Thursday, July 04, 2013


"A church is a place in which gentlemen who have never been to heaven brag about it to persons who will never get there."
-H. L. Mencken

Remember that trick you could do with your hands as a kid? This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors and... where are the people?  The fingers inside are supposed to represent the people, but these days our hands are hollow inside.
Church attendance in the United States (and Europe) is in decline, sometimes rapid decline.  As society  moves more fully into a post-Christian era, people have stopped bothering to go to church at all for a variety of reasons.  Studies show that communities around churches are growing significantly faster than numbers attending regular worship services. 
In the United States church attendance has dropped over the years from almost 50% of the population in 1965 to half that in recent years, and the increase in attendance to churches overall is a quarter the increase in population; meaning that for every 4 new people in America, only 1 attends a church. If trends continue, in 2050, the percentage of people regularly attending church services in America will be half what it was in 1990.   Studies show that a church attendee is likely to stay in a given church only 35% of the time.  Many move on to another church, many just stop going entirely.
Overall, Barna polling suggests that only 40% of America attends church regularly, and recent closer analysis shows that number is probably closer to 20%.   And European numbers are even more shocking, with the average Sunday attendance dropping to under half over the last fifty years in the UK alone as the general population has gone up by about 25%.  Regular church attendance in Europe is as low as 3% of the population in Denmark and Sweden (although Ireland has over 45% and Malta 75%!).
Meanwhile the average age of churchgoers has been steadily rising as well; young people are less likely to attend churches and more likely to leave.  People for whom church attendance is a traditional part of their life and culture are from an ever-older generation.  The average church size in America is 75 congregants, and their average age is raising every year in the western world.  In the UK alone from 1990 to 2010, the average age of a congregant went from under 40 to over 50.  In America, the chance of a young person staying in church by their late teens is lower than one in five.
There's a term now for church buildings that have lost their congregation; the "Redundant Church." The term comes from England, where on average 30 Anglican churches close their doors a year.  They're mostly turned into Mosques these days, although many are demolished, turned into homes, shops, museums, and so on.  In just the US, since 2000, 10% of Roman Catholic churches have closed their doors.  On average, 50 churches of all sorts close their doors permanently a week in America.
If the churches of the west shut down, that says something very significant about the state of religion and Christianity among its people.  Why is it happening and what can be done?
Well the biggest reason, I suspect, is that most people went to church not out of any real desire or faith, but from cultural patterns and tradition.  Church on Sunday was just what you did, the whole neighborhood did it, and it was just how things were.  Even if you didn't believe a word, at least some people figured it wouldn't hurt them and at least some were hoping to hedge their bets in case it all turned out to be true.  As the culture moves away from Christianity as a general worldview and presumption, people have stopped going to churches as part of a cultural trend.  In other words, most of them weren't Christian to begin with, so that doesn't represent any real loss of faith or religion in the country, just attendance.
There are other reasons, though, and most of them are inside the church its self.  As church attendance started to plunge due to cultural shifts, churches started to react, trying to keep their numbers up.  I sympathize with the reasons, after all one of the core beliefs of Christianity is that we should go try to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And if you're a pastor and every Sunday there are fewer people in front of you, that's going to be hard to deal with; you'll feel like a failure, like you're doing something wrong.
So churches started to try to find ways to get people in their pews.  They changed worship services, patterns, songs, sermons, Bible translations, even changed the buildings, seating, and names.  Pastors started to wear costumes, ride motorcycles down the aisle, turned the service into a show, and sometimes churches changed days from Sunday to another day all to get more people in.
And while its worked in one sense - some churches have more than a thousand congregants every week show up - the overall attendance has continued to drop.  Further, these megachurches have noticed that they don't retain those big numbers, they are constantly in flux as the people stay a while then move on to another church.

But I believe that the reason churches are declining is in part because of these attempts to keep people.  A recent study showed that the primary reason most teens leave church is because they feel they've "graduated."  They have had a church education that consisted primarily of moral teaching of what not to do and how to behave, and by the time they get to college age, they figure they've learned all that church has to offer.  Its hard to argue with their logic; if all you get is a basic course on ethics, eventually you will have learned it all and should move on.  
Teens list other reasons such as a perceived antagonism toward science, feeling overprotected, and so on, but that's their culture warring against church culture more than anything necessarily in churches.  The world tells them to sleep around or they're losers, the church tells them to wait until marriage; they feel pressured and unfair judgmentalism from the church for going along with the culture.
If all you get from a church is therapeutic lectures from the pulpit about how to get along, feel better, and have a happier life (5 ways to keep your marriage, 3 ways to get along with your boss, etc), then you're going to have a hard time being ready to deal with the world around you as a Christian.  If there's no education, no hard truth and honest teaching about the world and God's word, then you're ill-equipped to face the pressures of modern culture, particularly as a teenager.
In short, if there's no gospel, no comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, then when times are hard, all you'll have is a few verses of "Shine Jesus Shine" (whatever that means) and the pastor's witty jokes about how to feel better about yourself.  A teen faced with lousy knockoffs of pop music and a cheesy sermon about self actualization is not going to pick that over getting laid and partying.

