church statistics and abuse


[trigger warning for child sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence]

I’m not entirely sure when it happened, but from the reading I’ve been doing, sometime in the last 30 or so years there’s been a subtle shift in how churches talk about growth. What my reading tells me is that this is at least somewhat connected to the rise of the “mega church,” with it becoming impossible for pastoral staffs to simply look around their churches and understand who their congregation is.

There’s a certain appeal to evaluating church growth by the numbers, especially when church sizes seem to be ballooning. Applying business models that are intended to bring growth can be extremely useful for a variety of organizations, and churches are, really, just organizations. Organizations that are almost totally defined by “growth,” for better or for worse. Even in Acts, as my partner pointed out yesterday, the apostles tossed around a lot of numbers. Peter, especially, has one famous speech about Pentecost and how many were saved.

In the churches I’ve been in that have talked numbers– “X many people were saved! X many people were baptized! X many people have joined our church in the last year!”– the focus has almost always been hope. Numbers are real, concrete indications that we’re headed in the right direction, that what we’re doing is making a difference. Numbers are people.

But, in the last year, my perspective has changed quite a bit. I used to hear those numbers shouted from pulpits all over the country and exult right along with the preacher. And, in some ways, I still do. But, when I hear about how many people regularly come to church, and how many children are in Sunday school, and how many babies are dedicated, a completely different set of numbers starts spinning around my head, and it makes my heart ache.

My heart has been especially broken this week, since Bob Jones University decided to terminate the investigation they’d hired GRACE to do. I wasn’t a student of BJU, but I did grow up in that world and I know many people who were– and I know how important the GRACE investigation was to them, how much hope it had given them that maybe, just maybe, BJU could turn over a new leaf.

But, just like the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, and just like Sovereign Grace Ministries, and IBLP, and just like countless other churches and ministries all over the globe, BJU has decided to do what far too many other Christians have done: turn a blind eye to the abuses happening under their watch– abuses they are allowing to happen through their silence, abuses they are complicit in.

I know how hard it is to face the bleak reality that there are so many people willing to hurt others. That abuse in so many forms is commonplace. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be a pastor and stand in front of your congregation and know that there are abusers and victims in your church. That you could be shaking the hand of a pedophile or rapist after church. That you could be eating dinner in the home of a batterer. That you can’t know. Not for sure.

But, this is a reality that does need to be faced. We need to look it dead, square in the eye and let it change us. We need to keep in front of us, always, that people are hurting and desperate and don’t know a way out. That most victims don’t even know they’re being abused, that abusers cloak themselves in forgiveness and grace and redemption, that some abusive husbands will use “I am the head of this home and you are my wife, so you must submit to me” as a weapon.

So, because this needs to be something that we know, something that changes how we talk, changes the advice we give, changes the way we love the people in our churches– I’ve broken down an average church size by the most reliable statistics we have.

Most churches in the United States have an average church attendance of around 500 adults, 125 children. Most congregations are dominated by married adults, so in this “average church,” there are 200 married couples, 275 women and 225 men, 64 girls and 61 boys. This means that in this church:

That’s a possible 256 people– 40% of this “average” congregation— who have been violently wounded by some kind of horrific abuse. This isn’t something we can afford to ignore. This is something that should utterly break us and radically transform everything we do as a church body. We can’t be dismissive of hurt. We can’t ignore that there’s darkness and pain and suffering. We can’t preach messages filled to the brim with ideas that can be turned into weapons by abusers. We can’t afford the blithe, non-committal “if you’re being abused, you need to get out,” and then move past that as if it doesn’t happen here. We have to stop burying our heads in the sand with our “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle!” and our “faith like a mustard seed!”

We have to be the ones who love the hurting and the broken, who acknowledge their pain.

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  • Tamara Rice

    Thanks for writing this and for including ABWE and the link to that post. This breakdown of the average church in light of average statistics is staggering. I just posted today about child protection training. I’m going to go back in and drop in a link to your piece in the part where I say basically “and odds are this is going to happen.” Because the numbers are telling.

    Awesome work, Samantha.

  • Just a quick note: by the technical “math” definition (math? what’s math?) the “average” church size in America is actually 70 people. However, the broken-down charts I was looking at this morning (which I could not find again, or I would have linked) said that the BULK of the millions of Americans who go to church go to churches with around 500 adult members, ish. So while the mathematical average is 70, your “typical” (I used the word “average”) evangelical church is closer to 500 people.

    There a few thousand churches with memberships in the tens or hundreds of thousands, but I ignored those.

    • Mezzanine

      It’s still a mathematical average.

