Is There a Connection Between Resisting Change and Church Growth?

Many churches in America resist change. Most churches are also plateaued or declining. Is there a connection between resistance to change and church growth?

I recently read an article by Thom Rainer highlighting “five types of change resistant churches.” After reading the article I pondered whether there is a connection between a church’s resistance to change and church growth. Is there merely a correlation or is there a more causal relationship? In other words, do the two simply share commonalities or does one impact the other?

This article will ponder this question in three sections. First, we’ll summarize Rainer’s article (though it’s not long in and of itself). Then we’ll look at the state of churches in America according to recent studies. Finally, we’ll consider their relationship.

Examining a Church’s Resistance Level to Change

Rainer categorized churches into one of five categories based on their level of resistance to change. The scale ranged from “fiercely resistant” (R1) to “leading edge” (R5). R1s “typically resist almost any noticeable change” whereas R5s “typically are moving faster than the leaders.”

To put it simply, R1s and R2s resist change, R3s and R4s desire and accept change, and R5s seek out change (albeit not necessarily in their gospel message).

What I found interesting is the percentage of churches that fall into each category:

  • R1: 50%
  • R2: 25%
  • R3: 15%
  • R4: 9%
  • R5: 1%

Basically, 75% of churches resist change while 25% accept or desire change.

It’s worth noting that the change to which Rainer refers is change in method, not message. These churches that welcome change do not seek to change the gospel message, but only how they reach their communities with the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ.

The reason for the level of resistance varies from church to church. Also, Rainer’s percentages are only estimates, though he has spent many years researching this type of information. Regardless, it is interesting to note that most churches resist change, and that only a minority accept change.

Why is this interesting? This is interesting because of the state of churches in America.

The State of Churches in America: Growing, Declining, or Plateaued?

Depending on which survey you look at, the indisputable fact is that most churches in America are plateaued or declining. Furthermore, this is not a new trend.

In a September 2014 article examining the state of the American church, the Malphurs Group highlighted statistics going back to the late 1980s. The article mentioned the following:

  • 1988 Win Arn study found that 80-85% of churches were plateaued or declining
  • 2005 study by Thom Rainer found 80-84% of churches were plateaued or declining
  • 2008 David T. Olson study predicted church attendance “will decline from 20.4% in 1990 to 14.7% in 2020”
  • 2011 speech by Gary McIntosh wherein he stated that “97% of the churches [in the Midwest] are in decline”

In November 2014, Ronnie Floyd also addressed the state of the American church. He stated, “From 1978-1983, 30.5%” of Southern Baptist churches were growing, whereas “51.9% . . . were plateaued” and “17.6% were in decline.”

LifeWay Research reports that 74% of SBC churches were plateaued or declining in 2013.
LifeWay Research reports that 74% of SBC churches were plateaued or declining in 2013.
Click for full size.

Above this statement, however, is a graph showing the results of a study done by LifeWay Research (pictured left). This chart shows that in 2013 26% of churches were growing while 74% were plateaued or declining.

That’s a lot of numbers to digest. So, let’s simplify it. First, we see that the state of the Christian church in America has remained relatively unchanged since the 1980s. Second, we see that 75-85% of churches in America are plateaued or declining.

You read that right: 75-85% of Christian churches in America are plateaued or declining.

Herein is where the connection between a church’s resistance to change and church growth becomes interesting.

The Relationship between Resistance to Change and Church Growth

It seems evident to me that there is a relationship between a church’s resistance to change and church growth:

  • 75% of churches resist change; 75-85% of churches are plateaued or declining
  • 25% of churches welcome change; 15-25% of churches are growing

The numbers are nearly identical when looking only at LifeWay Research’s findings: 75% resist change; 74% are plateaued or declining.

This brings me back to my original question: is this merely a correlation or is one impacting the other?

The fact that the numbers are so close is evidence of a correlation; it does not, however, prove influence. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to simply dismiss any connection.

Based on my studies and experience, I’ve found that those churches that are unwilling to adjust how they operate, relate to people, and minister to their communities will ultimately fail. For example, if a community transitions from primarily one race to another, yet the church does not adjust to reach out to that new community, then that church will die. The same goes for economic, social, and technological changes.

The key is to find ways to bring the unchanging gospel to a changing society. This requires that churches be willing to change their methods, but never their message.

It is my belief that the similarities between the number of churches who resist change and those who are failing to grow is more than a correlation; I believe that a strong resistance to change is detrimental to church growth.

The question we must ask now is what are we willing to do to reach those in our neighborhoods, cities, the nation, and the world?

About John L. Rothra
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