Covenanter Publishes “The American Church in Crisis”

Post a Comment » Written on March 26th, 2008     
Filed under: News
CHICAGO, IL (March 26, 2008) – Dave Olson jokes that his new book has lots of pictures. They’re mostly charts and graphs, actually, but they illustrate what he says is no laughing matter—church attendance is far lower than most people believe and has been declining.

The American Church in Crisis, recently released by Zondervan, uses data Olson collected from 200,000 churches, beginning in 1990. Olson is director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church and director of the American Church Research Project.

According to Olson, only about 18 percent of Americans attend church each week. That is far below the 40 percent previously reported in other studies. Adding to the crisis for churches is that attendance is not keeping up with population growth.

Results of the new study differ from previous reports because of methodology. Previous studies were based largely on polling interviews, which cannot be trusted, Olson says.

People tend to exaggerate the number of times they go to church, he explains. As a result, the number of times they claim to have attended church doesn’t line up with the data from the congregations.

Olson acknowledges church figures aren’t always correct. He adds, however, that congregations are more likely to state a figure that is too high rather than one that is too low.

Olson knew the raw data would not be congruent with what people have said about their attendance. “I’ve been working with this for such a long time, so there were no surprises for me,” he says.

Numbers are not the only indicator of the effectiveness of a congregation’s ministry, Olson says. “The health of our churches is much more complex than their attendance, but attendance can be a good indicator.”

The book concentrates on more than numbers. Olson looks at why the change is occurring, what can be done to reverse course, and how congregations can reach new generations.

Olson is not necessarily a prophet of doom. He hopes his study will wake up the church to its current situation and prompt new responses as hard times have in the past. “I think historically the church often has been very resilient in times of change,” he says.

“Fortunately churches don’t die at 70,” he says. “They can live to be 200.” But growing older doesn’t come easily, especially during a time when many people advocate an individualized faith or no longer trust the church.

“We’re going to have to be able to let the Holy Spirit work through us. It will take 15 to 20 years of hard work to keep up with population growth.”

Olson’s book outlines a four-step process for churches: observation, evaluation, introspection, and action. He hopes the book will lead pastors and other church leaders to begin the process. Each chapter includes questions for reflection and discussion. The book is available at Covenant Bookstore.

Olson summarized the results of his study in two articles that previously appeared in the Covenant Companion.

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