According to dean of American church consultants Lyle Schaller, when leaders in nondenominational Protestant megachurches founded since 1975 are asked, “What proportion of your regular attendees in worship were born, baptized, reared and confirmed in a Roman Catholic family?”, responses range from 40 to 60 percent.
Pastor Bill Hybels once pointed out that Willow Creek Community Church experienced one of its greatest historical growth spurts when he preached a series of messages on the Ten Commandments called, “Laws That Liberate.” Willow Creek reaped a huge influx of lapsed Catholics who had a sense of moral law from their upbringing but who were now responding to a more contemporary and compelling framing of that Old Testament teaching. Other megachurches confirm that many of their people grew up Catholic, fell away from practicing and now tentatively put a foot in the door of another church because it reframed the faith in a more understandable and engaging way.
Schaller notes that when “cradle Catholics” are asked why they chose an evangelical congregation, the most frequent explanation is “the preaching” or “the sermons.” A second explanation refers to specialized ministries, and a third to “local control” or decision-making. In short, “The past 50 years have brought a free market to nearly all sectors of the American economy from agriculture to transportation to the delivery of health care to manufacturing to journalism to financial services, and that list includes organized religion. The market place is far more competitive today than it was in the 1950s! I am convinced the reason our share of the church membership market has dropped so sharply is most of our churches are not competitive.”
People choose their church — or choose no church at all — based on whether the church can compete.
Before you have a cow about wishing churches could be more “competitive,” think twice. This is not an issue of churches competing with each other, backbiting or “sheep-stealing” members. The issue is rather the failure of many congregations today to be competitive with culture in winning the attention and affection of people. When people aren’t coming to my church, the explanation is not the Presbyterians. The explanation is the NFL, the outlet center, the fact that it’s dad’s weekend to have the kids or that I’m working.
One response of declining churches could be to complain about megachurches. But a better response might be to help my church figure out how better to compete for people who are choosing to spend their time in other ways than coming to my church.
John Chandler ([email protected]) is leader of the Spence Network. Follow the Spence Network on Facebook and Twitter and at www.spencenetwork.org.