News of the decline among America’s churches is producing a strange new effect. Elitism.
While church involvement continues to slide, some people are attempting to spin the decline into an odd source of pride and superiority. It’s beyond putting “lipstick on a pig.” It’s trying to turn the pig into a prima donna.
“IT’S NOT US”
Some spokespeople insist on repeating the myth that church decline is limited to a few mainline denominations. And they often dismiss those losses with a certain disdain. “They’re dying–and deservedly so,” goes the thinking. “But there’s no problem among our evangelical churches.”
First of all, that presumption is false. Across the board, with few exceptions, the American church is losing ground. For example, the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has reported losses in attendance and baptisms for multiple years now.
Second, this deflection of the problem and disparagement of others is simply not helpful. It’s another type of denial. And it delays or buries any effort to improve. “It’s somebody else’s problem, so we’ll just keep doing everything the same way we always have.”
After watching the story of a troubled church in our new documentary film When God Left the Building, an audience member said, “I’m so thankful we’re not like that ungodly church.”
I remember a similar statement in Luke 18: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” Jesus cautioned us about this type of prideful elitism.
DANCING AROUND DISMAL DATA
It’s been interesting to watch some church and denominational leaders contort themselves to paint a pleasant patina on the decline. Some say, “People aren’t really leaving the church. They never should have been considered a part of the church in the first place.” One of them said, “We would say they are Christians in name only.” They seem to be saying that declining attendance and baptisms are positive signs that we’re weeding out the slackers and reducing the pews to the loyal “real” believers like themselves.
I recently heard a pastor tell his congregation that these slackers should not be a part of any congregation. “They’re like barnacles on the bottom of a boat, impeding our progress,” he said.
Some leaders simply fear that admitting the declining numbers will demoralize the flock, which may cause the remaining sheep to wander away themselves. So they craft elaborate explanations to obscure the backward slide.
A MORE HELPFUL RESPONSE
For all of us who love the church, today’s news about the American church’s slippage is difficult to hear. We wish all the trends would point upward. We don’t want to be a part of a receding movement. So, how might we respond to the national data that reveal the church’s national decline?
Admit the losses. Know and understand the facts. It’s like acknowledging a personal health problem. Only then will you be willing to consider doing what you need to do to return to full health.
Stop blaming others. Resist the temptation to direct your angst at the messengers, the media, or the “Christians in name only.” Blaming those with “specks in their eyes” will only delay your own work to make improvements.
See the hope. Yes, the current form of the American church is struggling. But God’s true church–the Body of Christ, the community of believers–will not go away. It is right now regenerating in fresh ways. And, at this time in history, we are privileged to be a part of something new that God is leading. We simply need to be open to his leading, let go of how we’ve always done it, be willing to change and grow, and humbly learn to BE the church anew.