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One of the common responses to the decline of Christianity in America is to note that it is not our fault. The decline is evidence of much larger cultural problems—a combination of postmodernism, the rise of hyper-individualism, and the influence of those who have an axe-to-grind with the church. Many would agree that the decline of American Christianity is due to factors external to the church.

This argument does have its merits. Culture is shifting. America by the day is becoming more individualistic. It’s hard to name one civic institution that is not in decline, whether the VFW or the Masons. Yet it’s hard not to think institutions do bear at least some responsibility for the state of things, particularly when one looks inside the American church. Is it possible that American Christianity has, at the very least, aided its own decline? I believe this is true—the church itself has contributed to the dwindling numbers of those who identify as Christian and regularly participate in the life of local congregations.

How has the church done this? The church growth ministry model of the last fifty years deserves much of the blame. A strategy intended to grow the church has done the opposite.

Before I dive into why I believe this is true, I must say something briefly about myself. I owe much of my Christian formation to the church growth movement. I grew up in a full-gospel megachurch with over ten thousand in attendance each week. Later, during my high school years, I attended a different church, one which prided itself on being the Willow of West Michigan, modeled after the famous Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago. Throughout my ministry career, I have been a pastor in three churches using the church growth model, one of them a (formerly) RCA congregation in Idaho. I owe much of my faith journey to this ministry model and my time in this movement has given me a unique vantage point into how it is aiding in the decline of the American church.

Christian Decline and the Rise of the Church Growth Movement

The decline of the American church is well-documented. Gallup reported that as of 2020, 47% of Americans regularly attended religious services (of any faith).[1] That number is down 20% from 1999. This is a precipitous drop, to say the least. Religious service attendance had begun to dip before 1999, beginning in the 1970s. In the late 1960s, religious service attendance in American was about 73%, a level that had held steady for over 50 years. Over the next couple of decades, the average slowly declined 5%.

At the same time that religious service attendance began to decline, a new approach to church arose. In 1975, Bill Hybels founded Willow Creek Community Church in Chicagoland. Five years later, Rick Warren launched Saddleback Church in southern California. Both churches were revolutionary. Drawing on ideas pioneered by the RCA’s Robert Schuller at the Crystal Cathedral, Hybels and Warren chose to do church differently. Worship became a playground for the arts, featuring high-quality contemporary music and drama. The purpose of the worship service was to reach the lost (seekers) and find a way to catch the next generation for Christ. Both churches abandoned traditional Christian education, catechesis, and other typical forms of lay theological training. Historical worship liturgies were replaced with creative and different approaches to music, drama, and preaching. New emphasis was placed upon making the worship experience match the culture in look and feel. Lectionary preaching was replaced with practical teaching series about family, marriage, life issues, and the culture.

Within just a few years both of these church communities grew to national prominence and the seeker-sensitive megachurch era was born. Soon, the church growth model became the idyllic example of church for many. Smaller, less well-funded churches emulated what the behemoths were doing in the hope that they too could reach those outside the walls and grow in number. Preachers began changing their preaching style to more closely align with Hybels and company. Church leaders attended Willow’s Global Leadership Summit and headed home with new ideas and expectations of what the church ought to be.

Protestant churches of every stripe pursued the new model—even mainline Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches attempted to replicate the success of megachurches. The seeker-sensitive church growth model was so much in the cultural water that over the past fifty years many Protestant churches adapted to this style through a sort of cultural osmosis. And its effect is bigger than Protestantism; I recently asked a local Roman Catholic priest if the church growth model had found its way into their ministry. He responded by laughing as he said, “It’s thoroughly embedded in the Roman Catholic Church in America.”

The church growth strategy is built on very different goals than traditional things like community, sacraments, and catechism. It’s all about excellence on Sunday mornings–some even use the language of the Sunday Experience. Offerings outside of Sunday also needed to be relevant and practical, with things as diverse as “Trunk or Treats,” various conferences, and Christian concerts aimed toward drawing the outside community in.

What effect did this shift in church identity and practice have? As the church growth movement picked up steam, one would expect that church attendance nationally would have begun to move upward. In fact, the opposite occurred. As the church growth movement increased in influence, church attendance began to decline. Seeker-sensitive churches swelled as smaller traditional churches shuttered their doors. Pastors have been well-aware that they lost people from their traditional churches to seeker-sensitive churches. The church growth movement hit its peak around the turn of the century, and yet as it grew to the pinnacle of its influence, American Christianity witnessed its greatest decline.

