Are There Too Many Churches in San Antonio?
I recently had lunch with a new friend and we began talking about church life, church experiences, and the reputation of the Church in San Antonio. One thing this friend told me, with a look of certainty, was that “there are more than enough churches in San Antonio. In fact, there are too many!” Now, as a person who moved here almost five years ago with the express intent of starting a new church, I was a bit taken aback. But I am thankful for the conversation because it helped me to remember why we came to the city, and it also spurred me to do some digging into the actual numbers.
So, are there too many churches in San Antonio? Driving the north side of 1604 might give that impression. I have heard that stretch of highway called “church row” many times. But, let’s take a look at some raw data. The consistent number I could find for the number of churches of any stripe in San Antonio was 1,350. So, let’s be generous and use 1,500 for our purposes. Then, let’s continue to be generous and assume that 75% of those churches are churches that preach the gospel and can qualify as “true biblical churches” by the definition of historic orthodox Christianity. That gives us 1,125 orthodox churches. Now, take the population of metro San Antonio: 2,500,000. That means that there is one orthodox church for every 2,222 people in the city. So, if there are enough churches, it seems reasonable to assume that the average attendance of orthodox churches in our city is somewhere around 2,000. Or, to put it another way, every church in San Antonio would be a certifiable mega-church. Those numbers tell a story, don’t they? There are far more people in our area than all of the current churches can shepherd, equip, and disciple. We are nowhere close to being “too churched.”
Now, a second concept: not only are there far too few churches in San Antonio to realistically reach the entire metro region, but even if there were five times as many churches, it would still be a sound strategy to plant new churches every year. Why? Because new churches do a much, much better job of reaching people currently not attending any other church. I can give you plenty of anecdotal stories of this fact as a former church planter. But, data bears it out as well. Many denominational studies have shown that churches that are less than 10 years old typically attract 50-60% of their congregation from a pool of people who were not previously attending another church. We call this “conversion growth.” However, churches that are 10 years or older typically attract 90%+ of their people from other churches. We call this “transfer growth.” So, new churches are much better at reaching unchurched people. There are many reasons for this, which I might write more about in a future post. One more thing here: it is also good for older churches to be involved in planting new churches because it allows people who are not in leadership or positions of influence in larger, more established churches to more fully use their gifts in newer church plants. And finally, it has a rejuvenating and missionally-motivating effect on the existing churches when new plants are started.
All of this is to say that we have a huge mission field before us right here in San Antonio, a city that most would (rightly) say is one of the more highly churched cities in America. That is why Christ Church was started four years ago. And that is why we are currently supporting two newer plants in our area. And that is why we are firmly committed to church planting movements like Acts 29 and the Southwest Church Planting Network of the PCA. Church planting at a high rate is the best way to keep up with population growth and the best single way to actually reach the de-churched, unchurched and spiritually starved.