Maybe you’ve seen the recent headline about the precarious state of the church of today. Three such news captions are “America is Becoming Less Religious” (Washington Post), “Fewer Than Half of Americans Belong to a Church” (Christianity Today), and “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace” (Pew Research Center). What hit the newsstand is the latest report from the polling giant, Gallup.
According to Gallup, for the first time since the late 1930s, fewer than half of Americans say they belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. In the mid-1990s, 70 percent of Americans said they belonged to a house of worship. In 2019, two years ago, that amount was down to 50 percent. And in the last two years that number has decreased to 47 percent. When Gallup began polling church membership in 1937, nearly three out of four persons in our country (73%) reported membership in a place of worship. Truly, that’s a significant drop.
This finding is in addition to something else that’s being reported, which is that the number of Americans who claim NO religious affiliation—referred to as “nones”—has been steadily rising. Depending upon the poll, today that percentage is said to be between 20-30 percent of Americans. Together, the statistics are very clear; the number of people with ZERO religious leaning is increasing while the number of religiously-inclined persons choosing to align with a house of worship is decreasing. From one perspective, this does not bode well for today’s Church.
With all that data on the table, and without minimizing or denying the truth of the reality we face today, the first thing I want to point out is this: the Church of Jesus Christ is NOT on the brink of extinction, nor is she in danger of fading away into irrelevance. Over the last 2000+ years the Body of Christ has experienced many ups and downs, many of those downs being way worse than facing a decreasing interest on the part of the populace. No, God’s Word makes it very clear that the Church—God’s chosen vessel to reveal himself to our world—will only come to its ordained conclusion when Jesus Christ returns and ushers in the full manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth. Until that happens, the Church is here to stay in one way or another.
Now, this isn’t to say that all we have to do is sit back and wait for those numbers to mysteriously go back up on their own. On the contrary! There is still much of our mission to be accomplished. For that matter, it could even be argued that there’s a direct correlation between how well the Body of Christ is fulfilling its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ and the rise and fall of the influence and “popularity” of the Church among the people. If that’s so, then what might that tell us about how well the Body of Christ is doing these days in fulfilling our mission?
The second thing I’d like to say in regard to this matter is this: I believe the ONLY long-term solution lies in the willingness of congregations to make those outside the Church their first priority. I did not say their only priority, but their primary priority. The biggest challenge for established congregations—such as ours—to be and remain vital is resisting the natural inclination to take care of itself. Obviously, there are aspects of being a church which require us to earmark a certain level of resources for maintenance. But if “maintenance” and making sure our own needs and wants are addressed happens at the expense of connecting those not there with the love of Jesus Christ, then we’d be guilty of making taking care of our selves a priority. Unfortunately for everyone, this is a sure path towards irrelevance and eventually death. And who on the outside wants to align with something that’s irrelevant and dying?
In one church I served, I was asked to lead them through a prescribed process of revitalization. After a few years of what felt like very slow progress, if any that could be measured, I was able to identify some of the contributing factors, some of which were out of my control and a few which I had to own. One factor was what we might call “false support” of process. Over time, it became very clear to me that a significant portion of the congregation took the position, it’s fine with me if our church wants to do [the ministry or endeavor], but don’t ask me to be a part of making it happen. In other words, there was almost no resistance to undertaking the revitalization process, but when it came time to implementing the things we needed to do in order to become vital, I mostly heard the sound of crickets. A few people were on board and supportive, but it takes the active support of the majority of the congregation to become vital.
I realize this article is rather long-winded. But I wanted to respond to the recent national news about current state of church affiliation across our nation, and it’s difficult to do in a short piece. For me, handwringing is not a helpful response. Finger-pointing and blaming [others or ourselves] is not going to change the situation. Doing nothing is certainly not a viable solution. But obviously, simply doing what we’ve always done is not a solution either; it’s what’s gotten us to where we are. And what I want each of us to be aware of is that in the year ahead, as we begin to look at new ways of connecting the love of Jesus Christ with the people in our community, many of us—especially those who’ve been around a long time—are likely to find ourselves either resisting it or being apathetic towards it.
Revitalization is really hard work! My prayer is that TOGETHER we will discover how God intends to use us to accomplish his purposes as well as our mission of making new and cultivating “old” disciples of Jesus Christ.