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.
‘Also look at the reduction in ‘Church’ weddings as an indicator of what is happening. As a professional Wedding Officiant and dealing with hundreds of couple s (over 1000) it becomes clear that few are connected with a church, do not want a church wedding and do not attend, having dropped out in their middle/late teens. A few are forced into getting married at ‘grandma’s church’ but have no intention of attending later.
Well said and sooo true!
Truth has restored a reality of discipleship, fellowship, friendship, and kinship among the body of Christ. Dividing walls are falling. Discovery of creativity in the proclamation of ageless understandings shall profoundly continue a new growth. Yet to be colored or classified in the Church are those Oprah help highlight as possible spiritualists. The persons becoming wealthy, true, by writing and speaking TRUTH through use of “IT” – ways and means beyond traditional walls of local churches. So, as deductions are counted, enjoy the replenishment that may be sparking re-growth in the Church by factors of what I call: Restoration Reality. People are desirous of outcomes that better human relations; churches should provides functions that strengthen relations. Thoughts and feelings utilized in positive ways may produce physical and spiritual church growth.
it’s a classic Christian bumper sticker: “The truth shall set you free but first it makes you miserable.” The miserable part of your blog is that the church is shrinking–numerically and in influence in the culture. Miserable…but true.
The “set free” piece is that we’re not stuck there. And we’re not alone in getting unstuck: God’s in this enterprise, too.
I, for one, am not worried that barnacles are stuck to the bottom of our boat because my goal is to get everyone into the boat–and they’re nearly there. So bring on the barnacles; let’s teach and love them into a life-changing, uncomfortable, vibrant encounter with the living God. He’ll take it from there.
And I would add, “Take an honest look at your own church.” Too many, as you said, try to excuse it away or think they’re absolved because it’s not happening to them. But introspection is called for to ensure that individual churches are really not just simply masking underlying problems.with that which looks good but is no less fruitful.
The church will survive, God will see to that just like He made sure that the covenant He made with Abraham was fulfilled despite all of the efforts of His people to get in the way. The sad part of this for our generation is that too many are going to get left behind. This is where the church gets in the way too often.
AMEN ! Rob
What you are describing is the bunker mentality I’ve seen happen in Christian circles. When a criticism is brought up, no matter how valid that criticism, all of a sudden it is labeled an “attack from Satan” and it’s time to circle the wagons. I’m not saying this is how things are always handled, but I’ve seen it happen on several occasions.
I see it happening more often, Christians are starting to “go ye therefore”, that is the church. No where in scripture have I found a single verse that says “build it they will come”. I am one of those “barnacles” and I finally became fed up with all the programs designed to bring the lost to a building where we could fix them, make them like us so that they could be a member. I do gather with other believers to worship, learn and help me be accountable. I make time to read God’s word and try to “go ye” where ever I may be. My corner of the world is where I am at any given moment. I am proud to be a barnacle, down where the unsaved are.
An awesome comment. I keep wondering if there is a paradigm shift moving away form bring “the lost to a building” and moving towards offering Christ in the world. The role of the local Church in this would be facilitating this movement to engaging the world instead of insisting the world come it it. Jesus sitting at the table with sinners and prostitutes coming to mind among other stories. I wonder, did Jesus preach to people in pews? No I know that answer. We all do.
Good riddance to me, I suppose but only from attendance somewhere. I wish things were different. I was seriously looking into another church in the area here where I live, watching their online sermons but the pastors approach to the subjects at hand was something I don’t think I want to sit through every week, just so I can spend time with other Christians. Christianity outside of church is simple. I guess I don’t need the complication of church, its trappings and all. Again, I throw my hands up.
I don’t cast blame or try to hide from the problem either. I know we are losing young people across the board. I’ve tracked it from my own youth group and I carefully kept in touch with those who have left and listened to their reasons.
That was then. Now I am a church planter reaching primarily those folks who used to attend church somewhere but for whatever reason they left. And we are growing. The only thing different between the church God has asked me to lead and almost any other church is we do not have a central meeting place, we have no pews, we have not alter. We meet house to house. We meet in parks and in coffee shops. We share food and stories and engage in deep Bible study. The serious ones eventually add one on one discipleship to their week.
Other than the environment, we are not much different than any other church in town. And when we come across a person who longs for the traditional church like the one they remember from their childhood, I make sure they get a personal introduction to as many of my pastor friends as I can to see if there is a connection that may encourage these folks to join them.
I see a lot these articles and surveys but the one thing that is lost on me is , when these people leave the church where do they go We used to call it “backsliding” it happened to Jesus as well when he began to demand a commitment beyond what most wanted to give, a lot of them went away to follow him no more .(John 6). I not saying all but in my experience the desire for things that are not Godly is the driving force behind the defections and the sacrifice and discipline that it takes to live Godly in our society seems to be more than most want to undertake.
I think many were taken back by Jesus harping on eating his flesh and drinking his blood which taken literally is sick. Although Jesus continued with saying his words are spirit and they are life. We know Jesus was trying to explain a spiritual thing by painting a physical picture, I took they couldn’t get past that image. They were hard words to take. Jesus was just was just preaching the gospel in a cannibalistic way. I had sent a picture I had found one time in email to some fellow church people of the Lord’s supper where Jesus was on the table being eaten by the disciples… Like Jesus’s words, that was not taken well. I am not surprised that many left Jesus after that little speech.