Church Congregations Continue to Gather Sans the Physical Building


New construction is down, but worshipers find other places to meet.

Church construction in the U.S. has fallen 80% since 2002, now at its lowest level since record-keeping began in 1967, according to reporting in this newspaper. The $3.15 billion in spending on religious buildings is half the level of a decade ago. Several factors are contributing to the declines, including postrecession financial challenges—religious giving has never returned to its 2007 peak—and the waning of religious affiliation.

Yet even as church construction ebbs, church congregations are sprouting more rapidly than ever—about 4,000 annually, according to estimates by the nonprofit Leadership Network’s Warren Bird. Ed Stetzer, who has been studying the movement for 25 years and now directs LifeWay Research, estimates that growth has doubled or tripled in two decades. Most of these new congregations are renting facilities from schools, community centers or other churches.

Traditionally, denominations established new churches, or “planted” them, in areas of high population growth. Planting churches in existing communities was discouraged because it might lead to unseemly “sheep stealing”—attracting worshipers from other churches.

Yet even in growing denominations, congregations tend to plateau after 15 years, and membership starts to dwindle after 35 years, according to Mr. Stetzer’s 2010 book, “Viral Churches,” which he co-wrote with Mr. Bird. One way older churches overcome that decline is by starting “daughter” congregations, often in a nearby city using a core group of members from the “mother” church. Typically the daughter church maintains an affiliation with the mother church and its denomination.

Churches that launch a new congregation grow on average 22% in the five years after planting a church, while financial giving grows 48%, according to Mr. Stetzer’s research. New churches also baptize new Christians at more than three times the rate of older churches.

Much of the recent growth has been driven by individual churches deciding to start new congregations, rather than denominations directing the process. Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church has started 300 churches in 45 cities over the past 12 years, cooperating with 34 church-planting networks on five continents, according to its City to City network website. The church-planting group Acts 29 Network has started 500 churches over the past decade.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Rob Moll

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