December 16, 2008
Missional vs. Attractional: Debating the Data
What do the numbers say? It depends who you ask.
by Url Scaramanga & Andy Rowell
The debate continues. For the last two weeks, opinions have been fast and furious on the definition and validity of "missional" churches. It all began with Dan Kimball's post about his missional misgivings. He observed that many of the larger, attractional churches being criticized by pro-missional people were actually doing a pretty good job of reaching non-Christians.
While there may be attractional megachurches reaching into our post-Christian culture, others contend that the effectiveness of these churches, as a whole, is in decline. Alan Hirsch and David Fitch both responded by arguing that North America is sliding toward uber-secularism. In such an environment attractional churches will lose traction, and more indigenous missional expressions of church are advantageous.
Scot McKnight, scholar/theologian/blogger/and Urthling, jumped into the debate to ask for data - hard research to back up Hirsch's claim that the attractional model "has appeal to a shrinking segment of the population."
Andy Rowell has hit the books to chime in with some research. Here's what he's found:
There are not stats about "attractional" or "missional" churches but there are some statistics about the number of people "converting" through megachurches. First, note that only 21.5 percent of Americans do not claim a Christian affiliation, according to the 2004 GSS; (20.8 according to the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey). Far less would claim that they had never before attended a church. Therefore, it is difficult to find true "new converts." Most are "switchers."
See American Piety 2005
Second, Thumma and Travis, authors of Beyond Megachurch Myths, point out that about half of the megachurches they surveyed in 2005 claimed that more than 20 percent of their new members are new converts. Here's an extended quote by Thumma and Travis about additional studies on this question.
Eiesland reported that that Southern Baptist megachurch she studied had equal number of persons joining through "baptism" and "transfer of membership" in one year of the megachurch's growth. Thumma and Petersen's investigation of very large Evangelical Lutheran (ELCA) churches showed that a third of the new members were youth and adult conversions, a third transferred from other Lutheran churches, and a third came from a denomination outside the Lutheran tradition. Thumma's study of a charismatic nondenominational megachurch showed that 27 percent claimed to be new Christians since coming to the megachurch, but only 7 percent stated that they grew up without a church or in a non-Christian faith.
The books with quantitative data are clear that there are winners and losers with regard to church growth. But Alan Hirsch is not quite right when he comments that,
But I do believe that it squares with all the research (and the anecdotal evidence) across the West about the receding influence of the church and declining church attendance. Can you really dispute that? We are all heading Europe's way, and that's not a pretty picture. To my mind at least (sick or not) this is indisputable.
Stanley Presser and Mark Chaves write in "Is Religious Service Attendance Declining?":
"Yet, existing evidence does not definitively establish whether attendance at religious services declined in American society from the 1950s to the present. We examine the trend in religious service attendance between 1990 and 2006. Evidence from several sources converges on the same answer: weekly attendance at religious services has been stable since 1990. However one reads the evidence about trends between World War II and 1990, the recent past has been a time of stability."
Rodney Stark says, "Church attendance has held rock steady, except for the entirely understandable decline in Catholic attendance" after Vatican II relaxed its rules about attending Mass.
One final factcheck from the comments about missional vs. attractional churches. David Fitch writes,
"In addition, the mega churches are largely a failure in the places of post Christendom (let's just define these as places that for instance are pro-gay/pro abortion/anti-Christian establishment in public legislation such as Northeast states or Ontario Canada)."
Thumma and Travis write,
"In terms of state concentration, California leads the number of megachurches with 178, Texas follows with 157, Florida is next with 85, and then Georgia with 73. These are followed by Illinois, Tennessee, Ohio, and Michigan, each of which has 40-some megachurches. In the past five years, there has been significant growth in the number of these churches in the Northeast and Mid Central states. We have found no megachurches in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, South Dakota, or Wyoming. Interestingly, even these states have churches of one thousand or more attendees in a typical weekend. We believe it is only a matter of time until every state has a congregation of megachurch size. With a few exceptions, we estimate that there is a megachurch within a ninety-minute drive of 80 percent of the population in America."
They list four megachurches in Ontario in
Hartford Institute for Religious Research Database of Megachurches in the U.S.
60% of Americans declare religion "very important" compared to 30% of Canadians.
See The Pew Global Attitudes Project,"
Thanks, Andy, for the numbers and research. Of course, there is the perennial problem of defining who is really "unchurched" and what constitutes "conversion growth" when no one seems to use the same definitions. Also, it should be noted that other research has found a steady decline in church attendance. Outreach Magazine's 2006 report, "American Church in Crisis" has looked at the same numbers very differently:
Olson explains that while church attendance numbers have stayed about the same from 1990 to 2004, the U.S. population has grown by 18.1% - more than 48 million people. "So even though the number of attendees is the same, our churches are not keeping up with population growth," he says.
Also worth adding is recent research by Lifeway showing the exodus of young adults from the church even in highly churched parts of the country. As a percentage of the population, the number of people attending church is declining. If we are advancing the mission, it's not enough to keep up with population growth. And many places are not even successfully converting the youth raised within the church.
So, who's right? Are attractional megachurch losing effectiveness or are they a light in an otherwise stagnant American church? Should we become more attractional or more missional? Or is that an unfair differentiation? Urbanites, I leave it to you to continue the conversation...respectfully.