Jaw-Dropping Stats and Some Hope

By Peter Meier   |   September 1, 2018


While training a group in South Dakota recently, I shared some statistics which startled participants. Those attending were surprised to see how many of their neighbors are actually unclaimed by any religious organization. Their own county has 57% of the population unclaimed, but what was most startling was the neighboring county – in which they were considering a church plant – which has 64% unclaimed. Another adjacent county has 74% unclaimed.

The Center for United States Missions has prepared maps of nearly every state which show every county in the state along with how many Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod churches are in that county, and what is the percentage of the county’s population that is “unclaimed.” You can access those maps here (If you don’t find one of your own state, let us know and we’ll get one to you.)

When sharing these maps, the response is often similar. Jaw-dropping. We didn’t realize that so many of our neighbors are unclaimed.

The statistics I share come from data gathered and processed by The Association of Religious Data Archives (thearda.com). They gather actual attendance and membership statistics from every religious organization – including non-Christian groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Eastern religions, Muslims, and more. Even these non-Christian groups are included in the “claimed” categories – meaning that the “unclaimed” are truly “nones” or unconnected. The numbers are jaw-dropping.

In addition, consider the stats on church attendance in the United States. While Gallup and other statisticians claim 40 percent of the population attends church on an average weekend, a different picture emerges from more encompassing research. Religious researcher David Olson tracked actual church attendance (not merely taken representative polls on the phone) of more than 200,000 individual Christian Churches of the nearly 350,000 churches in the U.S.

His findings reveal that the actual rate of church attendance is less than half of what other pollsters report. Actual counts of people in Christian Churches (Roman Catholic, mainline, evangelical), show that

· In 2004, 17.7 percent of the U.S. population attended a Christian Church on any given weekend

· Only 23-25% of Americans show up to church at least three out of every eight Sundays

· Estimates of percentage of population attending church in 2020 show a drop to 15.4 percent

· Estimates of percentage of population attending church in 2015 show a drop to 11.7 percent

· The above are overall stats for the U.S. There are also stats available for each state. If you’d like to see yours, let me know.

Other scholarly research affirms Olson’s statistics. Sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler published a 2005 study in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion which shows actual attendance closer to Olson’s figures instead of other polls showing higher percentages.

The point of the above? I don’t intend to promote hopelessness or hand-wringing or simply giving in to “inevitable” decline. The point is to emphasize Jesus’ own words, The harvest is plentiful!

One of the participants at the Church Planting weekend asked, “If there are so many churches in a community already, why would we even think of planting another one?” Great question! My response was, “As long as there are unclaimed people – look at the high percentage there! – there is a harvest to gather in, and room for another church to help get the work done!” Jesus invites us to pray for more workers in the harvest fields – new faith communities and new gospel outreach ministries and new churches are ways to reach new people in new places with the great Gospel message Jesus has given us to share!

So what can we do about it? Where’s the Hope we need to remember and to share

  1. You Can Pray. Pray for individuals you already know who are among the unclaimed, or those who have become disconnected from the church. Pray for them daily by name. Pray for your neighborhood and for the % of unclaimed in your county. Join me in the 10:02 prayer – In Luke 10:2, Jesus says, The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest. Set the alarm on your phone to 10:02 (am or pm or both) and join me in praying for the harvest! Go to pray4everyhome.org, and sign up as a praying neighbor. You will receive names of your neighbors (5 each day for 20 days, then start over again), and an email prayer prompt daily. Imagine if every one of our church members signed up to pray for our own communities – we could be praying for our neighbors by name, expecting God to hear and answer our prayers!

2. You can study your local demographics. Start with the map mentioned above, but then drill down some more. Use the Mission Insite demographics available through Lutheran Church Extension Fund. Google the demographics for your county. Do some “walkabout” personal demographic study, and pray as you go. The Center for U.S. Missions has tools and helps for these activities. Drop me a note, and let’s talk!

3. Brainstorm steps you and your congregation, or an outreach team could take to become “salt and light” to your target group or community. Check out your assumptions with local leaders and business people. Then begin to make some plans and identify action steps and timelines.

4. Consider inviting us to help you with your planning and action. The Center exists to equip disciples to multiply faith communities.

There’s no need to despair or give up when confronted by jaw-dropping stats and facts. Our Missionary God is a God of hope and of action, and He invites us to partner with Him in His Great Commission work.

The above are four hope-full things you can do about the startling stats and facts you see around your home, neighborhood, and church. The question for you now is, What will you do about it?

How can we help?


Mission Moments is the e-newsletter sent by the Center for U.S. Missions to bring information and encouragement to all who desire to share God's great love in Jesus Christ with others. Permission is given to copy this article for distribution within your congregation or organization. Please credit the author and the Center for United States Missions. For more information contact the Center at (952)-221-0362, or visit our website: www.c4usm.org

Center for U.S. Missions – Contact Information 

Email us at: | Rev. Dr. Peter Meier, Executive Director; peter.meier@cui.edu  | Rev. Eric Wenger, Director of Mission Coaching; ewenger@livingraized.com| Kathy Meier, Coordinator; kathy.meier@cui.edu  | Mil Behnken, Office Manager; mildred.behnken@cui.edu