300-500 is considered big. Mid-sized churches are caught in the middle, they are expected to compete with large churches, but they don’t have the resources.

Mid-sized churches are losing members to large churches. A recent leadership network survey cites that 62% of mega-churches are multi-site.(2) The new phenomenon of larger churches with multiple satellite campuses of around the 500 mark means that traditional mid-sized churches are losing out on potential members.

The shrinking middle-class church is starting to affect the whole church. We should be concerned as average pastors. This trend is affecting us in a number of ways:

  1. Middle class churches have historically been places that can support several full time staff pastors. As those churches decrease in size and number, the opportunity for new ministers and full-time ministry jobs become fewer.
  2. A recent article has highlighted the phenomenon of the shrinking middle class clergy.(3) As more clergy are becoming higher educated, they are also incurring more debt. Many ministers can’t afford to take a small church that barely pays a salary because they have so much debt. They are forced to be bi- vocational. That also means more educated ministers are applying for positions in small churches traditionally held by less educated or older ministers, which may be squeezing them out of the market.
  3. Because there are fewer jobs, there are more ministers who are just attending our churches. At one point I had seven ordained ministers, all who were still of employable age, just attending my church. These are people who 25 years ago would have had a better opportunity to have ministry positions. Some of them I have been able to use to help me, but not all of them.

I have always wanted to be that pastor that grows our church from 50 people to 150. Chances are it wont happen for us. The gap between large churches and small churches continues to grow. The concentration of people, wealth and influence remains with a small population of churches at the top. I am praying for a revival of the middle class church in America.


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