The Surprising Secret to American Church Growth

For a country on the other side of the planet – we seem to hear a lot about Church growth from Americans. From Saddleback to Willow Creek to Mars Hill and beyond. Church Growth has been one of the hot topics this decade.

Having recently returned from a visit to the Gospel Coalition’s Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky, I think I’ve worked out their secret.

Church growth in the USA is coming predominantly from ex Roman Catholics.

Bill Hybel’s church, the third largest in the USA, at Willow creek near Chicago – a city with a similar proportion of Roman Catholics to Sydney – 70% of his congregation are ex-Catholics. Mark Driscoll – an ex-Catholic himself, runs a Lord’s Supper service every week and also has a very high proportion of ex Roman 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 USA end up in Protestant churches. 

What about here?

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. 

If we replicated the results they are getting in the USA we wouldn’t be talking about a 10% vision – we would be talking about something much greater.

Whilst I was in the USA I asked an ex-Roman Catholic friend in Chicago who now works for the Billy Graham foundation focusing on reaching Roman Catholics, “why is Bill Hybels having such an impact on the Roman Catholic community?”

This friend 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 Hybel’s slick one hour service which was a positive experience that people could sit back and consume easily was very popular amongst Catholics. I suspect similar things would also be found at Mars Hill and Saddleback. 

My first question is, “what does our theology allow us to appropriate from this phenomenon?”

My second question is, “what is different about the USA culture(s) that means these things work there but perhaps not here?”

Two things that immediately come to mind are that 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 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 USA with was a conviction that if we want to grow our churches we need to work out how to reach Roman Catholics.