The State of the American Church – Why Church Planting is Critical to the Future of American Christianity

National New Church Conference
Teacher: Dave Olson, Director of Church Planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church and Director of The American Church Research Project.

Many Christian leaders wonder whether planting new churches is necessary for the future of the American Church. They say: Don’t we have enough churches already? Aren’t most new churches very small? Most new churches don’t survive anyway, do they? Shouldn’t we focus instead on the small, struggling churches we already have?

42-45% of Americans say they go to church on Sunday according to George Barna and George Gallup. From 1991 to 2006 this number increased from 36% to 47%, this is an 11% increase (in a country with roughly 300 million people, this means 33 million people started to attend church. Olson believes these survey's are wrong and are greatly impacted by the halo effect. For example, of those surveyed, 54% said they voted in an area where only 46% actually did. Olson doesn't base his research on these polls but actual headcounts at 200,000 churches. [His question is, how many pastors ever under count attendance?] Some of Olson's findings include:

17.7% of the US population attends church.
This breaks down into 9% evangelical, 5.5% Catholic and 3.1% Mainline denominations.

The rate of those who attend church is declining. In the West, there is a -1.2% decrease in the population of who attends church in the 1994-2004 timeframe. Nationwide, to just to keep up with population growth, we would need to plant 51,826 more churches than we did in this period. Including churches that were planted, this means we would have needed to plant over 100,000 churches! The greatest increase and conversion occurs in church plants. For more of the statistics, and for specific statistics for the top 80 Metro areas, go to The American Church.

  • Dsnyd

    May 16, 2006, 4:48 pm

    Not that I disagree, I probably need to read more on reasons for church planting. But I am wondering to myself if church planting is the answer when there are already so many half empty churches? I am sure most of us know of a church plant or church that has closed it’s doors, just as we know those that have succeeded. On his site it looks like I have to pay $15 to find out his answer in the The Case for Church Planting. Anyone have comments as to whey church planting?

  • Matt Heerema

    May 17, 2006, 8:00 am

    “Is church planting the answer when there are so many half-empty churches”.

    I don’t think it’s the only answer, but is definitely a key piece.

    The solution to the half-empty churches? The Holy Spirit.

    Perhaps the answer would be to get rid of all of the unbelievers masquerading as pastors in many churches out there? (That sounds harsher than it is supposed to, but I was reading Titus yesterday and it got my ire up a bit…).

    That’s not to suggest that if your church is half-empty, that you have an unbelieving pastor. I just feel that part of the reason for the sorry state of American church (in general) is a lack of reliance on faith. A general lack of belief…

  • D. Goodmanson

    May 20, 2006, 6:36 pm


    “But I am wondering to myself if church planting is the answer when there are already so many half empty churches”

    I’ve visited a number of these churches, typically there is a reason they are half empty. Let me clarify, we need more gospel centered, missional churches to be planted.

  • dan

    May 31, 2006, 7:37 am

    The greatest increase and conversion occurs in church plants.

    this is an interesting statement to me. is there a model or indication in the NT on how the church is designed to grow? or a way that is healthier than others?

    I like a lot of what Neil Cole said in his book Organic Church about church growth and planting.

  • Pat Masek

    April 2, 2007, 5:26 am

    Do you have any statistics from your research that compare the effectiveness of a new church plant with that of an existing church.


  • Eric Harris

    June 17, 2008, 4:43 pm

    I am considering planting a church in my community. There are a lot of traditional churches in the area (Baptist and Methodist) but there are no Evangelical congregations. I don’t have a problem with these denominations for the most part but the traditionalism has dried out the community in terms of faith and spirituallity. We need to see revival here and it isn’t going to happen if we don’t start from scratch with solid Gospel preaching. Need prayers and feedback. Thanks.

  • Charlie Webster

    March 28, 2011, 11:36 am

    “is there a model or indication in the NT on how the church is designed to grow?”

    I hate to do it this way, but in May of this year a book will be published called Revitalizing Christianity that looks at exactly this question. The key is motivation that is both biblical and powerful. It is amazing how badly we have missed key motivational points of God’s message, and as a result people in the churches are not motivated to do church plants or any other kind of outreach. We have also so confused people about the very basics of evangelism that most people believe a professional must be involved in the process, and there just never will be enough professionals to do the job (and the ones we have are overworked with other tasks).

    Drew is right that, at least at this time, church plants are more successful at growth than established churches; and it is also true that established churches often have buildings that establish maximum growth limits; but the biblical principles that can and should motivate Christians in every aspect of life can bring astonishing growth to established churches as well as church plants. I was part of a church in Alabama that was 125 years old when I started attending and that grew dramatically when just a little of this motivating Christianity began to be applied.