American Church: Dying or Thriving Or ?

Declining StableA few hours after I finished reading Greg Garrett’s new book, My Church is NOT Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century, I encountered a recent LifeWay Research survey that included a question about how the American church is faring.  More specifically, participants were asked, “Which of the following trends do you believe describes church attendance today . . . declining, stable, dying, thriving, growing, or none of these?”

  1. Declining – 55%
  2. Stable – 51%
  3. Dying – 42%
  4. Thriving – 38%
  5. Growing – 36%
  6. None of these – 2%

So What?

Since entering vocational ministry more than 15 years ago, I have heard the word decline used far more often than any other to describe what is happening to the American church.  In my own Mainline Protestant tradition the narrative of decline is now several decades old (in fact, declining membership in these traditions has been going on for longer than I have been alive!).   I have contributed many blog posts to varying aspects of what is really happening, what it means, and where we might go from here.

Today, however, I am interested in the positive terms that were chosen by more than 1 in 3 survey respondents: thriving and growing.  Regardless of the actual overall trends in American church life these people have position perceptions.  Demographically speaking, who are these positive people? When you combine the lists for thriving and growing they share in common many tendencies, including less educated (high school degree or less), Southern (over other regions), Christian (compared to non-religious), women, and African American.

  • Which words would you choose to describe church attendance today (declining, stable, dying, thriving, growing, or none of these)? Explain.
  • Why do you think less educated Southerners who self-identify as Christian are among the most likely to have positive views about the well-being of the American church?


  1. Greg–I think this is the way to think about it. The culture is changing, and we are definitely in transition. But what are the positives we can take away from these trends? Many of us are finding a spiritual home, regardless of the trends.

  2. Kristine says:

    Hi Greg ~ Is there any hope for ELCA churches? It seems like all I ever hear is talk of death and decline. It is rather depressing.

  3. Greg, great point! I appreciated the positive outlook of your book that does not deny the overall decline. I am encouraged by a number of Mainline churches that are doing the hard but important work of determining who they are and who God is calling them to be/become then allocating resources to move in that direction.

  4. Kristine, yes, I absolutely believe there is hope for ELCA churches! On the level of individual local congregations there are many wonderful examples of growing ELCA churches that are thriving! I am hopeful that the number in that category will increase. Of course, those that have been in decline for decades and are unwilling to make changes are unlikely to change direction.

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