Empty Church

Another Possibility to the Decline in Churches

Over the past few decades I have been aware of the research, writings, and cyber posts concerning the decline of Christianity in North America. The research and statistics have been compelling and it is clear that the numbers of Christians in the United States continues to decline rapidly, especially in the past decade. One measure of this is church attendance and involvement. While it has been a common argument, since the 70’s, that it is possible to be a Christian without being connected to a faith community, the reality is that the Bible suggests that Christians attend and live out their faith in a church community. It has also been proven that those who are active in a church are the ones who financially support ministries and non-profits, practice their faith, have healthier marriages, live longer, are generally physically and mentally healthier, and find their children doing better in school and social life (this does not suggest that all Christians are this way or that those who don’t attend church are unhealthy–but this has been an overall trend in the US). Children of adults who regularly attend church and genuinely practice their faith, have a greater likelihood of staying Christians or returning back to their faith. In spite of this, the general trend has been for a growing number of Christians to disconnect from faith communities. Even more, the rate of children growing up outside of a church or faith community has increased as well. Are we surprised that our culture has begun to become less focused on Christian discipleship than those of the past?

Recently a few articles offer a valuable reflection on this issue in America. The Huffington Post suggested that American Christianity is in a crisis as only 20% of Americans attend church regularly (as opposed to the supposed figure of 40%). The article also indicated that 3 million people a year enter the ranks of the “Unaffiliated” which is a term for those not identifying with a church or denomination. The Unaffiliated is becoming the fastest growing “denomination” in Christianity. The article also expressed that technology, a leadership crisis, competition, a rejection of modernized worship, and changing demographics contributes to this decline.

In the Churches of Christ, of which I am a part, we have followed this pattern by losing 9.8% of our people over the past two decades. We are also losing families with children rapidly, and see 35 congregations close each year. An emphasis on beginning new churches and forming ethnically diverse and language specific (especially Spanish) churches was suggested by the author Bobby Ross. I have also read online posts from many popular religion authors claiming that they are feeling unfulfilled in churches and have chosen not to be part of an organized faith community.

These articles touch on a very important issue and continue to challenge the church to face the fact that people have and are leaving our assemblies. It is a wakeup call for Christian leaders in that we must deal with this loss and lead our congregations to grow. It reminds us that the future of our growth and mission require that we address the decline and lead the congregations to reach people.

Investing Time and Energy into a Solution

While to some, the research is bleak and the decline and loss of people a harsh reality, our response does not always need to be one motivated by fear (anxiety) or a desire to keep people in our assemblies. I write this as a minister of over 29 years. From the days as a new convert leading dorm Bible studies at Central Missouri State University and baptizing my friends who attended, to now planting a church and teaching seminary, I have noticed that some things have stayed the same.

As a minister who began Agape with a desire to reach those who had left the traditional church and cut my teeth on books such as Shane Clairborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus and Not the Church, John Burke’s Creating a Come As You Are Culture, Alan Hirsch’s and Michael Frost’s The Shaping of Things to Come, and others, I found that the authors expressed a real concern from those leaving their churches. We spent many years at Agape providing a safe environment for those who had been hurt by churches or had a negative view of ministry and its leaders. We listened to and validated many who expressed negativity to the church and their view of God. We courage2worked hard to give a voice to those who had dropped out, left, or had issues with the traditional church. While many of their hurts and negativity were real, there was also a perception of God and organized religion that seemed to be based on anxiety rather than an honest search for truth in the scriptures. Sadly enough, many of these individuals were raised in a Christian home, attended faith based schools, and had embraced a life of sin that they knew was not what God wanted. We extended much grace and energy trying to help these individuals find their way home and fall back in love with the God who died for them. Coupled with my years of ministry and working with elders to “close the back door of the church” we tried hard to help people see that hypocrisy was the enemy, not organized religion. Unfortunately we were slow to see that this hypocrisy was also present within them, and ourselves as well. At times we sided with them believing the worst in other Christians. Sometimes these stories were true and our friends were being judged unfairly. Other times they were being called out for behavior that brought shame on Jesus’ community. Even more, we saw that many of them eventually left the congregation and hurt those of us who had invested much time and energy into them. Sometimes we worried more about them than we did the ones who stayed, and the new people who came to us with little to no religious background. These were the ones who stood with us during the storm.