And there are other problems as well.  Christian churches are so afraid of "turning people off," of sounding to judgmental or strict, of saying things that make people uncomfortable or offended, that they've lost their edge.  Church doesn't feel like church in too many cases, the effort has been so complete to lose that discomfort or unusual setting that there's no sense of actually doing anything out of the ordinary or special.
The very language of the church has been changed in so many places it stops sounding like a church at all.  You can't use the words "sin" or "wrath" because that makes people feel guilty and brings them down, man.  You can't use any theological language or it will confuse attendees, so justification, sanctification, trinity, and so on all are thrown out.  You can't preach sin and salvation because that makes people feel like they are being judged.
The buildings stopped looking distinctly and obviously like churches and started looking more like office buildings or schools.  The church with its steeple pointing upward signalling the day with a bell has been replaced with a cross-less generically named community center designed to seem as inoffensive as possible.  Now when someone looks for a church they have a hard time even identifying one - and chances are when they find a church building, its a coffee shop instead, and your dog can attend.
The worship service has abandoned many key basic elements of what people would associate with church in the past such as prayer.  Singing has gone from a congregation singing together to a band performing in front and people singing by themselves - holding a hymn book together as a family tied people together.  Watching words show up on a screen makes us each individuals, and when the words go away, you can't look at them and ponder their meaning.  Not that many praise songs have much meaning to ponder to begin with beyond "I'm gonna praise some vague generic higher power."
And churches have lost their strength and meaning, substituting emotion and psychological advice for the Bible and truth.  Gone is the gospel of a lost race needing salvation from a wrathful future, in its place is a kinder, gentler theme that is afraid to even mention the word sin.
Small wonder attendance by men has plunged in churches, there's no masculinity left in most of them.  Technically men are still in positions of authority, but the women run it, and the men tend to display little masculinity when it comes to the church, whatever the rest of their lives might hold.
This idea that churches have to abandon anything distinctive or uncomfortable or they'll chase off new people is not just absurd, its insulting.  When I try any other organization I immediately encounter new language, patterns, customs, and events that I'm unfamiliar with, whether its the Elks, the Harley-Davidson club, or the local gaming shop Pokemon tournament.  That's not just an assumed part of any group or club, its expected.  If there's no difference between the new club and my old life, why on earth would I join?
Churches are all too often afraid to stand strong on the word of God, to have exclusive differences from the culture, and to have any rules at all.  We don't want to seem judgmental, they cry, quoting Matthew 7:1 out of context.  We don't want to scare off people!  We don't want to make people uncomfortable so they leave!  Jesus never seemed to have a problem with this, neither did the apostles.  Its only modern man that thinks so little of their fellow man they believe everyone has to be hugged in soft pillows or run in screaming terror.

But there's another side to this.  Some churches are judgmental.  There may have been a time in the past when Christians were primarily characterized by love, charity, and humility, but not today.  If you ask the average person on the street what they think of Christians, the words "hypocrite," "judgmental," and "angry" will probably come up in the response.
Church isn't about a laundry list of gripes about modern culture, hot button issues to hammer and complain about.  If your church service is all about what a rotten so-and-so President Obama is or what the latest horror out of the state legislature is, its not being a church, either.
Jesus Christ told His followers that they would be characterized primarily by frustration over gay marriage... no that's not it.  Maybe it was abortion clinic protests?  No?  How about opposition to the Democratic Party?  No, what he said was Christians would be known by their love.  Love, service, humility, and hospitality should be the first things people think of from Christians.  
"Those Christians, they're hard-working people but you'd never realize it by talking to them, they never blow their own horn."  That's how people ought to respond.  But horror at the excesses of modern culture, the extreme boundary pushing of entertainment, and the continued shocking immorality of modern politics and laws have created a reactionary response from Christians.  Its hard not to be outraged and frustrated as you watch the world around you.
But the response is not to have sermons on the evils of Senator x or the latest monstrosity from a court.  The proper response isn't to pound your fist on the table, but to preach Christ and Him crucified.  Christians should be even more active in the world around us to bring salt and light into the world.  Christians should response to court decisions by prayer and service, not furious letters and screaming protests.
Because a church characterized by love, truth, humility, and service is one that is very attractive to a hurt and broken world terrified of their future.  And a church like this will be odd, shocking, and even offensive to the world around it, but will be a place where people will come to find out what's going on and why.
There is something to consider, though.  Maybe these things are all symptoms, or examples of another cause entirely.  Maybe things are going this way because God wishes it to be so.  One way God will punish a people is by giving them exactly what they want, and people want God to just go away.  Its not impossible that God desires the church to wane in the west (as it grows in the east).
There is good news out there.  Christianity is still the largest religion on earth, with over 25% of the population claiming to be Christian.  America on average has more weekly attendance than any other western democracy.  And while the percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christians dropped from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Anyone can claim they are a Christian, but the ones who hold to it in contrast to the culture around them and when it stops being easy and typical are the ones more likely to be honest and true about it.
Overall, globally, Christianity is growing, not shrinking.  It feels the opposite living in America or other western nations, but the truth is, there are more Christians on earth now than ever before in human history.  In Asia and the Southern Hemisphere, Christianity is booming.  
Here are a few bits from Mark Knoll's The New Shape of Christianity:
  • It is believed that more Christians attended worship services last Sunday than the entire continent of Europe. 
  • This past Sunday more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined.
  • This past week in Great Britain, at least fifteen thousand Christian foreign missionaries were hard at work evangelizing the locals. Most of these missionaries are from Africa and Asia. 
As comfortable, white, rich westerners abandon God for themselves, the rest of the world is changing.
And if history teaches us anything, its that Christianity thrives far better in adversity than in ease.  Jesus told His church that there'd be days like this, and so there are.  The response must be faith, truth, and honor to the Bible, not gimmicks, watering down the message, or becoming angry and bitter.
Our churches are hollow not simply because of lower attendance and closed doors, but because of our own sin and failure to honor God first.  If Christians are to turn this around, they must be full of the word and spirit, full of a love for the gospel, and full of a desire to serve God first.  Then, perhaps, we can hope for things to change in the world around us.
We must be true, and God will add to our numbers daily.  Because the problem is that we and our faith are hollow inside, not that churches are hollow of worshipers.

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