      There are three different averages used in maths: mean (how many you’d have if it’s shared out evenly), median (the middle number), and mode (the most common). You’ve gone with the mode.

  • Thank you for doing this Samantha.

  • Ellen

    And when an abused woman comes to most church leadership for help, she is often told exactly the wrong advice. When in the depths of depression from being psychologically and emotionally abused by my “Christian” husband, I went to a church leader’s wife for help, I was told to go to my husband alone (Matt.18:15-17) with my suspicions that he might be abusing our daughter. Of course, he was able to hood-wink me into believing that nothing was going on. It was years before I was emotionally strong enough to actually see the truth of what he was doing. And by that time, it had been going on for a very long time and affected four of our five children. The church needs to know the dynamics of domestic violence in order to be able to effectively help people.

    • A good discussion of this is in the article “‘I just raped my wife! What are you going to do about it, Pastor?’: The Church and Sexual Violence” by Carol J. Adams.

    • This is what happened to me, too, when I sought help for my overbearing, threatening GODLY CHRISTIAN HUSBAND™. I was told I must be doing something wrong and I should just pray a lot that “god” would make him a better husband.

      • Ellen

        Even if no one actually says those words, there is incredible pressure on the abused woman to “submit as unto the Lord” and “win her husband without a word” by her submissive behavior. It’s a vicious circle that just makes the abuse that much worse (because it’s spiritual too), and keeps her under his thumb far longer.

      • Yep. This is what happened to my dear friend too. She was kicked out of the church for divorcing him. He’s still in leadership at that church. We left in support of her. He was abusive sexually, addicted to child porn and mean. She was told he was this way because she wasn’t submissive enough.

        • Thank you for leaving that church. That blows my mind. Thank you.

  • I never would have guessed any of those numbers would be so high. Wow.

  • And possibly your numbers are generous because they assume that the church does not encourage or facilitate abuse in ways that other groups do not.

    • They are– most of what I’m reading indicates that rates of abuse go UP in church environments because they are “target rich,” for lack of a better word, and because our “redemption” narrative allows them to get away with it. They know we rarely– if ever– report abuse when we find out about it.

      However, there isn’t solid academic research, just things like hearing to what convicted pedophiles say about their behaviors.

      • Thank you for saying this. I know what the response would be of most Christians I know: “but those are statistics of the world, and we are the body of Christ!” Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

  • In addition to the children who are being abused, there may be siblings who are being traumatized by hearing/seeing/knowing about the abuse that is happening to their sister or brother. Sometimes not being able to protect those you love is more painful than being hurt yourself.

  • “if you’re being abused, you need to get out,”
    That’s good advice but most churches have no ideas what to do beyond saying that. Mine knew some of what was going on but never asked further, never asked how I was doing, never gave me the idea that this was really serious. I guess they assume you should just know. But if you’ve grown up in the church, you don’t know. They don’t tell you what to do if their perfect idea of a happy life doesn’t work out. Instead they make you feel like you’ve done something wrong.

  • Nay

    “if you’re being aboused, you need to get out” I used to hear a lot, and still hear it when others talk about domestic violence victims. When a husband who has brain washed his wife (that’s what I called it) has her by the neck against a wall, lifted off the ground so only her toes are touching the ground, and a loaded gun to her face and whispers in her ear, “if you leave, i will first kill your mother. Then your sister, her husband, her kids. Then your father and step mom. Then if your still not back, I will hunt you down and make you watch me kill the kids until you come back.” THAT is why sometimes we can’t get out.

  • I’m so glad you wrote this. It is going to be one heck of a thunderclap when churches wake up to the abusive system they have put into motion and set into place. They have made their pews a veritable hunting ground for predators, and don’t want to accept the results of that transformation. There’s no “god” or “Jesus” making Christians intrinsically better people than non-Christians are, and there’s no divine help for someone caught in the grips of abuse, so if earthly help doesn’t materialize, there’ll be none at all. If a predator gets set loose in a church, he is going to prey upon the vulnerable and there will be abuse. It’s just that simple. Things get so much worse if that predator is standing behind the pulpit with a big ole Jesus smile, too.

  • karenh1234567890

    The shift you mention might have started earlier than 30 years ago. I think it was in the 1970s that churches started using the advertising and marketing techniques similar to the techniques used to sell Tide, Coke, or toilet paper, thereby cheapening religion and turning it into just another product to be sold. This description is my personal thoughts about what happened. I have never been involved in fundagelicism, so this is an outsider’s view of the the phenomenon.

  • I wonder how many kids at my public schools, growing up, were suffering abuse of some kind from their parents. I was mainly “only” verbally/emotionally abused, and like you said, “Physical abuse is not the only form abuse can take, and other types of abuse are just as damaging.” It also DID escalate to some physical things, but my mother was the abuser in my case, so it shouldn’t be that surprising that I didn’t end up suffering from most aspects of what physical abuse looks like.