Should we have spent so much time coaxing those who never really embraced the call to give up everything for Jesus?

Toxins and Flushing out a System

Scott Bradley, church planter and minister at AS IS Church once shared with me that “Every body needs a poop shoot. If this does not exist the body has no way to get rid of toxins.” While this sounds harsh, the reality that Scott suggested was that in closing the back door of our churches, we many times keep people around who either do damage to the body, or create an environment which can become negative and hypocritical toward those who are trying to become healthy. This is an important point in church leadership. Is it possible that the rise of those leaving our churches can partly be explained by a need to address issues within their hearts? We live in a society that has become consumeristic, narcissistic, controlling, and sometimes motivated by fear and anxiety. We live in a society that struggles with misogyny, objectification of women and men, and continues to not only exploit children—but control them. While valuable books have been written suggesting that the church is buying into a consumeristic model, is it possible that church leaders are being influenced by consumeristic people to provide an attractive environment? I have continued to take issue with many of those leaders who suggest that the reason males resist church is because it is “too feminine.” My question has always been, “what qualities of discipleship are considered manly by our culture and therefore attractive to males in the first place?” It seems that we have bent over backwards to attract those who are byproducts of our culture and disrespect key discipleship qualities such as submission, compassion, courage, faith, trust, and mercy.

As a leader I know that it is always tempting to compromise the vision and mission we understand from the Bible, with a desire to reach people. We study people, understand them, develop focus groups, and in many cases ask people to define where they want to go in life. Then we bring their desires to the table and try to do ministry. Is it possible that people left our congregations because we were not meeting their needs? If we answer this question “yes,” are we sure that this is what it means to be a spiritual leader? I’m not trying to be critical and judgmental of people. I feel that opinions, thoughts, and desires are important to shepherding people. However, it sometimes seems that we have given the “keys to the bus” to people who may view life through the trappings of culture.

In our work with domestic and sexual abuse we have found that offenders are narcissistic, have low self-esteem, value control over trust, have high levels of anxiety, lack empathy and compassion, and are highly manipulative. These qualities are far from the fruits of the Spirit, yet are common traits of American consumerism and materialism. While there are many victims of the sins of the church and church leaders, these victims tend to be more supportive of strong leaders and less critical of faith communities. On the other hand, I found a large number of those leaving the church who had a very self-centered view of God and what a spiritual community should be, were highly critical of leaders, and who were content to be disconnected from a healthy spiritual community offering guidance and leadership.

  • Is it possible to engage and call to repentance people whose world view is shaped more by American consumerism than Christian discipleship?
  • Even more, is there a decrease in church attendance that reflects a love of culture more than a love of God?
  • Is it important to try to keep these individuals in our assemblies or let them go?
  • Are there others out there who long for the community, love, and courage that a spiritual community provides?

What Does the Text Say?

Probably one of the best books that I read last year was ReJesus by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. The authors have indicated that the current Re-JesusChristian community must focus on calling people out of culture, rather than trying to embrace the environment infecting them.

“By making Christ seem otherworldly, even ethereal, the church has inadvertently put him out of reach to us as an example or a guide. Even though Jesus routinely called people to follow him, the church has often represented this following in purely metaphysical or mystical terms. We can follow Jesus ‘in our heart’ but not necessarily with our actions. Even after the phenomenally successful What Would Jesus Do campaign, in which Christians were encouraged to ask themselves this question before every action, it seemed that Christians were more interested in asking the question than in doing what Jesus would do. We have sanitized and tamed Jesus by encasing him in abstract theology, and in doing so we have removed our motivation for discipleship. When Jesus is just true light of true light, and not flesh and blood, we are only ever called to adore him, not follow him.” [ReJesus, Frost and Hirsch, pg 19]

If I understand the Gospel of Mark correctly, this book was Peter’s sermon to the Christians at Rome facing persecution under the brutal emperor Nero. Historians indicated that Nero tried to burn Rome and rename it after himself, Neropolis. His fire department was skilled enough to contain the inferno. The two poorest quadrants of Rome were left unharmed (which was the location of the Christians who lived in Rome) causing Nero to blame the fire on them. Christians were hung on crosses (a brutal public display of torture and humiliation) and set on fire at night so that people could see his garden in the dark. Children were wrapped in animal skins and thrown to the dogs and lions. Adults were tortured, murdered, and fed to the beasts in the sport’s arena.

