As a pastor, it’s easy to get discouraged by the fact that the sanctuary is not packed for every worship service every weekend. Too much good seating is too available too often. And many churches and church bodies have been experiencing this. Mainline Protestant churches have been bleeding membership slowly for years now. What’s the cause? Should we panic? Is this spelling the death of Christianity in America?
I mentioned something in my sermon this past weekend that I could tell got a couple of quizzical looks. Talking about the Israelites lack of trust in the LORD and failure to uphold/defend the name of the LORD as the Philistine warrior Goliath blasphemed him, I reasoned that this unfaithfulness on the part of the Israelites brought more disrespect to God’s name than anything one giant fool spouting off at the mouth could ever do. The application I made was this: Either be a Christian or don’t be a Christian, but don’t call yourself a Christian and then willfully live in an unchristian manner, because the name of the LORD just gets trashed in the process.
I actually think people in our society are starting to pick up on this – that nominal Christianity is really no Christianity at all. I think what we’re seeing in society as churches are emptying is the death of a fairly soft, uncommitted and relatively apathetic group. And I don’t know as that’s a bad thing. The statistics seem to show that what is happening is a growth in legitimately devoted Christians AND a growth in agnosticism and skepticism. This seems a little paradoxical, but really isn’t.
What we’ve had in our country for many, many years is that there were very few outright “atheists” or “unbelievers.” Just about everybody called themselves Christians but only a fraction of those were really committed to the Christian message in their lives. So, you had a bunch of people who went to church occasionally or even regularly simply because “that’s what our culture does” and “that’s what I’m supposed to do.” If you’re familiar with the popular animated satire The Simpsons, then you know what I’m talking about. The family attends worship with their church weekly, but can’t wait to bust free after the final “Amen.” And what the Simpson family learned in worship, if anything, ends up having very little impact on the rest of their week. Today, moving from the coasts inward, that segment of the population gradually seems to be going away and therefore some churches are emptying out. But again, is that really a bad thing? It’s bad in the sense that the only way those nominal Christians were going to grow in spiritual vitality was if they were connected to the gospel and now they don’t have that. But, it’s good in the sense that it’s clarifying in what Christianity really means. When new Christians do legitimately come into the church now, hopefully they are less likely to see bad examples of spiritual lethargy and indifference and think “Well, this is what Christianity must be.” and subsequently follow the pattern. Likewise, more time and energy can be devoted to ministering to and with those who actually desire it.
The “ultra-devoteds” are growing and the “ultra-skepticals” are growing, for a net “loss” in Christian numbers because the nominal middle is disappearing. Somewhat ironic in all of this is that many Christians are often alarmed at the lack of Christians (especially young people) in church and at the exact same time, many skeptics are sometimes alarmed at the growth of what’s called Christian fundamentalism. In reality, both assessments are accurate, and for Christianity, what that means is that we’re refining to a group that actually knows why it believes what it believes and is legitimately committed to that.
I don’t think our country is becoming less religious or anything. I think we’re more clearly defining what’s really, authentically in our hearts and being open and honest about that. That’s beneficial. Historically, whenever you have the cultural expectation to have allegiance to the true God, it hasn’t gone particularly well – e.g. O.T. Israelites, Christianized Rome, the European Church of the Middle Ages. While I’m sure there are exceptions to this, there seems to be something about the cultural expectation of faithfulness to God that seems to squelch true spiritual health. So, while I sometimes speak in pessimistic terms regarding Christianity in America, I actually think we might be moving in the right direction and I’m very excited and hopeful about that. The more clearly we define Christianity, the more clearly we define the love and truth of the one we reflect – Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. And when he is clearly seen, new and true spiritual life begins.
To the church in Laodicea, God told the Apostle John to write these words: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth…19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:15-16, 19-20)
NOTE: There are a number of other factors that contribute to lowering worship attendances in many Protestant churches. One that many will point to is the rise of large Evangelical churches (often called “megachurches”), which, irrespective of doctrine, often grow simply because they do a lot of practical things very, very well and meet people’s perceived needs very well, which leads to them absorbing many of the disgruntled Protestant worshippers leaving other churches. None of that discounts what I’ve mentioned above though. It just means that there are several factors contributing to a noticeable trend.