David T. Olson’s The American Church in Crisis: A Review

“What’s at stake is not the future of denominations, church buildings, or the jobs of pastors. What’s at stake are the souls of thousands of people who don’t see any need for Christ, much less his church.” (from the foreword by Craig Groeschel)1

David Olson is the Director of Church Planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church. From his experience as a pastor, plus some groundbreaking and much needed research, Olson has discovered that the American Church is in a crisis that previous polling has either ignored or masked completely.

Many people look at the success of the mega-churches, with the omnipresent faces of some quite famous Christian preachers and teachers, and assume that even if some denominations are struggling, the state of Christianity in this country is, at the least, Okay. Olson destroys that myth with research based not upon the responses of people to polling questions but to an actual headcount of the worship attendance in over 200,000 congregations. Olson ignores church membership totals and focuses on the people who are, in fact, showing up on the weekends.

His findings are disturbing. Olson writes, “If the American church grew in attendance by six percent in one year [as George Barna posits], then sixteen million additional people began to attend church that year. With that sort of growth, worship attendance at every church in America would have increased by an average of fifty four people. Since the average size of a Protestant church in America is one hundred and twenty four, most churches would have noticed such a large increase. However, no reports surfaced of churches swamped by new attendees” (p. 26).

What is the issue? If you ask someone if they attend church often they will usually answer in a more hopeful or positive way than reflects their actual behavior. Olson calls this the “halo effect.”

Here is the reality: between the years 1990 and 2006, roughly fifty two million people attended worship each week. However, with population and immigration growth there were over ninety two million more people living here in 2005 than in 1990. So, in reality, the actual percentage of population attending church declined in every single state. In my home state of Minnesota, the decline in attendance at a mainline church versus the population growth rate was a negative 10.4 percent.

Now we can see the problem.

What is the solution?

Unsurprisingly, Olson’s main solution to the issue is not preaching, not teaching, not even the liberal versus conservative theological debates. The church has to get back into the business of planting new churches.

According to Olson’s experience and his reams of statistical analysis, denominations who care about their future will be planting high quality new churches equal to at least two percent of the number of the congregations in the denomination itself (two percent would keep pace with population growth). Denominations would exist to foster healthy relationships between new and established churches (the old arguments about encroaching on territory are completely out of line when one is confronted with these numbers–one cannot steal sheep who are not going to church). Finally, denominations will close underperforming congregations and invest those assets (membership and money) in the future of the new church starts.

Olson surveyed a number of established congregations in an attempt to figure out why some thrive and some decline. His theory is that a congregation will thrive or decline based on whether it has decided to age gracefully or not. Do the congregants have the ability to adapt to change? Can they fight off diseases like dysfunctional family systems and the like? Is the energy of the church constantly being renewed with new members and connections?

All of these things can be present within a congregation, and yet it isn’t growing-not without strong leadership. Olson’s visual of strong leadership is that of a footstool with three legs: spirituality, chemistry, and strategy. Most pastors and leaders possess one or two of these qualities but not all three and thus hinder healthy established congregations from actually becoming growing congregations. Those that have all three present are ready to provide “leadership for growth” (p. 139), that is, leadership that focuses the attention of the congregation on spirituality, chemistry, and strategy.

What do we do with pastors and leaders who do not possess all three of these qualities? Olson’s recommendation is a strong coaching and accountability system. Olson’s belief is that what we will find, if we look close enough, is that it is authentic spirituality and chemistry that are missing the most in our church leadership.

For those most concerned about the future of our denominations, Olson has an answer to what could become a very cynical reality. If we want to survive, established churches “must courageously strive towards health and growth” (p. 180), they must “actively plant new churches” (p. 180), and our denominations must support the local congregations in these endeavors by realizing that church planting “is essential for their future health” (p. 181).

Olson finishes his treatise with five messages that the American church must learn to carry simultaneously:

1. Proclaim forgiveness in Christ and reconciliation with God (evangelism).
2. Help people break the bonds in their own lives through prayer, healing, and practical help that restores them into the image of God (ministry).
3. Help people live a new life in Christ through teaching, Bible study, spiritual disciplines, and mentoring (spiritual formation).
4. Be a compassionate countercultural force in the community, nation, and world (love).
5. Be a community of redeemed sinners who provide love, support, and accountability for each other through worship, love, fellowship, meals, communion and church planting (true community) (pp. 210-217).

Olson uses a mix of data and experience to call the American Church to a great restoration. He recalls the image of the early church at the end of the book of Acts where Paul is seen proclaiming the reign of God with boldness and without hindrance and invites the American church to write the 29th chapter of that book together.

This book is not only required reading for congregational leaders on up the chain to the highest offices in our denominations, it is structured to be read in small groups as well. Olson includes group discussion questions at the end of each chapter that will produce interesting dialogues and discoveries.

Add this to your reading list and give thanks that there are people out there like David Olson who took what most congregational leaders have been feeling about our church to some degree and not only quantifies the problem but has laid out a tried and true roadmap to a preferred future. This book and its findings are not just for the church but for the millions of people waiting to hear and experience the transformative reality of the Gospel.

1Olson, David T. The American Church in Crisis: groundbreaking research based on a national database of over 200,000 churches. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008)