Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay wrote a sobering article on this issue. It can be found here and deserves to be read carefully. His main support comes from new 2004 data. He writes, “It takes 86 church members in America one year to reach a person for Christ.” So a group of 86 average church members would require 86 years to reproduce themselves. Except American life expectancy is less – and most churches don’t report membership on children. So this number is even worse than I first thought!
George Barna has calculated the probability of someone embracing Jesus as their Savior according to their age. He reports these findings in his book Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions. Age 5 – 12: 32% probability. Age 13 – 18: 4% probability. Age 19 and beyond: 6% probability. He concludes, “If people do not embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior before they reach their teenage years, the chance of them doing so at all is slim.” P.34
I am a Children’s Minster. I love seeing children come to genuine repentance and faith. But if the only ones whom we can persuade are children then we have lost the power of the Gospel. We are fighting to see our children saved while the whole world is going to hell around them. Are we the generation dying in the wilderness?
Barna uses this statistic to argue for the importance of Children’s ministry. But the real lesson here is the failure of the American church to reach adults for Christ. If these statistics are accurate, the regenerate American Church is disappearing – fast.
I have said, “regenerate” because the institutional church will find a way to survive. It always has. Consider the decline of true godliness following Constantine. Christianity flourished and eventually ruled Western Europe. But as the outward estate of the church prospered, the regenerate church virtually disappeared. So by the time of the Reformation the Gospel had to be re-discovered. The institutional church was thriving. But godliness was rare.
Today, the institutional church has discovered “Church Growth.” Often, this is a very scientific way to fill your church with unbelievers. Thom Rainer writes, "We are not reproducing Christians. American church growth is typically the transfer of members from one congregation to another, rather than the conversion of the lost. . . If the research is even close to accurate, the reality is that the church is not reproducing herself. In just one or two generations, Christianity could be so marginalized that it will be deemed irrelevant by most observers."
We need to ask, "How many of those 86 members will be in heaven." We might find that Thom Rainer’s warning is a generation too late. Instead of finding the church is dying – we might find we are the church that is already dead?