The Reshaping of the Church Member

What effect has this had on the layperson? I am convinced the rise of the church growth movement has caused a massive shift in mindset for church members. Traditionally, the laity participating in corporate worship joined a great cloud of witnesses—all generations, rich and poor, married, single, widowed, orphaned, all joined with the express intent of offering worship to the Lord together. Deeply interconnected relationships arose as a result.

A retired pastor once reminisced with me about the old times at his church. On Sunday mornings following worship men might talk shop together; perhaps about business dealings both parties were in on. Families would talk with other families about hurting friends. People would check-in on each other. Children would run around the fellowship hall picking up games left-off in the neighborhood or at school. In the old way of doing church, people knew each other. They didn’t know of each other; they were deeply involved in each other’s lives—from work to family to neighbors to friendships. Sometimes disagreement would break out over seemingly mundane issues like the church carpet color or the singing of psalms versus hymns. These arguments held much gravity for the community because parishioners found great meaning in their church communities. Identities were at risk when changes were made. The stakes were high.

As churches grew larger, relationships grew weaker. Church identity shifted from relationships among members to embracing the vision of a corporate church brand and strategy that had been dreamed up by the lead pastor. “Community” was not expressed in deep interconnected faith friendships but in church stickers slapped on the back of a family van. Parishioners became attendees. When the church gathered on Sunday mornings for worship, the mindset shifted from a community gathering to individual experience.

What was once a gathering of God’s people together has largely shifted to a group of individual consumers in proximity to each other. Evaluating the experience was key: the definition of goodworship was based on what was witnessed. Did the worship band bring us into the “presence of God”? Was the pastor thought-provoking, funny, and practical? Did the video make us feel something? Did the greeter team shake every new hand? Was the coffee good? In other words, did Sunday morning meet my expectations? The church growth strategy has effectively turned the Christian parishioner into a consumerist of a spiritual experience. Everything is judged. Everything is done to make the individual consumer think something or feel something. The goal of the church staff is to please its consumers.

Along the way, parishioners have been transformed from community members to church volunteers. The machinery of the seeker-sensitive enterprise must utilize many volunteers to run properly. Faithful attendees volunteer to keep the machinery running. But not every potential volunteer measures up. Gone are the days when grandmas would spend time with children in Sunday school. Longer gone are the days when the children were welcomed in the worship service. Instead, young, intelligent, attractive, and relevant people are sought to give kids their own high quality faith experience. These same people are enlisted as greeters at the front door and as worship leaders, too.

Ushering the Christian toward Churchlessness

The unintentional consequence of the church growth movement is a theology of individualistic consumerism. Movement between churches happens frequently and the term church-shopping has been popularized. If the church down the road better fits my needs and preferences than my current church—and nothing supersedes one’s preferences—why not head down the road?

The seeker-sensitive model of marketing to outsiders has unwittingly transformed those on the inside. We’ve retrained our laity and created new expectations of what the church is and how one ought to participate in it. Marshall McCluhan’s famous line the medium is the message makes a lot of sense in this regard.

A result is there are clear differences between generations in many local church communities. Older members are far better at cultivating Christian community than younger generations, who often struggle to find any semblance of community and connection. Older church members are also far more likely to understand basic Christian doctrine, creeds, catechisms, and the Bible in general. I used to joke that I could teach a four-person Trinity in new members’ classes and not be challenged. I’m not sure that’s a joke anymore

The church growth movement has led to weaker community, weaker theological acuity, weaker biblical knowledge, and little understanding or appreciation of the historic liturgies of the church. With so many fewer connections between the church and its members, it should be no wonder that many are fading away from the church altogether.

What Now?

Tim Keller recently offered a new model to get the church back on track. Embracing that sort of quick-hitting multi-step process would mean embracing the same church growth strategy that got the American church into the mess that it is in. What now then? I propose that rather than adding new strategies or programs, the church do just the opposite. As many Christians struggle through deconstruction, what if the American church began doing some deconstruction of its own? Not deconstruction of its theology, but deconstruction of its methods. I suggest the church unbundle itself from the church growth movement altogether. The best cure for the state of the American church is going back to the traditional ways of being the church. Let’s abandon marketing through church logos, vision statements, and the unending search for relevance and instead begin catechizing our members.