Historians tell us that Peter and his wife were crucified side by side (with Peter upside down) and Paul beheaded. For a community of Christians facing this suffering and witnessing it daily on the street (while holding their children’s hands) they needed a message of hope. Mark delivered this message of hope from Peter with the center theme of the Gospel being: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life, will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? ‘” (Mark 8:34-36). Imagine hearing this message in a sermon. Imagine shopping for a church and asking the youth minister about the children’s program. “Since our parents and kids may not be here next week we simply encourage families to band together, be faithful, and not deny Jesus.”

Who would be willing to join that church? Who would find value in this congregation?

Mark also shared a parable of Jesus (Mark 4:1-20). In the parable of the sower the reality was that out of the four types of soil that received seed, only one bore fruit. Only 25% of those who hear the word will be fruitful. Of those who hear the word and accept it 1 out of 3 stay faithful. One of the things that affected the growth of the plant was persecution (4:13). Jesus was looking for disciples who would endure persecution and survive. What did the Gospel say to those who left the church even for a threat of death from Rome? Is it possible that Jesus expresses to us that a small percentage are going to make it?

Is it possible that Jesus believed that “When the going gets tough, the saved get going?”

I have noticed that many of us in ministry have worked to call people to discipleship, out of the pews, and to a closer walk with Jesus. Many of us are trying to model a life of faith and walk among the tombs to help the demoniacs, befriend the sinners and tax collectors, and preach the Good News to the poor. I have talked to countless ministers and professors who have believed firmly that the American churches must raise the bar and call our brothers and sisters to a committed life for God. Is it possible that this is why so many people are leaving churches? We have admitted that it may be our fault. But we have forgotten that it might not solely rest on us?faith

What about the Remnant?

While I understand that we must be concerned with the decline in our church communities, I also understand that this may be a necessary event in order that our churches continue to promote the values of the Gospel. Discipleship (which involves submission, courage, loyalty, trust, faith, respect, and self-sacrifice) is the call of all Christians. It is counter cultural (at least in the United States) and resists everything that has made America proud and self-sufficient. The call to risk everything to follow Jesus, love the poor, and express compassion and empathy violates the American dream and rejects the world of materialism, consumerism, and individualism.

Should it surprise us that a percentage of those in Christianity leave when true discipleship is preached? If we are preparing more men and women in our seminaries to call people to a radical vision of Jesus, does it shock us that people are leaving? If the works of current authors in Christianity are being circulated to many Christian leaders, are we amazed that people are walking away and not attending a faith community? I do not want to sound as if I am blaming the increasing exodus on those leaving, but is there a part of that exodus that can be attributed to a resistance to submission and the discipleship of Christ? Even more, what about those who remain? I have to admit that I have been guilty trying to bring the prodigal son home and neglecting to tell his older brother that he has everything from God and can celebrate any time he wishes.

Often those who remain have communicated to us that they believe, they are willing to do the work to follow Jesus, and that they are ready to be used. Maybe the question is not “How do we stop the decline?” but “What can we do with those who stand with us?” Engaging those with us in outreach, community service, Bible study, and empowering them to lead are practices that have produced leaders, fruitful Christians, and community advocates who connect in ways we struggle to address. Those Roman Christians who survived and endured the persecutions were the ones to continue Peter’s ministry at Rome. They were the ones to carry the faith, not those who left.

I agree that we should be concerned about the increasing decline in the American Churches.

However, there may be another perspective.

Are we open to considering it?

Even more, what will we do with those who remain?

Ron Clark
Agape Church of Christ
rclark@agapecoc.com