The dire headlines in the recent market research report caught my eye.

“The industry exhibits stagnant participation.”

“Industry value added is projected to decline.”

What is this troubled industry? It’s the nation’s religious organizations. The business world’s chronicler of major industry trends, IBISWorld, decided to study and document the state of the religion “industry.” This extensive report offers an intriguing view of the American church, as a segment of the economy and society.

The writers are accustomed to preparing reports for manufacturing, transportation, retail and financial institutions. So their analyses and descriptions are distinctly unchurchy–and sometimes rather amusing. The church, obviously, is not a commercial industry. But it does represent a sizable chunk of the population and economy.

So, what did IBISWorld discover about the health of our “industry”? America’s houses of worship will collect about $108 billion this year. Though the recession reduced giving in recent years, the analysts predict the next five years will bring small revenue increases for the church.

The researchers noted that, historically, recessions bring a “silver lining” of higher church attendance. But not this time. This most recent recession saw not only dips in the offering plate, but continuing drops in attendance as well. The report notes some interesting facets in the decline:

  • While the number of those who call themselves Christian is falling slightly, church attendance is falling at a greater rate.
  • The younger generation is losing interest in organized religion, which will hasten attendance decline in coming years.
  • Catholic, mainline and evangelical churches all face significant challenges of decline.
  • The level of technology change in this “industry” is low.
  • Total wages for church professionals have declined. But ministers are receiving more compensation from “alternative revenue sources”–funeral services and hospital visits.

The study concludes that, compared to other industries, the “Religious Organizations industry is in the declining stage of its industry life cycle.” But the researchers offered glimpses of hope. They wrote, “There is still a high degree of adherence to religious beliefs.” That’s encouraging!

So what does this “industry” need to consider to build a brighter future? I noted a couple of practical things in the report that are worthy of consideration:

1. Embrace healthy change–not in the message, but in the methodology. The researchers wrote, “Religious services are still provided in mostly the same way they were provided hundreds of years ago.” It may be time for a Jesus-style shake-up of delivery methods.

2. Encourage relational ministry. “Promoting regular activities that facilitate . . . discussions on shared interests will help win new members and retain existing ones.” People like to gather with other people with common interests. Churches could seize this opportunity by finding ways to turn Sunday morning from a time of “stagnant participation” to a time of interaction, true togetherness, and swapping of personal faith stories and God sightings.

I would add a third point to ponder. Maybe this “industry” has been fashioning itself as an industry rather than a movement.

The one aspect this report did not include is, of course, the biggest. It’s the one who is ultimately in charge of this endeavor. I’m confident the Founder of this movement sees a wealth of new life in the days to come. It’s up to his people to catch the vision, shake loose of old habits, and build this promising new future together.