The Disappearing Church

Many years ago when I was a pastor in a small rural community, one of the big events was the annual School Board elections. The community was small enough that everyone knew everyone else, including all their weaknesses and strengths. Consequently, no one ever campaigned for election to the School Board. In fact, nobody really even talked about it. Everyone just voted without the influence of others.

However, one year I received a flyer in the mail from one of the men who was running for office. He listed a bunch of qualifications, and the final one on his list was that he was a member of First Baptist Church. I had been pastor of this church for more than a half dozen years and he had never entered our building so I confronted him. I asked why he considered himself a member and why he listed it on his campaign flyer.disappearing-church

Back in those days (it was the 20th century; after all), being a member of First Baptist Church carried some weight. Church membership today doesn’t have the clout it used to possess.

In fact, the church today might carry less clout than we think. A major survey reported this week that the number of young people leaving the church is much worse than we previously thought. As a lifelong church participant and an eyewitness of what happens in churches for several decades, I have some observations that may or may not be helpful (you decide).

  • Young people are not that interested in politics, and for much of the church, politics is the focus of the day for the church. They are not going to join your crusade to save the traditional family by attacking gays, or congratulate your scientific “knowledge” by denying climate change or fighting the evils of evolution.
  • It is disheartening that some are admitting there are fewer who identify themselves as Christians, but then act as if it is fine by saying, “it’s not happening in my church.” When you identify yourself as the only ones doing it right it is not surprising that you alienate everyone else. For example, many are celebrating that only the mainline denominations are declining, but not Evangelicals. This kind of arrogance that your brand of faith is better than theirs is a cause for Christianity losing its appeal.
  • The church should never expect to be in a position of power in the world. Such an attitude is contrary to our Founder’s teaching. In fact, the church is probably stronger when it serves rather than rules.
  • Other than politicians and preachers, few people have much interest in large numbers of followers.
  • The fact that fewer people readily identify with being a Christian probably has something to do with what the term has come to mean. If you are not sure what that means, ask around.
  • I learned a long time ago that it is much easier to attract a crowd than it is to build a church. If you really need to have a large crowd in order to validate what you are doing, go to the mall and drop your pants—you will be quickly surrounded by interested people. However, unless you’ve got something more, they will disperse just as quickly.

My friend was not elected to the School Board; remember, I said that everyone in town already knew everything about everyone else. However, he and I continued our conversation, and in time he became a regular participant with our congregation. When I eventually left the church and community, he stopped by my house as we were loading the truck, and we shared a tearful goodbye.

Any news that fewer people report a positive experience with the church is bad news for all Christians. However, instead of debating who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong, perhaps we can all learn from the situation and strive to make Christ more appealing by making His followers more appealing.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Disappearing Church

  1. Jesus Christ is most appealing not by what his followers do or do not; but rather by his own divine nature and absolute deeds, as defined: “not even death will ever be able to overcome” (Matt.16: 18) and faithfully executed (Ibid. 27: 50-56). Amen!

    • It is only by what His followers do or not do that Jesus is even known. Very few people just stumble across the Bible and discover Jesus on their own.

      • Thank you for your reply with which I beg to differ.
        Jesus Christ is independently self-revealing whenever and to whoever he pleases whether or not his real disciples follow his prescription.

  2. Ephrem, read Romans 10:14.

  3. Terry, I was thinking about this very thing this morning while walking the kids to school. You have a lot of great observations and insights. I was thinking this morning about how many people go to church when they are children, but stop in college. Then they have children of their own, and seek out a church to help impart morals and guidance to their children. But people are having fewer children these days, so the people with zero or one never return. The parents become agnostics; their few children, atheists.

  4. Terry when we grew up in the church Sunday School lessons were discussions where we shared ideas of interpretation and discussed them. Now the teacher indoctrinates telling the children what to believe and they don’t like being treated like robots. The church has stopped making disciples and is creating automatons.

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