The reality is that the church growth movement is not old. In the scope of church history, it is merely a blip. We need a resurgence of Christian communities that have a deep knowledge of one another, Christian communities that gather because they know what they believe. We need Christian communities that love being the church. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to simply stop doing what we’ve been doing. I don’t know if it’s possible to put the proverbial genie—the individualist-consumerist-spiritual mindset genie—back in the bottle. I don’t know if it’s possible to close Pandora’s box. But I believe it is the faithful thing to do. It is the brave thing to do. I believe the way forward is to go back.


Jon Austin

Jon Austin serves as an RCA chaplain in the United States Air Force. He previously served as a pastor at an RCA church in Idaho. He is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary. Jon and his wife Becca are the parents of three children.


  • Kathryn VanRees says:

    These thoughts are excellent, Jon. Thankyou for this thought-provoking and careful writing.

  • Jean Scott says:

    I think you may be on to something! Community is a key – knowing each other and the needs each has. We get that in a traditional church with solid preaching and teaching, visiting (even ‘House visitation”) members, and bathing everything in love and prayer.

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    Wow. I’m with you on this.

  • John Paarlberg says:

    Thank you for this Jon. I wish more congregations would consider some form of the catechumenate process for welcoming and shaping new Christians. It is a ministry grounded in Word, sacraments and community. “Faith Forming Faith” by Paul Hoffman is a good resource.

  • Don Tamminga says:

    Thanks Jon. Most of my children are involved in what the mega church offers. I do wonder if there is a need to find multiple third way solutions based on the local community as we struggle for relevance in today’s world. T

  • Ronald Mulder says:

    Wow–this is an important addition to our thinking. I’m totally on board with the disgust of church shopping and looking at what the church experience can do for ME, ME, ME.

    One suggestion is that any larger church pursuing a church growth model needs to have a robust parallel small-group program where these community/fellowship ties are nurtured and serious Christian discipleship can be encouraged. There’s a classic book with a title something like “Bowling Alone” that captures the demise of powerful anchoring experiences that groups provide.

    I’m equally dismayed by close-knit Christian fellowship churches that have wholly bought into cultural/political positions that would appear to be miles away from genuine love and acceptance modeled by Jesus. Songs that were lustily sung with verses such as “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” in practice are no longer followed–maybe even disdained. The powerful group dynamic often has degenerated into MY TRIBE against all other tribes in a smug search for purity.

    Can we hope for some sort of synergy between these church identity models?

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I believe you are absolutely right. I have practiced my whole ministry on your assumptions. I see some problems with your article as an argument, especially on demonstrating cause and effect, but I am fully with you. Would you consider parish ministry on these convictions in the future?

    • Jon Austin says:

      Daniel, I am enjoying this current adventure as a military chaplain, however, I also don’t feel like my time as a local church pastor is over. We will see where the Spirit leads.

  • Marlin Vis says:

    30 years ago, almost to the day, I was featured in an ABC Peter Jennings special. I was the antagonist to Bill Hybels seeker movement. I didn’t mean to be, but that is how it shook out. My primary criticism back then was the corporate model that I saw in the Willow experience. The lead pastor as CEO for example. Today we’ve religion-ised CEO to “apostle”, but same principle, namely the lead pastor is the catalyst for the church’s success or the fall person for failure—measured by attendance and giving. The lead pastor sets the vision, makes the calls, is the poster person for the church. I didn’t get much love back then for my critique of the Hybel’s concept of church, but today I feel a little vindicated. I appreciate this article even though I have some quibble with it. I actually think we need to “deconstruct” our theology as much as anything else. Last thing—Dr John Piet, one of my favorite people, was fond of saying that “the messenger is the message.” Not original with Dr Piet, but by it he meant that Jesus was the message—the person not the teachings or our dogma connected to him, but the person Jesus. And the church was the message and the pastor was the message, not method or style, or content of sermon, but the institution itself and the person of the preacher—they are the message. So when we talk about grace and love and community and then fight like demons over masks and social distancing and in person worship and all the other stuff that we present to the people out there, we should not be surprised when they are not interested in anything we do. This response is too long, I know, but I’m too lazy and too tired to write my own article.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Thanks for your insights based on personal experience. This weekend I preached in a tiny Presbyterian, rural church that felt like “real church” to me. From a baby to elderly members (no teens unfortunately), they come together every Sunday for worship and fellowship. I get the sense they wouldn’t miss it. I mentioned to a young mother that her church has what huge churches are missing, and she nodded her head. When I was consulting with churches in the Synod of the Heartland about Christian education over 30 years ago, I took pains to say the same thing to smaller church leaders. They were feeling down because they didn’t look like the popular church models, but I told them that the big churches struggled to reflect what they already had.

