Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Dying Church

John Garner is convinced churches in America are dying. Raised Episcopal, he concedes he hasn’t been inside a church building in quite a while, and neither has anyone he knows from his own generation. Why might that be? Garner observes, “I’m not sure if it’s Covid, a lack of people my age, or just general laziness.” His musings on the subject can be found here, along with useful links to self-reported attendance data from a variety of denominations.

As a reasonably unprejudiced onlooker, my first instinct is to suggest Garner’s problem may be a lack of a living, personal relationship with Jesus Christ (whose name does not appear once in an article about the church of which he is Head).

Still, Garner’s post got me doing a little research into the subject. No small number of internet commentators and the occasional professional research group agree with him that American churches are in bad shape. The most common complaint is that churches are failing to attract young people. I think this is generally true throughout North America, though the numbers vary wildly from denomination to denomination. Roman Catholics and Pentecostals insist their own brands are growing.

Some Possible Explanations

Garner thinks one of the major problems American churches have in attracting young people is that they are failing to keep pace with societal change. He lists the positions of major denominations with respect to the ordination of women, gay marriage and abortion, and suggests that most young Americans have accepted new social norms while American churches have not. But the data Garner cites does not bear out his theory. Roman Catholicism “strongly opposes” all three and claims to be growing. Meanwhile, by Garner’s own admission, Methodists and Episcopals, who with few exceptions accept all three, have seen attendance declines of over 20% in the last decade or so. Scratch that idea.

One of the more quoted “experts” on this subject, Thom Rainer, will tell you the declining impact of the Christian faith on the broader culture has shrunk the pool of willing attenders. But Rainer himself admits the extra bodies churches used to attract often were not true believers in Christ. It is difficult to see how the lack of interest unbelievers are now displaying in attending church poses a serious spiritual problem. Strike two.

An Australian article suggests people are not being shown how to reconcile science with religion so that they are left confused by the difference between what is taught in the world and in the church, or that young people are being turned off by the creation/evolution debate. My own experience is that young people find the subject fascinating and are looking for a more satisfying explanation for human existence than the one promulgated in their schools, which any attentive observer of the debate, agnostics included, knows is riddled with holes. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not buying it.

A Few Thoughtful Speculations

I have to say I found most of the reasons for declining church attendance offered in the popular blog posts on the subject rather unpersuasive. The three listed above were among the better suggestions. Unsurprisingly, that prompts me to offer my own. Feel free to find my speculations as unsatisfactory as I find those of others. They come from my own observations of the churches with which I am most familiar. Manifestly, some churches are not dying, but others are definitely hanging by a thread.

So then, what factors may lead a local church to this latter condition?

1/ They Compromised on Truth

The most dramatic year-over-year losses in church attendance seem to be attributable to some obvious compromise on truth: vocal participation in church meetings by women, a move toward acceptance of so-called Christians living “alternative lifestyles”, or a growing reluctance to promote holy living and separation from the culture. Garner’s data bears this out, as does this unattributed quote about conditions in Australia: “Those churches that are progressive are dying but those that are orthodox are maintaining their numbers.” It is reasonable to suppose this also applies more broadly. Then there is this claim, which I can’t verify, but is interesting if true: “The 100 largest churches in America all LGBT non-affirming.” In short, a church that is too much like the world is of no interest to the world. After all, it does all that worldly stuff way better than we do.

2/ They Stopped Witnessing

When I say, “stopped witnessing”, I am not talking about corporate outreach efforts like door knocking campaigns, barbecues in the parking lot, special meetings with an evangelist, skeptic’s nights, a baptism or even a weekly gospel meeting. Lots of dead churches preach the gospel from the platform on a regular basis. But almost nobody ever walks in off the street to expose themselves to corporate outreaches. When you find people getting saved at such events (and it does happen), it’s because they are sitting next to the neighbor, friend or co-worker who has already been showing-and-telling Christ on a regular basis. When that becomes exceptional, a church is dead even if it maintains an appearance of life.

3/ They Stopped Making Disciples

Churches that emphasize corporate gospel preaching rather than Bible teaching need to have some alternative means of promoting discipleship. When new converts do not get a regular diet of doctrine and practice that reaches them at the most basic level (milk), they either fail to grow, or else they start doing their growing in another church. Later, absent a sound regimen of solid food, they usually regress. Even churches that emphasize teaching believers above outreach in church meetings can fail to deliver the truth in ways that are clear, meaningful and practical. Discipleship also requires a venue for the use of spiritual gift. A church that is all programs and professionalism may offer little opportunity for the average new Christian to grow in Christ by ministering to others. No disciples, no life.

4/ They Mistook Stubbornness for Faithfulness

One of the biggest church-killers is the mistaken idea that all change is inherently bad, or too difficult, or simply not a priority. The faith itself must never be compromised, but methods of communicating Bible truth and enjoying life together in the body of Christ cannot be allowed to become static if the church is to remain a going concern. There are numerous ways of gathering to hear apostolic teaching, engage in corporate prayer, break bread together and enjoy fellowship. Times and length of meeting, level of formality, evangelical clich├ęs and tropes, outdated training materials, favorite hymns or hymnbooks, seating arrangements, types of gatherings to promote fellowship, style of musical accompaniment — these are not hills to die on. If your church’s methods of communicating Christ have not changed in twenty or thirty years, you are almost surely stagnating, and the numbers exiting your fellowship year after year are bound to reflect that.

5/ Their Congregants Moved

This often happens with inner city churches as real estate prices near the city core begin to soar. Young families move to the suburbs, where buying a house is a realistic aspiration, while their church stays put and fails to respond to the changing demographics of the city. This manifests in one of two ways: either the families leave for a church in the suburbs and numbers dwindle, or else the families now drive half an hour or more to get to church. In the latter scenario, getting unsaved friends, neighbors and co-workers to give their church a try becomes a much harder sell. Alternatively, rural churches may shrink as young singles move to the cities for higher education or a career. It is difficult to see how to solve this one beyond the obvious: go to church where you actually live, and either sell off near-empty inner city buildings or else use them as bases for targeting new cultural demographics that do not already have evangelical churches in the neighborhood.

In Summary

Local churches will come and go over time. We should probably get used to that idea, however much it may rankle when we have an emotional investment in the history of a particular work. Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus declared that he would build his church, and he is still doing that. We know that for certain, because when his work is finished, he has promised to take his church out of this world entirely. The fact that we are having difficulty identifying his activity in our own day is probably because we are looking for the wrong things: big buildings, visible activity, butts in pews, powerful platform presences attracting attention …. or even multitudes of millennials. In contrast, cell groups and home churches are too small and unremarkable to register with the research groups, but they are where some of the most meaningful, rich Christian gathering is occurring these days. Spiritual growth that occurs holistically in an environment of hospitality, fellowship and mutual prayer support is growth that will last and produce a harvest down the road.

I have often observed that Pentecost is not a repeatable event. No public proclaimer of the gospel since Peter has stood in front of such a perfectly primed and religiously well-educated crowd of guilty sinners with troubled consciences. So my expectations of what the 21st century church should be shooting for in terms of growth have little to do with numbers and more to do with an ambition to make high quality disciples who lead holy lives and reach out to the society around them personally rather than institutionally.

There is still a massive need for Christ in our culture. The church still has answers worth hearing. And genuinely transformed lives remain a very compelling attraction.

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