We had our number. We now knew the size of our people group & we knew what we needed to pray toward in the next 10 years.
Now for the 1st part of the question — “What’s it going to take…?”
It was a Thursday afternoon after our weekly Staff Prayer meeting. Our Leadership Team was gathered in our conference room & I wrote 1,000,000 at the top of the whiteboard & asked the team, “Any ideas how?”
It was natural for us to start with the idea of continuing to do what we had done the past 10 years. We had a multi-site church of 10 campuses with thousands attending each weekend. Think LifeChurch. That’s what our gatherings were similar to. Attractional. Designed with lost people in mind. Aimed toward using the weekend to reach as many as possible. We had a great band & played a mix of worship music and music you’d hear on the radio. The sermons consisted of topics relating to practical issues that many in our culture would be facing. You probably know a church that’s similar to ours. You’ve probably been to a church that’s similar to ours. And I’m guessing you have an opinion about it, too! 🙂
We were able to connect with many people. In the last 10 years, we had 54,168 first-time guests that filled out a connection card. Many more than that who never filled out a card, I’m sure.
As the church grew, we started more campuses, hired more staff, and spent more money. All things that typically happen when churches grow. American churches, that is.
As we thought about the number of campuses, buildings, staff, & money it would require for us to reach 1,000,000 in the next 10 years, we were baffled. We decided to try to come up with a calculation.
The average cost per baptism in the typical American church is… you may want to sit down for this. $1,500,000. It costs, on average, an estimated $1.5 million dollars per baptism in the American church. Feel free to gasp in disbelief.
Our Executive Pastor, John Bradshaw, who is also a CPA, keeps careful track of all of the money that flows in & out of our church. We asked him to figure out how much it has cost per baptism at eLife in the last 10 years.
His figure: $5,000.
Whew! That’s still expensive, but at least it wasn’t $1,500,000.
We thought, “Ok. Perhaps a rough estimate of what it would cost us to reach 1,000,000 using our current model would be to multiply the cost per baptism by the number of people we want to reach.”
$5,000 x 1,000,000 people = $5,000,000,000
Our cost per baptism number is pretty low comparatively, but we’d need at least $5 billion dollars in the next 10 years to reach the million. That’s not even accounting for the difficulties involved in finding the staff, the facilities, managing all of it, etc.
It took us about 30 seconds to toss that idea.
We all thought that if God really wants us to pursue the million, there’s no way we can continue the strategy of the first 10 years. It’s not going to work. Way too expensive. Way too difficult. Way too… everything really.
On top of the financial & personnel issues, is the American church model even working like it’s supposed to? Are we accomplishing our mission?
Before you respond, I’d encourage you to consider the research in the fascinating book, The Great Evangelical Recession, by John S. Dickerson. The subtitle of the book gives you an idea of its direction. “6 Factors That Will Crash The American Church And How To Prepare.” Whoa! And the factors are troubling to say the least.
Lest you think this is just another sensationalist author, John S. Dickerson is an award-winning investigative journalist turned Senior Pastor who has written essays & opinion columns for USA Today, CNN, The New York Times & the Washington Post. Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) had him speak in their chapel service on this topic. The President of Phoenix Seminary wrote a recommendation for this book. This guy is legit.
In the first chapter he highlights several of the factors “that will crash the American Church” & then spends the rest of the book diving into each of them.
“The evangelical church in the United States is not nearly as large as we’ve been told. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a huge deal… Overestimating the size and ‘value’ of the evangelical church is—much like housing prices—one of the silent triggers, one of the unexamined fault lines under the Great Evangelical Recession. In a moment, I’ll explain just how much we have overestimated our size. But first, a word on why it matters. In the coming chapters, we’re going to see irrefutable data. We’ll see that: the fuel of American evangelicalism—dollars—is disappearing and will dwindle over the next three decades. We’re losing millions of our own people—about 2.6 million per decade, just from one generation studied. The evangelical church is not winning new believers fast enough to keep pace with rapid population growth in the United States. While these forces eat at the church internally, the external climate is turning against evangelicals. The fastest growing subcultures in the United States express a militant antagonism against Christians who take the Bible seriously. What’s left of a smaller, shrinking, strapped church is also splintering and splitting itself over politics and postmodern views of God and the Bible.”