  • Joel Slenk says:

    The rest of the world noticed this was happening in real time

    The Simpsons 2001 Season 13 Episode 6 “She of little faith”

    “What are we doing to the church”
    “We are rebranding it”
    “The old church was skewing pious”
    “We prefer a faith based emporium – teeming with impulse buy items”

  • Rebecca says:

    Good thoughts! The end of the article reminded me of something C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity “ We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

  • Randy Johnson says:

    When “Christians” write criticizing Willow Creek, it causes me to wonder what their objective is. How does criticizing a church that has had so much positive influence for Jesus bring build the Kingdom of God? The data indicates that it is mainline denominations have been the types of churches that have, by far, lost attendees. My family and I have been attending Willlow Creek since 1985 and there has been no church or person that has helped me grow as a believer nearly as much as Willow Creek and Bill Hybels. Willow’s focus on “loving God and loving people” rather than rules, regulations and form (which I have experienced in too many other churches), have reflected Jesus teaching. Further, I have been in all of the Western Hemisphere with the Global Leaderhsip Network and experienced God’s presence and blessing there, just as millions of people have experienced it in the U.S. The author’s verbs and nouns reflect his disrespect and bias against Willow. The caual observer of Willow has missed the practical Biblical teaching, small groups and serving others, in addition to the focus on helping non-believers become totally devoted followers of Christ. So, I encourage authors such as the one above, to investigate Willow more extensively rather than criticizing from a distance.

    • Marlin Vis says:

      Thanks for this Randy. My own criticism of Willow is not tied to method, intent or results. I incorporated much of Willow’s methods into my own ministry. My primary critique was the business model that Hybels laid out. For all of my pastor life in the church I pushed against this model. I would often tell my board that we are not a business, even though some of what we do ought to practice good business. What happened to us is that we created a consumer mindset—at least this is my contention, I’m not sure I’m right or that it is just that simple. And we measured success by growth in numbers and finances without asking where the numbers were coming from. Hybels drew this same conclusion years later, declaring himself that Willow did not make as many new disciples as he thought it would, but rather grew by drawing from other churches that could not compete with the excellence of Willow. Willow did a lot of good for a lot of people, myself included. So please don’t be overly sensitive to criticism of Willow. From me, at least, it is not meant to be mean-spirited or unfair. I think scapegoating any one church or even one movement within the church is a mistake. Much work to be done for us to move forward by reimagining what following Jesus might look like in the 21st century and not overly worrying about a decline in church attendance. Church attendance is not the sole measure of what is happening in the spiritual dimension of people’s lives—again, my opinion only.

  • Andrew jones says:

    Thanks For this. some good thoughts. In my mind I distinguish the seeker-sensitive approach of Saddleback from the seeker-targeted approach of Willow but I also differentiate the Americanized version of the church growth movement under Wagner from its origins when MacGavran was observing mass movements of highly relational house church networks in India in the 1930s. Perhaps another good idea would be to look back as well as forward?

  • David says:

    Thank you for this. Here is a link to a paper I wrote during grad school in which I analyze the differences in the ways a seeker service and a liturgical service works. My conclusions echo most of yours.

  • Henry Hess says:


  • I resonated with much in this post. As a Late Boomer/Gen X parent and professor, I bemoan the loss of faith among so many millennial and Gen Z young adults who grew up in seeker-sensitive churches. I’ve known young people with a strong faith shaped at Willow Creek but I’ve also seen the opposite. When one’s roots are so shallow, it is easy to abandon one’s childhood faith for a self-designed spirituality or a political religion of the Left or Right. When one’s faith experience is shaped by popular culture and consumerism there is little foundation to weather life’s storms. My wish list for young people is that they would experience a close-knit, intergenerational congregation, feel surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that extends through time and space back to the apostles, taste the intellectual rigor of the Christian tradition, fall in love with the whole of Scripture, learn to put their faith into practice through acts of love, mercy, and proclamation, and have a powerful sense of God’s presence.