Wednesday, February 15, 2006

God the Builder

I did some digging around the web and found a top 100 list of church attendance data, this time from twenty years ago. I put it in my spreadsheet and started to do some comparisons.
First, the top 10 churches from 1984:

1 First Baptist Church Hammond IN 18,700
2 Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa Santa Ana CA 12,500
3 Thomas Road Baptist Church Lynchburg VA 11,000
4 Grace Community Church Panorama City CA 10,000
5 Highland Park Baptist Church Chattanooga TN 9,800
6 Calvary Temple Springfield IL 8,832
7 First Baptist Church Jacksonville FL 8,000
8 First Baptist Church Dallas TX 7,000
9 North Phoenix Baptist Church Phoenix AZ 7,000
10 Lakewood Church Houston TX 6,600

37 out of the top 100 churches were Baptist, six out of the top 10. The ration would probably be higher if we went back ten more years to the 70’s. It wouldn’t surprise me if most of these churches were of the Independent Baptist variety. They have traditionally been obsessed with numbers- how many in church, how many in Sunday School, how many baptisms can we get in a week, etc. When I was a fundamental Baptist and attended Victory Baptist Temple there were regular contests. We would go door to door inviting people to church and sharing the gospel, and if we could get people to say the “sinner’s prayer” we got a point. get them to church, another point. Lead them down the aisle to make a public profession of faith- you got it, another point. And if you could get someone to go through with baptism, that was the pinnacle. After a certain length of time the points were totaled and the winner was declared “Soulwinner of the Month”; or if we were engaging in a team competition, the winning team would have dinner served to them by the losers. I was on the winning team :)

The same churches would send busses out to pick up kids for church, and there would always be a hook, a promotion to make church attendance that week attractive. A free candy bar. A chance to eat from a 200-foot banana split. A goldfish. It’s funny how we were constantly being exhorted to not resort to “worldly” measures to make church more attractive to people, yet when it came to getting kids on the bus, I’ll be darned if those methods weren’t what was used.

The same book had a list of the top 100 churches in reported church membership. This is how the top ten shaped up:

1 First Baptist Church Hammond IN 77001
2 Highland Park Baptist Church Chattanooga TN 58383
3 First Baptist Church Dallas TX 24429
4 Lakewood Church Houston TX 20000
5 Thomas Road Baptist Church Lynchburg VA 19000
6 First Southern Baptist Church Del City OK 17803
7 Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa Santa Ana CA 15625
8 Bellevue Baptist Church Memphis TN 15000
9 First Baptist Church Jacksonville FL 14100
10 Crenshaw Christian Center Inglewood CA 13974

Notice the disparity. First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN reported a membership of 77,000 people, yet they only had an average attendance of 18,000- a difference of 59,000. If I were to line up the top 10 churches that were on the membership and attendance lists, the top 4 would all be Baptist. Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN had a difference of 48,500. First Baptist Church in Dallas, 17,000. How could this be? Were they deliberately lying about the numbers? Not exactly. When a person is baptized in a fundamental Baptist church, they are added to the membership roll. Doesn’t matter if they are 5 or 55 or 105, they are on the list. That person may not ever darken the doors of the church again- they are counted as a member. When I attended Victory Baptist Temple they boasted of a membership of 2,000 people, yet they only had about 550 to 600 people on any given Sunday, and of that number one-third were children who wouldn’t be financially supporting the church anytime soon. Although I respect the efforts of churches who go to great lengths to see people attend services, the emphasis on numbers can be quite misleading.

Now let’s compare the 1984 list with the 2006 list. The 100 churches listed in 1984 were all in the top 1300 list of 2006. 35 had an increase; 4 had no change; 60 had a loss ranging from -25 for First Baptist Church in Atlanta, to -7800 for Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA (And yes, I know that only adds up to 99; I discovered one church listed twice as I was typing this.) Why did two-thirds of these churches lose members instead of gain them? Well, in several instances the churches with the greatest losses had highly visible and sometimes controversial leaders. When the leader got in trouble or passed away, the church floundered. Here are some examples:

Thomas Road Baptist Church, with a loss of 7800, is led by Jerry Falwell. Controversial? An understatement. I would be willing to bet the bleeding started when he took over the PTL ministry after Jim Bakker stepped down and kept on going as the influence of Baptist churches on church growth techniques took a dip in popularity. More on that later.

