Posts Tagged ‘Evangelism’

Is the American Church Really in Decline?

The numbers for the American church don’t look good:

  • Every year more than 4,000 churches close their doors compared to just over 1,000 new church starts.
  • Half of all churches in the US did not add any new members to their ranks in the last two years.
  • At the turn of the last century (1900), there was a ratio of 27 churches per 10,000 people, as compared to the close of this century (2000) where we have 11 churches per 10,000 people in America.
  • From 1990 to 2000, the combined membership of all Protestant denominations in the USA declined by almost 5 million members (9.5 percent), while the US population increased by 24 million (11 percent).
  • The United States now ranks third following China and India in the number of people who are not professing Christians.

But I wonder if these things are really bad. I know, I know, call me a “Pollyanna” but numbers are just numbers and Christianity is about God and his people. People often get hung up on numbers and miss other indicators of worth or health or progress. Bigger is better baby. My current church is growing. My previous church is plateaued. Other churches I know of are shrinking. Overall the American church is getting smaller. At the same time, I think there are some very encouraging signs within evangelicalism. But first, let me explain why (or try to) I think the numbers of American in church is going down and why that’s a good thing. Take a look at the ad to the left, you can click on it to get the whole thing. It is from the 1950s and here is the text:

Where are the churches of Russia . . . the worshippers of East Germany and Poland . . . Estonia . . . Latvia . . the Christian congregations and missionaries of China? Gone . . . gone beneath the juggernaut of materialistic atheism that today enslaves six out of every twenty people living. To communism, Christian countries present a lush target. Pious complacency, religious indifference, empty pews and churches mark an easy prey to fanatic, soulless communism. It is time for deep searching of our hearts. We can meet communism physically with guns – aircraft – airforce crews – but spiritually? we need to re-affirm the faith that first made our nation great . . . to man anew our spiritual frontiers.

Why should you go to church? According to this ad, to defeat communism! They’re atheists and so we’re Christians. Get it? It is your patriotic duty to attend church this weekend! I heard a similar thing a few months ago when Scott Simon played some tapes of his father’s radio program from the 1950s. It was pretty much your patriotic duty to go to church. That kind of thing would really motive World War II vets and their families.

For a while, Christianity became customary, comfortable. It wasn’t dangerous or controversial, it was necessary to defeat Communism. In the 1960s the nation’s Christian moral values (ignored only in private) got questioned by long-haired, fist waving youth. Soon American Christianity slid into power politics as a way to maintain that moral edge and now it is misunderstood and loathed.

Accepted as necessary (but not embraced) ->
Questioned and dismissed (because it wasn’t really believed) ->
Struggling for power
(because it rode the coat tails of what came before) ->
Hated and misunderstood
(because the false part has largely fallen away).

Of course this is an incomplete picture of the history of Christianity in America as it really only covers the last half of the last century but I think it kind of explains where we are now. By way of illustration, I heard an interview with Hughes brothers, the directors of The Book of Eli. The one brother read the script and loved it. He pitched it to the other brother who said something about not being a true believer and being uncomfortable with the Bible having such a prominent place in the movie. Fair enough, but the line that caught my attention was when he said that it would be controversial to treat the Bible that way. That is, to treat it as important and of potential value to humanity. The first thing that came to my mind was “Excellent! We’re dangerous again!”

When Christianity was domesticated and used by society for reasons other than religious, it wasn’t dangerous. It formed a foundation for family values and the American way. People could take or leave the other aspects of the religion. I think this is why liberal Christianity flourished during that time. You could have religion without Christ.

This leads me to my point. It is a good thing that the church is shrinking in America. We’re not a house cat you can scratch between the ears and walk away from. The voices within Christianity who spoke only of religion as a positive societal force are now calling it dangerous and out of step and therefore are moving away. The field clears and you can better see who is who.

I don’t want to speak to absolutes here. Of course I don’t mean to say that all of the church in the 50s was weak and corrupt. Nor do I want to say that all of the church today is strong and effective. I’m only speaking of the general movement of the thing. And frankly I may be Pollyanna here. H. E. Barber of the Guardian in the UK visited America and didn’t have much good to say about evangelicalism:

If the trend identified in the Aris study continues, we will see a country divided between conservative evangelical Christians and secular liberals – the latter hostile to religious belief, identified with evangelical Christianity. This is bad news because popular evangelical Christianity is religiously vacuous…Saddleback [Church] is religion for people who don’t like religion: transcendence is not on the menu.

Although almost half of Americans say they have had a religious experience, mysticism is likely a recondite taste. For the minority who have that taste – who seek God as an object of contemplation – Saddleback has nothing.

Ouch. I mean, you have to take serious criticism from those outside the system. But at the same time, evangelicalism isn’t Saddleback Church. Most American churches are congregations of less than 200 and Saddleback is close to 120,000. It is far from representative of the norm. No, I’m comfortable with the American church getting smaller. It presents a richer harvest field where wheat and tares are easier to identify.