New Study Shows More Churches Closing Than Opening in America

A study of Protestant churches closings for 2019 found there were significantly more churches closed in 2019 than those that opened. This evangelical Lifeway Research organization studied 34 groups and denominations, representing 60% of all Protestant churches.

The data shows that 4,500 churches closed in 2019, with about 3,000 new congregations started or planted. “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 trend in church membership has been steadily declining for the past decade. Aside from the decline in new openings, the study found 3,700 church closings in 2014, markedly less than the 4,500 closings in 2019. 

Sponsored by the Church of Christ, another study from the Center for Analytics, Research, and Data estimates the church closings will climb dramatically in post-pandemic America. Like an estimate of 30% closing of all restaurants, churches may suffer the same decline. From approximately 384 thousand churches nationwide, roughly 100 thousand of those will close at an accelerated rate.

Between 3,850 to 7,700 churches have been closing each year in the United States for the past decade. That is between 75 to 150 congregations failing every week. Conservative estimates say the number of closings will double or triple. 

There are various theories about why churches are declining. A conference minister for the Michigan Conference United Church of Christ, Reverend Cheryl Burke, addressed a report finding that the state’s denominational membership dropped by 25% from 2009 to 2019. Noting the decline, Burke referred to a 500-year cycle theory by a scholar of spirituality, the late Phyllis Tickle.

Burke advised that church members no longer trust the church’s authority toward the end of a cycle. In the 1500s, people no longer felt connected to the pope, so the church focused on the Bible as its authority.

Subscribers to Tickle’s theory might say the church is reaching the end of its relationship with the Bible as its ultimate authority. Burke advises, “That’s affecting church attendance — people don’t know what their faith means, and the Bible doesn’t have the same understanding that it used to have, it doesn’t hold the same authority.” 

A professor and the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research warns that it’s challenging to obtain accurate information about church closings but says the rate of closings is still low. Out of approximately 350 thousand Protestant churches in the U.S., it’s only a loss of 1.4% if 4,500 churches close. 

Still, other predictions abound. The executive director of Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, Ed Stetzer, advises that the declining numbers should remind Christians that “Church planting is slowing, and the number of closures is growing.” He added, “Yet, the opportunity is still before us—people are searching spiritually, and the gospel is the answer.”

Stetzer is the author of numerous books on church planting, and he has helped start several churches. He noted that the declining numbers began before the pandemic. He advised, “Certainly, the pandemic will show even more challenging numbers, and though they may be a blip, the larger trend is concerning.”

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. That is a decline of 70% from 2000. 

Other challenges churches face are the increasing costs of maintenance, especially on older buildings. Stetzer also mentions that church members may not readily return to services at a physical location. Congregations that adjust by utilizing online platforms or sell part of their land for housing will still thrive. 



Ed Stetzer added, “Church planting is slowing, and the number of closures is growing, Yet, the opportunity is still before us.”

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