The surprising secret to church growth in the United States

  • Mark Gilbert
  • 4 May 2015
Saddleback ChurchWe hear a lot about church growth from Americans. From Saddleback to Willow Creek and beyond, church growth has been one of the hot topics this decade.

Having returned from a visit to the Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky, I think I’ve worked out their secret. Church growth in the US is coming predominantly from ex-Roman Catholics. Bill Hybels’s church, the third largest in the US, at Willow Creek near Chicago—a city with a similar proportion of Roman Catholics to Sydney—70% of his congregation are ex-Catholics. Saddleback too I’ve been informed is making big inroads into Roman Catholicism. In fact, 50% of Catholics that leave the Catholic Church in the US end up in Protestant churches.

What about in Australia? This is how the NCLS puts it:
There is very little movement of attenders between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches. It appears that Catholic attenders who make a change tend to leave church life altogether, rather than moving to other churches.1

If we replicated the results they are getting in the US in Australia, it would significantly change the composition and size of churches here!

While I was in the US, I asked an ex-Roman Catholic friend in Chicago, Chris Castaldo, who was working for the Billy Graham Foundation with a special focus on reaching Roman Catholics, “Why is Bill Hybels having such an impact on the Roman Catholic community?” Chris had spent some time attending Willow Creek, and had participated in some leadership training courses there. It was his opinion that Bill’s success lay in the fact that he was meeting Catholic people’s felt needs for relevant and clear teaching, as well as addressing their social, familial and personal needs through their many programs. He also thought that Bill’s slick one-hour service, a positive experience that people could sit back and consume easily, was very popular amongst Catholics.

My first question is, “What does our theology allow us to appropriate from this phenomenon?” My second question is, “What is different about the American culture(s) that means these things work there but perhaps not in Australia?”

Two things immediately come to mind. America is still a church-going culture, so people who stop going to the Catholic Church still want to go somewhere. A similar phenomenon was seen in the Republic of Ireland following the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse of Children.

The second thing I noticed about American culture is that many Americans are willing to talk to strangers about things that Australians would only talk about to people they knew very well. I wonder if that makes it easier for them to share the gospel?

Whatever you make of this striking phenomenon, one thing I did come away from the US with was a conviction that, if we in Australia want to grow our churches, we need to work out how to reach Roman Catholics.

1. S Sterland, R Powell & K Castle, NCLS occasional Paper No. 8: Inflow and Outflow Between Denominations: 1991-2001, Sydney, 2006, p.18.

Photo credit: Luke Jones