Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Interesting Stats in Regard to Church Growth in the Memphis Area

On June 18, 2007, an interesting article appeared in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, in regard to church growth in Memphis. The article was entitled “Pews Filling Fast,” and it was written by James Dowd and based on research done by Laurie Cooper Stoll, a former graduate student at the University of Memphis. Her work was supervised by Larry Petersen, interim chairman of the Department of Sociology there.

Dowd described some of Stoll’s findings:

“Stoll researched 1,200 Christian churches in Shelby County. Of those, she tracked membership trends at 133 randomly selected Catholic and Protestant congregations from 1998 to 2003. The report draws on Census data from 1990 and 2000 as well as questionnaires and telephone interviews with clergy. The findings show that Evangelicals, broadly defined as theologically conservative and who teach the Bible as inspired by God, posted the highest level of growth. Close behind were fundamentalists, who accept the Bible as the literal and inerrant Word of God. Moderate and liberal branches mirrored national trends and experienced smaller gains. Other local findings that support national statistics show that congregations with myriad programs for young families and single adults tend to experience greater growth.”

Dowd also said, “The overwhelming majority of churches in Shelby County are growing, with evangelical congregations leading the way. But regardless of denomination, Christian churches here are thriving, with 70 percent reporting membership gains.”

I did a bit of research myself to see how the SBC churches in our local association have done in regard to growth. The Shelby Baptist Association (known as the Mid-South Baptist Association since 2004) consists of 139 churches. It is now a regional association, and it also includes some churches from two other states. In 1998 the average Sunday School attendance for churches in the association was 29,210, and in 2003 it was 28,078. Thus, the gains reported in the research done by Stoll were not reflected in our association as a whole. (The average Sunday School attendance for the association in 1980 was 33,885, and in 2005 it was 31,013.) I suppose it could be argued that worship attendance may have increased while Sunday School attendance remained stable, but I do not have average worship attendance data for the association.

The anecdotal evidence that I have heard about church growth in our association is not good. I’m not sure what the reasons are for the lack of growth in our association, but I am disturbed by the fact that we are not reaching the harvestable people as efficiently as other groups apparently are.