Church attendance across denominational lines has suffered a five-year decline and has sunk to its lowest level in two decades, according to research by the Barna Research Group of Glendale, California. "From the early '80s to the early '90s, there has been a definite change," said Bruce Hose, who was director of Sunday school programs for the 1-million-member Alabama Baptist Convention from 1985 to 1995. "Not only has attendance gone down but it is a graying culture, a graying congregation."
Hose said the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention and some other denominations have continued to make membership gains, but much of the growth has taken place in newly emerging megachurches. In telephone surveys of 1,004 U.S. adults 18 and over, Barna Research Group said 37 percent of Americans now report going to church on a given Sunday. Attendance peaked in 1991 at 49 percent and dropped to 47 percent in 1992, 45 percent in 1993 and 42 percent in 1994 and 1995, according to the Barna poll numbers. "Increasingly, we are seeing Christian churches lose entire segments of the population: men, singles, empty nesters ... and people who were raised in mainline Protestant churches," wrote pollster George Barna.
"If his poll data is right, it's even worse than what we think we have found," said Samford University researcher Penny Long Marler, who has taken part in studies showing that actual church attendance is only about half of that indicated by telephone polls. "It may be where we're heading."
Many churches have been lulled into a false sense of security for years by Gallup poll figures that appeared to show church attendance remaining constant, Hose pointed out. Gallup polls have remained steady for three decades in reporting that about 43 percent of people say in telephone surveys that they attended church the previous week, Marler said. But with the increasing population, a steady 43 percent church attendance should have resulted in a massive influx of people for the nation's churches. "That's clearly not been the case," Marler said. "Clearly something has been fishy about the polling."
Mainline Protestant churches have lost millions of members over the past three decades, and growth at evangelical Protestant churches has not been nearly large enough to offset those losses, Marler said. Many baby boomers who returned to church while rearing their children have stopped attending since their children have grown up and left home, noted Barna Research Group spokesman Dave Kinnaman. …