Whoa! It’s a gripping read & I’d highly recommend you pick up the book.
Here’s a trailer that was created to tease the book that helps to highlight the problem: YouTube Link
I had our Leadership Team read this book & we started jokingly calling it “The Great Evangelical Depression!” It leaves you a little depressed about the state of the American church but ends up giving a hopeful solution to the problem.
I thought the concepts in the book were so important that we did a 4-part message series on it at our church called Meltdown: The Decline of the American Church.
Even if you listen to the messages, I’d still highly recommend you pick up the book.
Here are a few compelling sections of the book that I highlight in the message series mentioned above.
Separately, evangelical researchers Thom and Sam Rainer concluded, “Most churches are dwindling. Most denominations are not growing. The population in the United States is exploding… the church is losing ground. We are in a steep state of decline.”
What is truly remarkable is that even with loads of money being deposited into the evangelical movement, it hasn’t kept the evangelical church from shrinking. Despite the billions of dollars invested in churches/ministries all across our nation, evangelicalism has not kept pace with the population growth. Why is that when evangelicals in the US have more wealth, assets & technology than the evangelical church has ever had in history, the church is declining at home? Somehow our employment of this wealth has not been fruitful enough to hold our ground at home. Consider this: If we take the most modest estimate of the combined annual giving by American evangelicals, they give more than the GDP of Iceland. If nationalized, the combined annual giving right now would likely be among the hundred largest economies in the world. And yet we are not even holding ground in the United States.
We do well to acknowledge that we are weak, as a national church. We do well to see that we do not have it figured out. We do well to accept the rips in the fabric of evangelicalism. We do well to swallow the thick truth that many of our best efforts are not only failing, but actually backfiring. We do well to see our weakness, so that we can come to Him who invites the weary and burdened to fall into His arms. Jesus’ invitation for tired laborers applies to us: “Come to me, all who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 GW).
If we want to rebuild & restore a culture of discipleship, we have no choice but to release the way American church was done in the 20th century. The late-20th-century church model, in so many applications, requires so much energy and attention that little to nothing is left for anything else, including discipleship. The 20th century church model which revolves around buildings, weekend gatherings, sermons & such is not primarily focused on discipleship. Discipleship gets crowded out because doing all of those things takes so much time. We do all those things hoping we get discipleship, but it doesn’t seem to be working.
I think anyone that has pastored an American church longer than a year knows there is a lot of truth in some of those statements.
Roy Moran, one of my DMM Coaches, and author of Spent Matches, also points out similar troubling trends.
Later, Moran also comments on the high cost of baptizing a single person:
Gordon Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) calculated the cost of baptizing one person globally in 2014 at $753,000. All the money contributed to expanding the mission of Jesus around the globe, divided by the number of people converted to Christianity gives us this figure. We can all agree that you can’t put a price on a human soul, but when our strategies cost this much, we must pause and wonder whether we should reconsider how we are attempting to reach the world. Is this all we have? Even if we could afford to fund our current strategies, they just aren’t effective. CSGC forecasts that by 2025, the cost of baptizing one person globally will rise to $1.4 million.
As we mentioned earlier, the cost per baptism in America at $1,500,000 is almost double the global cost per baptism from 2014 & basically equal to the global projected cost of 2025. This is crazy!
In The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, Christine Wicker writes, “Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. The great evangelical movements of today are not a vanguard. They are a remnant, unraveling at every edge. Look at it any way you like: Conversions. Baptisms. Membership. Retention. Participation. Giving. Attendance. Religious literacy. Effect on culture. All are down and dropping. It’s no secret…”
It’s definitely not a secret. Most pastors that I know admit this is true & are bothered by it. Many of us would admit that the American church model is on life support, but what do we do? Are there any other options?
Back to the whiteboard.
Looking at the 1,000,000 number written at the top, we had the same question.
If our existing American church strategy can’t get us to the million, is there a strategy that can?
As our Leadership Team sat there, we were all thinking the same thing. We knew of a strategy. We had heard the stories. We had been reading books about them for months. We had talked about them for years. We had even visited some of these places.
But the stories weren’t from here. They weren’t from America.
They were from India, Africa, & China.
Millions were coming to Christ.
We couldn’t help but ask, “Could God do the same thing here?”
Part 4 – Millions