Though most North American churches have plateaued or are declining, Sam Rainer believes that with God’s help, churches can grow.
“If God can save any person, he can save any church,” he said.
Rainer is president of the Church Answers network and pastor of West Bradenton Baptist Church in Bradenton, Florida. He spoke to Alabama ministers Sept. 25 at a church revitalization workshop at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions’ facility in Prattville.
Rainer said leaders are always optimists, but the pessimists sometimes say, “That church should die.”
“Some churches will die if they refuse to do the will of God,” he said. “But your church address is not a mistake. God placed you in your neighborhood for a purpose.”
Rainer said churches normally lose up to 30% of their worship attendance each year due to death, moves, transfers and declining attendance, but churches grow in four ways.
The first is by conversion.
“The pastor must set the example in sharing the gospel,” he said. “At our church, we hold the staff accountable. I don’t give them metrics, but I begin the staff meetings asking about their gospel conversations in the last week.”
The second area of growth is transfer growth, which is when existing residents come to a new church.
Rainer differentiated this from the third area of growth, “demographic growth,” which happens when new community residents decide to join churches in their new communities.
The fourth area of growth is biological — when babies are born into church families. Rainer, himself a foster parent, said he includes new foster children in this category and exhorts congregations to encourage foster parenting.
Rainer said Church Answers’ research found the average active church member is 60 years old.
“We love our seniors, but most growth comes from younger generations,” he said. “And since the white population is becoming a minority in our country, churches must grow in diversity. We teach that a church should mirror its community, and many churches don’t because they don’t reach the Black or Hispanic or other ethnic groups at their doorstep.”
Rainer shared information from his newest book, “The Surprising Return of the Neighborhood Church,” pointing to the latest appeal of the median-sized church, which he described as having 65–70 in weekly worship.
“The megachurch has 2,000 or more on Sunday and is a baby-boomer phenomenon,” he said. “Growth of the megachurch was exponential for a time, but the number is waning. There were around 1,700 in 2020, but we think about 1,000 today.”
Rainer explained several reasons for this decline. One is “the reality of real estate.”
“In many areas, local churches own property that is almost unaffordable now, so imagine the cost of large tracts of land to build megachurches,” he said. “And there’s the issue of financial sustainability. We believe 90% of the cost of a building is ‘deferred maintenance.’ Our church is dealing with this now with a $2 million air-conditioning project. Large buildings become increasingly costly to maintain, and we counsel our clients not to build larger worship centers but to consider other options.”
Among other options are different times, different venues and different campuses.
“We’ve found a trend to Thursday night services,” he said. “Since 30–40% of the American workforce works on Sunday, this is one way to provide worship and study times.”
Rainer insisted there is a “diminishing stigma” for the smaller church and a return to “local preference.”
“Churches used to advertise that the drive is worth it, but this generation — unlike the boomers — doesn’t want to make a long drive to church,” he said.
Rainer said it’s a myth that “we can’t compete with the larger church down the road.”
“Smaller churches foster relationships, and their influence can reach their neighborhoods and make a deep impact,” he said. “Most churches won’t ever be megachurches and that’s OK. We can be healthy churches.”
Rainer advised church leaders to manage their “digital real estate,” including email, websites and Google search.
“Every church can own its Google search and add service information and pictures,” he said. “The most frequent online church shopping is ‘churches near me.’”
Rainer said America is seeing a decline in younger men committing to the pastorate, and the median age of American pastors has increased from 44 to 60 now.
“There’s nothing wrong with being an older pastor with years of accumulated wisdom, but we also need to encourage a new generation to take up the challenge of leading churches,” he said.
“Our church has an internship for men called to ministry. We give opportunities for them to serve for one year before we consider ordination. This is one way to bring along younger leaders who will serve the church in the days ahead.”
State missionaries Ken Allen and Rob Jackson plan other leadership events in 2024, and these are listed at alsbom.org. Both can be reached at 800-264-1225.