In the 1950’s a somewhat morbid experiment was conducted by a professor at Johns Hopkins University named Curt Richter.  He put wild rats in a container of water and forced them to swim as long as they could before drowning.  Most of the rats swam for only a few minutes before they gave up hope and sank.  

In round two, however, Richter made a small adjustment to the experiment.  After a short initial period where the rats would be left alone, he would come in and remove them from the water then put them back.  These rats swam for hours. One even swam for almost an entire day before it sank.  The difference, according to Richter, was simple—hope.  “After elimination of hopelessness,” wrote Ricther, “the rats do not die.” 

Over the past few months, the Center for Healthy Churches has been involved in a project at Belmont University helping churches find new ways to thrive in the 21st Century.  I say “new ways” because, for many churches, the old ways aren’t working any longer.  The growth of the American Church is one of the great success stories in Christian history.  People think the U.S. was a Christian nation at the founding of the republic but that is revisionist history.  By most accounts, fewer than twenty percent of the population were connected to a congregation immediately following the American Revolution. Early in the Nineteenth Century, however, a highly democratized and deeply American style of religion began to catch on which began a period of growth that lasted for a century and a half.  By the 1960’s, the United States had among the highest rates of religious adherence of any nation in the world.

And then things changed…

Unpacking what those changes look like is a story for books not blog posts but I don’t have to provide the details for you to know what I’m talking about.  For half a century now the American Church has been experiencing numerical decline. Yet, even amidst the doom and gloom, there are certain places where congregations aren’t sinking, they’re swimming.  What’s the difference?  

Over the next few months we’re going to share what our initial research is telling us.  There are seven different traits that we’re seeing where churches are finding ways to thrive despite the institutional decline of American Christianity.  

At the top of the list, however, is this one simple thing—hope.  Congregations that believe that they can make a difference in the lives of people, and on the world around them, aren’t simply watching the death of Christendom as if there is nothing that can be done.  These congregations are creating new forms of congregational life and new ways of partnership that are creating newness of life in individual adherents and in the communities in which they minister.  

Furthermore, these congregations aren’t finding such hope by imitating the latest and greatest strategies from the largest churches around them.  They are mining a virtuous mixture of the deep wisdom of scripture, the timeless resources of their particular traditions, and their own unique congregational DNA.  Every existing congregation has a story of a season of ministry that not only made a meaningful impact on the world, but also revealed the passions, gifts and strengths that God placed within that congregation.  

What about your congregation?  When is the last time your church looked around and saw possibilities rather than problems?  When is the last time your church decided to jump into the deep end of the pool rather than fearfully treading water in the shallow end?  The congregations that are thriving as Christendom dies around us are the congregations that are focused on the possibilities of a vibrant future rather than fearfully trying to maintain the present or recreate the past.

Matt Cook
Dr. Cook joins the Center as a full time Assistant Director after having
served local congregations for more than twenty-five years with nearly twenty years as Senior Pastor in churches in Texas, Arkansas, and North Carolina.He is completed his undergraduate degree at Samford and his M.Div and Ph.D. (Church History) at Baylor University. He has been highly involved in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on a both the state and national level, having served on the Coordinating Councils of both Texas and Arkansas, as well as having served as the Moderator of CBF National. He was also the founding conveyor of Current, CBF’s young leaders network. He can be reached at mattc@chchurches.org.