Highland Park Baptist Church, with a loss of 7800 as well, was pastored by Lee Roberson, a Highly respected figure in American Fundamentalism. When he retired as pastor, people probably retired with him.

First Baptist Church in Hammond, IN, with a loss of 6700, was pastored by the closest thing the independent Baptists had for a Pope, one Jack Hyles. The people who were devoted to Hyles were/are an interesting breed indeed. They are totally devoted to him; they would do anything he said, and anything he did was right- end of discussion. Jack Hyles died in 2001, and as is often the case in movements with dominant leadership, when the leader dies the sheep either circle the wagons or scatter. The pastorate was assumed by his son-in-law Dr. Jack Schaap (think “chop”), which proves that nepotism is indeed alive and well in fundamentalism. But he doesn’t have the draw of his wife’s father.

Who were the churches that gained attendees between 1984 and 2006? Lakewood Church was a Pentecostal church in 1984, pastured by John Osteen. They were unapologetic tongues-talkers, and John was a down-home country boy who could preach it old-school. John Osteen died in 2001, and the new pastor became his son, Joel Osteen. The rest is history. Lakewood Church is the new leader with a gain of 23,000 members in 20 years. The emphasis changed from Pentecost to positive thinking; Joel published a book, Your Best Life Now, which rocketed up the charts, and people flocked to see the young new superstar on the scene.

Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa is pastored by Chuck Smith, who founded the Calvary Chapel movement. Their growth has been steady since the 70’s. Even though Chuck Smith is well known in Christian circles, I don’t think Calvary Chapel’s growth can be chalked up to the “superstar factor”; Chuck Smith doesn’t have that kind of personality. His preaching style gives off a gentle, grandfatherly aura. I think Calvary Chapel is a good example of a church that does things right- they aren’t too wild, they preach the Word, they take care of their people. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Crenshaw Christian Center had the second biggest gain, from 5,000 in 1984 to 17,000 in 2006. They are located in Inglewood, CA, and several years ago, in order to have more facilities, they purchased the former Pepperdine University in California. They meet in a domed arena, not unlike the Compaq Center in Houston which houses Lakewood Church. Crenshaw is led Dr. Frederick K.C. Price, a preacher who can switch from soft to sarcastic on a dime. My belief is that Crenshaw is experiencing growth for the same reason that churches like The Potter’s House in Dallas, TX (18,500) and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA (18,000) are experiencing growth. There is a new breed of pastor and church rising up in the African-American community, with TD Jakes and Eddie Long leading the way. The African-American church has traditionally been very socially involved and quite often was the center of the neighborhood. Jakes, Long and Price all offer social programs in their churches to help families gain a foothold economically and break the welfare cycle. More churches should be like them.

(And now a disclaimer- I don’t like using terms like “black church” or “African-American church”; there should just be “church”. Yet the churches I described in the preceding paragraph do have congregations which are predominately African-American, and have a great deal of influence within their communities.)

I think I am going to wrap up here and possibly hit this subject one more time. I’m interested in examining other reasons for the growth and decline of certain types of churches. Is God building a new breed of church? Are people simply building churches that “tickle their ears”? Stay tuned.


Blogger Greg said...

Goes to show you that the people who are most judgemental on Christians are other Christians. Let's hear something positive o.k.

12:40 AM  
Blogger Sean MacNair said...

I don't think I was judging anyone; just offering observations as to why some churches are growing and some are not.

6:22 AM  
Blogger CES said...

Concerning your comments about First Baptist of Hammond, the church has actually grown since Dr.Hyles passed away. They have a new $25 million dollar sancurary that seats 7500 comfortably (the old one sat 5,000)and baptized 25,000 people this year. I am not saying that just because of that they are doing God's will but the place is not on the down hills slide you indicated.

12:35 PM  
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