In his book, Shepherding the Small Church, Glenn Daman brings up a myth plaguing small and rural churches today. The myth equates evangelism with numerical growth. The basic premise of the myth is if a church does evangelism effectively, it will grow numerically. While many pastors inherently know this is not true, the alarming statistics about the number of plateaued or declining churches causes concern within the greater church community. Currently, the most common statistics estimate the number of plateaued or declining churches range from 70 to 84% of all churches in the US.
(For the sake of brevity, I wish to address the issue of labeling a church as plateaued. The issue of declining churches is more complicated than a brief article can address sufficiently.)
Plateaued means, “to reach a state or level of little or no growth, or to… stabilize.” To describe a church based solely on its numerical growth, or lack thereof, is to mischaracterize the totality of a church’s ministry by looking at only one aspect. Yet, words like plateaued and declining are used to paint a negative picture of any church not growing numerically. Subtly, such words infer to grow is good and to not grow is bad. While it sounds good to say churches should grow numerically, no such standard for measuring a church can be found in Scripture.
The truth is many of these “plateaued” churches are in plateaued or declining rural communities across North America. On a national level, 676 rural counties lost population over the last ten years. To illustrate further, 69 of Iowa’s 99 counties have contracted since 2010. Churches in such counties are often hard pressed just to maintain a “plateaued church.”
A better terminology might be to call these churches stable. Some of these stable churches are in declining communities where being stable can be seen as success. A factory shuts down or a mine plays out and a third of the community leaves. To maintain stability is extremely difficult in these situations. For other counties, to grow numerically is extremely difficult. For example, a church in Jordan, Montana, population 351, has limited possibilities for numerical growth. This is compounded by the fact that since 1990, Jordan’s population has declined by 28.9% (down from 494). Thus, a church in Jordan which had 49 people attending in 1990 had 10% of the town attending the church. If the same church was able to maintain 49 people in 2022, it would be reaching 14% of the population. This is an increase of 4% of the town, yet it is still considered “plateaued.”
While an example such as a church in Jordan, Montana may sound like an exception rather than the rule, hundreds of churches across North America serve in remote and rural areas with limited growth potential. These churches are not applauded for their steadfast witness in a difficult and rural part of the US. Instead, of being seen as a stable, solid church, they are labeled as plateaued.
Am I making an argument against churches growing? Emphatically NOT! I pray for revival across North America and desire to see churches be effective in reaching their communities for Christ. However, I do NOT want to push churches by using guilt or shame. We simply cannot manufacture the work of the Holy Spirit. Allowing churches to be what they are called by God to be must warrant the support of the larger church community.
Labels are dangerous. A negative label can subtly undermine a pastor or a church. Sadly, when labels are used long enough, people begin to assume they accurately describe the situations. By stopping and taking the time to examine a label such as plateaued, we may see using a negative label does more harm than good.
For the many healthy, stable churches out there loving their members, loving their community, making disciples, and participating in missions, you are not a plateaued church. You are a healthy stable church, and you are being used by God to touch lives. Don’t become discouraged by negative labels placed upon you by others. Keep looking at the many good things your church is doing, and keep your focus on serving God, your church family, and your community.