Original Research

Church decline: A comparative investigation assessing more than numbers

Ignatius W. Ferreira, Wilbert Chipenyu
In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi | Vol 55, No 1 | a2645 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v55i1.2645 | © 2021 Ignatius W. Ferreira, Wilbert Chipenyu | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 29 May 2020 | Published: 18 January 2021

About the author(s)

Ignatius W. Ferreira, Department of Missiology, Faculty of Theology, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa
Wilbert Chipenyu, Department of Missiology, Faculty of Theology, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa


Studies on church growth and decline were done in different parts of the world. This article explores church decline that is continuing in the world’s mainline Protestant churches and is also affecting the Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA). It is done from a missiological framework, and the description goes beyond numbers in establishing decline to focus more on the quality of believers. Membership quality is all that the church strives for in all believers, and failure to reach that goal leads to decline. The study utilised only primary sources to describe the decline realised in these churches; thus, no human subjects were involved. The various reports of the RCSA deputies for turn-around and church growth as well as the relevant literature, provided the data required for the present research. The numerical data explain the trends in church decline that is taking place in Protestant churches globally and locally which includes the RCSA. These findings are substantiated by the definitions of church decline and church growth as well as indications of church health highlighting ‘what happens’ to the church in a specific context. The explanation of key concepts and the Natural Church Development (NCD) benchmarks provided the lenses to evaluate the membership statistics of Protestant churches including the RCSA. Through the application of these key concepts and benchmarks, it became evident that the ongoing numerical reduction in membership, which began in 1994, is proof of church decline in the RCSA.

Contribution: This article chose a ‘missiological framework’ referring to the Great Commission and the missio Dei in order to challenge a more ‘static’ (numbers only) and ‘church survivalist’ approach to the current ‘church growth and decline’ reality within the Western Church. In this way, the focus on‘church health’ rather than the dominant Practical Theological approach to ‘church growth’ will lead to new knowledge that will benefit and subsequently strengthen the current debate.


church growth; church decline; church health; missiology; Protestant church; mainline Protestant churches; quantitative church growth; qualitative church growth; Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA).


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