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Study: More Protestant Churches Closing Than Opening In Recent Years

By Yonat Shimron
Church closures were among the most contested measures in the fight against COVID-19. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A new study from Lifeway Research suggests more Protestant churches closed in 2019 than opened — continuing a decades-long congregational slide that is only expected to accelerate.

The study, which analyzed church data from 34 Protestant denominations and groups, found that 4,500 churches closed in 2019, while about 3,000 new congregations were started. The 34 Protestant denominations account for about 60% of U.S.-based Protestant denominations.

“Even before the pandemic, the pace of opening new congregations was not even providing enough replacements for those that closed their doors,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.

The study also pointed to the hastening of church closures. In 2014, it found, there were 3,700 church closures, compared with 4,500 in 2019.

Scholars cautioned that accurate information on church closings is very hard to come by and also that the numbers of closings are still relatively small.

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There are between 320,000 and 350,000 Protestant churches in the U.S., so the closure of 4,500 churches represents a loss of 1.4%, said Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Research by Lifeway Research

But another study, from the Center for Analytics, Research and Data, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, painted an even starker picture.

That study, published in April, estimated that in the decade ending in 2020, 3,850 to 7,700 houses of worship closed per year in the United States, or 75 to 150 congregations per week. It also projected those numbers will double or triple in the wake of the pandemic.

The biggest reason for church closings is a decline in church membership. A March poll from Gallup found that fewer than half (47%) of Americans say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from more than 70% in 2000.

Add to that the increasing cost of maintaining aging buildings and paying for capital improvements and a post-pandemic reluctance to return to in-person services. Some congregations will continue to thrive, especially those that convert their sacred space to mixed use or sell part of their land for housing.

“Church planting is slowing, and the number of closures is growing,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. “Yet, the opportunity is still before us.”

Yonat ShimronYonat Shimron is a national reporter and senior editor for Religion News Service.



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10 thoughts on “Study: More Protestant Churches Closing Than Opening In Recent Years”

  1. Mr. Ralph Jesperson

    The true kingdom of God is always growing and advancing according to our scriptures. This is a sign that what we call “Church” is not at all the same as that Kingdom which cannot be shaken. I do not have membership in any of these bodies, but I am a very devote believer. The institutions do not have the power of God and so I have lost interest. Instead, I am seeing God doing remarkable things that are outside what most people would call church. It is real and lacks the scandals that are the primary instrument where religious institutions are self-destructing. May what is fake continue to fall so that what is real remains…

    1. Barbara J Bates

      It’s disturbing that so many who are mature Christians are also leaving the church. As Protestants, I think we have a very poor grasp on the doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ. It’s in close community that we grow in faith and love among people who are weak like we are. It’s also where we are subject to our spiritual authorities, hear together the proclamation of the gospel and partake of the bread and wine as a united community of believers. I will also go so far to say that there is very little spiritual growth outside of the local body of Christ.

      Yes, there are some churches that will close and perhaps many of those need to close if they are not rightly dividing the word and caring for their flock. But I urge my brothers and sisters to persevere and pray for your local church and the body of Christ worldwide.

      1. Mr. Ralph Jesperson

        Jesus true body is made up of those that are actually following Him and trying the best they can to keep His commandments. That church is not stumbling or falling at all. The false churches are failing. We do need to recognize the difference and not judge by mere outward appearance.

      2. With people like James MacDonald, Rick Donald, Landon MacDonald, Luke MacDonald and Bill Hybels, leading or have led churches, can you blame people for leaving the church. I was an active member and tither in their churches for years, but after seeing their character (or rather lack of) I have given up on organized religion. I havent given up on God, but I have given up on the church.

    2. There’s the:

      CEV Poverty and Justice Bible
      Break-Away Hockey New Testament
      Women’s Study Bible
      NIV Bible for Teen Girls
      Everyday Life Bible
      Chronological Bible
      Adventure Bible
      Message Bible
      NIV Extreme Sports Bible
      Original African Heritage Bible
      Manga Bible
      Tree of Life Bible
      Brick Bible (Lego Art)
      C.S.Lewis Bible
      Duck Commander Bible
      Our Daily Bread Devotional Bible
      KJV Military Bible (Words to Patriotic Hymns in it)
      NLT Recovery Bible (guessing it includes The 12 Steps)
      NIV World Colour Sisterhood Bible
      NIV Bicentenary Bible (Austrailia)
      Oxford NT and Psalms Inclusive Bible (eliminates all references to masculine pronouns, even for God)
      Queen James Bible (LGBTQ affirming translation)

      So, why not a
      God Bless America Bible? I pray God will bring revival to this country. It’s where I live.