    I wanted SO desperately for my mom to just disappear – I wouldn’t have mourned her if she’d died. I always felt like me and my younger brother who was also suffering under her “parenting” were the only people in the world to feel this way about our own mothers. In general I knew abusive fathers “existed” but I didn’t know of anyone else in my schools who had any story of abuse in their lives. Having my brother helped – I didn’t feel as alone, I had someone else being abused too in my life and we could comfort each other/keep each other sane. But it is incredibly frustrating to me how hidden abuse is in our culture. How now one ever thinks their classmate or neighbor or whatever is actually being abused. How mental illness also is treated is similar. Again, if all of the people in my mother’s life had known some forms of mental illness actually creeps up unexpectedly in ways OTHER than a stereotypical caricature of a person SO delusional they’re hallucinating, or a person SO depressed they attempt suicide… if they had known it could be happening to my mom… then maybe my brother & I would’ve been rescued from her abuse sooner. Maybe my mom could’ve even gotten treated for her mental health issues before she got to the point where she was so irrational she’d never consider help in a million years. It’s kind of like the hetero-normative world we live in where everyone just assumes the average person is straight, just assumes all kids will grow up to be straight, etc. without even considering for a second that they might be gay instead.

    I think “Coming out” movements is the only way for all of these things to really be exposed. People need to admit they were abused, openly, for their friends/family/neighbors/church congregations/etc to realize that abuse victims are within their midst. This includes both the fellow victims and the non-abused – both need to realize that the person they already know actually was abused in one of these ways. 😛

    I actually experienced a somewhat similar thing when it came to atheism. I know this opinion is kind of an odd one to share here on *this* particular blog, but I grew up in an environment where I thought everyone believed in a god, so I tried really hard to believe too. I didn’t realize not believing was actually an option, because I had never met ANYONE who was openly an atheist. I only had ever met Christians and a few Jews who both believe in the same general Judeo-Christian type of god, and I also knew about other religions vaguely, like Islam, but again I knew they believed in a single god, so I figured all humanity believed in “a god” in some vague way. It would have saved me some inner struggling if I had known that not actually believing that a god existed didn’t make me the lone person in the world missing some sort of “obvious truth” about the universe. I really just wish people weren’t so quiet if they stopped believing. All I needed was a single person to mention to me, “I don’t care what you believe, but just so you know, I don’t believe in god” and that would’ve helped me as a kid who was always an atheist just “trying” to have faith in one, yet failing. I would’ve loved that option of non-belief. Honestly, this struggle was never that huge of a deal for me. The abuse I suffered, the lack of awareness about mental illness – that was so much worse. That is much more what I think needs awareness. But I do see parallels between the concepts. That’s all.

  • Reblogged this on When Church Hurts and commented:
    When I think of the times our pastor would talk about the abuses he was aware of in our church, which touts 2500 people or more, the numbers are staggering. I’m not a math whiz, but take each of these numbers and multiply by 5 and here’s what you get:
    200 abusive marriages
    80 women raped by their husbands
    190 men abused as children
    340 women abused as children
    275 women raped
    35 men raped as adults
    80 girls will be sexually abused
    50 boys will be sexually abused
    5-10 will be physically abused
    45 sexual abuse perpetrators
    So many wounded people . . . my heart aches . . .

  • I find it hilarious that the accompanying picture is Danbo the (cardboard) robot from the excellent manga (Japanese comics) “Yotsuba?!”

  • Bri

    This was the last straw I needed to write to my parents’ church and encourage them to do something to fight abuse in the congregation, and offer a donation if they are willing to do so.

  • I’m sure the number of physically abused children is a lot higher in churches that emphasize Michael Pearl’s method of child-rearing. :/

    • And there’s probably more abusive marriages in heavily complementarian churches, too.

  • Sunday’s lectionary gospel included Jesus’ snippet on divorce in Matthew 5. Once I got done wringing out that to try to literalize his statement into expounded case law (don’t leave your abuser unless he’s had an affair) we’ve taken away the protection of women that divorce codes in Judaism were for, and it was clear I was advising leaving the abusers (we actually help women do it – and stick with it for months until they are stable with everything they need …and I’ve had my brake lines pulled, my utilities fiddled with, and life threats to where I took to wearing a gun 7 days a week!). Crazy. Anyway, there was a couple visiting and, long story short, she “looked” battered and he “looked” like a batterer, and they had the marks of people who had come up fundamentalist. He didn’t look too happy with me by the end.