America’s Churches are Emptying and Why that’s Not ALL Bad

Do the increasingly empty pews in Protestant churches spell the end of Christianity in our country?

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.

10 thoughts on “America’s Churches are Emptying and Why that’s Not ALL Bad

  1. Sara Schleicher says:

    Remember RIF? Reading is Fundamental. Reading the Bible is fundamental to a Christian’s faith.

    I haven’t had to use it yet, but if anyone negatively refers to me as a fundamentalist Christian I will plainly tell them that, YES, I am fundamentally for a God who was willing to die for me. If that makes me a fundie, then so be it! 😉

  2. Erin H says:

    I see what you’re saying here — but what about the work that the gospel and the Holy Spirit can do on those who hear the Word … even if they’re only there in a “nominal” way? Wouldn’t we want those seats filled, so that even if there’s nothing we humans can do to make anyone be authentic or honest, at least they are hearing the Word and Christ’s promise?

    • Sara Schleicher says:

      Erin, I was thinking the exact same thing last night! Thank God for His patience and mercy on me while I sat in the pew as a nominal Christian.
      Of course, we’d rather have the seats filled, but if that’s not happening it appears to be a wake-up call that we need to meet the people where they’re at. Most often, that’s going to happen in our workplace and friendships.
      God bless all Christians…weak and strong!

    • Hey Erin,
      I guess the way I was leaning in the article was not that it’s “good” to get the lukewarm or anyone away from the Word, but rather that, for the sake of the Church, it’s not ALL bad that the lukewarm appear to be distancing themselves from calling themselves “Christians.” That’s good in the sense that lukewarm faith brings disrespect to the Holy name of God and has a bad influence on the faithful as well as those new to the faith.

      No one’s heart is going to truly change apart from the gospel. That’s certainly true. But there is a time to warn of and erradicate hypocrisy from churches. In the early Christian Church, God struck down Ananias and Sapphira
      for disingenuous Christianity (Acts 5). Simon the Sorceror was also banned from participating in ministry because he demonstrated insincerity towards what Christianity was really all about (Acts 8).

      There’s other places we could turn to as well, but I think the general thought here is that there has seemingly been a lot of fairly insincere and uncommitted (i.e. lukewarm) Christianity in our country for a pretty long time. Some of that seems to be going away now by itself. While many are lamenting the shrinking membership in churches, I think it’s possible that Christianity in our country as a whole may benefit from it.

  3. Katie C says:

    I thought the same as Erin H until I read the quoted Bible passage at the end where Paul rebukes lukewarm Christianity.

  4. S says:

    Doesn’t the Bible teach that the Gospel preached will be harder to find, in fact their would not be any believers left in the world if not for Christ’s second coming? Isn’t it possible that the decline in attendance is exactly what the Bible teaches.

    2 Timothy 4: 1-4

    “1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,(B) who is to judge the living and the dead, and by(C) his appearing and his kingdom: 2preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

  5. bobby says:

    read again 2 Timothy 4: 3,4……having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions…..these are not people leaving church but people congregating under teaching that says things they want to hear…..and will turn away from listening to the truth…. want to lower your attendance, preach the truth. Didn’t Jesus tell Peter to feed my sheep. We are commissioned to be fishers of men, proclaim the good news of Jesus…” my sheep hear my voice and follow me”

    • Bobby, your point that 2 Timothy 4 seems to be a truth more concerning the appeal of false teachers and false doctrine amongst worshippers, rather than an outright abandonment of “going to church” is probably true. However, I’d be a little careful with a statement like, “want to lower your attendance, preach the truth.” That gives a faulty cause/effect relationship. It gives the impression that if a church is growing in attendance, they must be teaching false doctrine and if a church is shrinking in attendance, they must be teaching true doctrine. Neither is universally true.

      As we near the end of the world, in general, will there times of increased apathy towards the truth? Yes. But we have to base a church’s faithfulness to God’s Word on their proclaimed doctrine, not on their attendance figures.

  6. Mellon says:

    As some who used to attend a protestant church, although there was something true in our services, I began to realize there was something missing in our church. As I begun to study church history, the patristics, and more deeply pray and fast, I could sense the Lord Jesus lead me to His Church. I began to fight it listening to reformed apologists, but they never seemed to have any coherent arguments. After several years of searching I reverted to the Catholic faith, the faith of my childhood. The churches are much more packed in many areas in the US and the West then many protestant churches. Although there are some similar problems in both Catholic and Protestant churches, I found that Jesus’ life giving presence, Body, Soul and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist is the answer to the barren harvest of Protestantism.

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