      The sponsors want to use a legitimate Bible translation. If it draws a person who is very patriotic to read the Bible, so be it. That’s a good thing. I might add that NIV has been an avid supporter of every kind and type of specialty Bible.

      Everyone seems so afraid of political idolatry now, but sports idolatry has been a greater challenge for years. Families don’t miss church to attend political rallies, but many will ditch worship and Bible study for youth and professional sports.

      Irony alert: The world’s biggest producer of printed bibles, a voluntary Chinese association, is in Nanking, China. The printer occupies 48,000 square feet space. 69 million Bibles have been printed to date in 80 languages in partnership with the United Bible Society.

  2. “Protestant” includes the long term death spiral legacy, liberal denominations, whose beliefs differ little from a liberal political party. Presbyterian USA, United Methodist, Episcopal, etc. at the current rate of decline will be gone by mid-century. The PCUSA for one has gone from 3.2 million members in 1983 (year of its merger) to 1.2 million members in 2020. 35% of its membership is over 65 with only 1 in 6 under 25. At the current rate of decline, PCUSA will have zero members in 2046. Julie has covered the recent Southern Baptist decline. But many other churches, mainly conservative ones, are stable or growing.

    Besides the pandemic budget buster year, another reason for church decline is demographic. For the first year since 1947, China had a decline in population. The entire developed world is having many less children. The U.S. had the lowest birth rate since 1979 in 2020, and has been running below the 2.1 per couple birth rate necessary to sustain the population. In 2020, it was 1.4. I personally know a number of Christian couples who have elected to not have children because they like their lifestyle and travel, and whose parents are heartbroken knowing they’ll never be grandparents. Of course, many others are postponing children later and later because of financial concerns, and having fewer children–often just one.

    The demographic bust is quietly affecting everything. Colleges and Universities are trying to recruit foreign students because there aren’t enough young people to recruit here. The medical system is under the strain of an aging population. McDonalds is actively recruiting aged employees, working with AARP, due to the dearth of young people available to work at its franchises. The situation is widely discussed in regards to military recruiting. The short of it is as the population grays, there will be less of need for church buildings. We’ve probably had too many church buildings for a long time. We’d be wise to spend more of our money on other priorities.

  3. I wasn’t thinking in terms of liberal vs conservative protestantism. Here I quote from an article by Ricky Jones of River Oaks Presbyterian Church, February, 2014:

    “I want you to understand that being a part of the universal church without submitting to a local church is not possible, biblical or healthy.

    First, it’s simply not possible. To imply that you can be part of the greater community without first being part of the smaller is not logical. You cannot be part of Rotary International without also being part of a Local Chapter. You cannot be part of the universal human family without first being part of a small immediate family.

    Second, it is not biblical. Every letter in the New Testament assumes Christians are members of local churches. The letters are addressed to local churches. They teach us how to get along with other members, how to encourage the weak within the church, how to conduct ourselves at church, and what to do with unrepentant sinners in the church. It commands us to submit to our elders, and encourages us to go to our elders to pray. All of these things are impossible if you are not a member of a local church. (See 1 and 2 Corinthians, James, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and 1 Peter for references).

    Finally, living without Church membership is unhealthy. Independence, the desire to choose for yourself what is right and wrong is at the very heart of sin. You need the humility lesson of submitting to flawed elders. You need the encouragement of sharing victories with your church. You need the fellowship of sharing sufferings with your church.”

    1. “ You need the humility lesson of submitting to flawed elders.”

      Yikes. I believe in church membership, but I wouldn’t join a church that had that philosophy, which enables abusive pastors.

    2. Mr. Ralph Jesperson

      Your assuming that your local organization is actually Jesus’ organization. This blog exists because many if not most simply are not. Jesus’ org is something run by the Holy Spirit and it makes disciples teaching people to do EVERYTHING that Jesus taught, Man’s organizations are run by men and simply disobey that commandment in many different ways. Jesus does not have mans memberships or contracts. He is God and He can do whatever He wants. Making that assumption that what you are going to is what Jesus wants is a big leap of either faith or foolishness. You better make sure that Jesus is placed first, otherwise the org is just going to falter and close like so many are. Submission is to God first, not man. Submission to false teachers and leaders is just plain foolishness according to Paul.

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