Is Christianity Dying?

Dying ChurchIn his post “Is Christianity Dying?Dr. Russell Moore gives Christians another way to look at the secularization of America.

Dr. Moore writes:

Christianity is dying. At least, that’s what major newspapers are telling us today, culling research from a new Pew Center study on what almost all sociologists are observing these days—the number of Americans who identify as Christians has reached an all-time low, and is falling. I think this is perhaps bad news for America, but it is good news for the church.

The lead editor of the report tells The New York Times that secularization—mainly in terms of those who identify as “nones” or with no specific religious affiliation—isn’t isolated to the progressive Northeast and Pacific Northwest. He notes, “The change is taking place all over, including the Bible Belt.”

This is precisely what several of us have been saying for years. Bible Belt near-Christianity is teetering. I say let it fall. For much of the twentieth century, especially in the South and parts of the Midwest, one had to at least claim to be a Christian to be “normal.” During the Cold War, that meant distinguishing oneself from atheistic Communism. At other times, it has meant seeing churchgoing as a way to be seen as a good parent, a good neighbor, and a regular person. It took courage to be an atheist, because explicit unbelief meant social marginalization. Rising rates of secularization, along with individualism, means that those days are over—and good riddance to them.

Again, this means some bad things for the American social compact. In the Bible Belt of, say, the 1940s, there were people who didn’t, for example, divorce, even though they wanted out of their marriages. In many of these cases, the motive wasn’t obedience to Jesus’ command on marriage but instead because they knew that a divorce would marginalize them from their communities. In that sense, their “traditional family values” were motivated by the same thing that motivated the religious leaders who rejected Jesus—fear of being “put out of the synagogue.” Now, to be sure, that kept some children in intact families. But that’s hardly revival.

Secularization in America means that we have fewer incognito atheists. Those who don’t believe can say so—and still find spouses, get jobs, volunteer with the PTA, and even run for office. This is good news because the kind of “Christianity” that is a means to an end—even if that end is “traditional family values”—is what J. Gresham Machen rightly called “liberalism,” and it is an entirely different religion from the apostolic faith handed down by Jesus Christ.

Now, what some will say is that the decline in self-identified Christians is a sign that the church should jettison its more unpopular teachings. And in our day, these teachings are almost always those dealing with pelvic autonomy. First of all, even if this were the key to success, we couldn’t—and wouldn’t—do it. Christianity isn’t a political party, dependent on crafting ideologies to suit the masses. We received this gospel (Gal. 1:11-12); we didn’t invent it. But, that said, such is not the means to “success”—even the way the sociologists define it.

The Pew report holds that mainline denominations—those who have made their peace with the Sexual Revolution—continue to report heavy losses, while evangelical churches remain remarkably steady—even against some heavy headwinds coming from the other direction. Why?

We learned this answer 100 years ago, and it reminds us of what we learned 2,000 years ago. Two or three generations ago, Christians who held to the Virgin birth of Christ were warned that their children would flee the faith unless the parents redefined Christianity. “If you want to win the next generation,” they were told, “you have to make Christianity relevant, and that means dispending with miracles in favor of modern science.” The churches that followed that path aren’t just dying; they are dead, sustained by endowments and dwindling gatherings of nostalgic senior adults with a smattering of community organizers here and there.

People who don’t want Christianity, don’t want almost-Christianity. Almost-Christianity looks in the mainline like something from Nelson Rockefeller to Che Guevara at prayer. Almost Christianity, in the Bible Belt, looks like a God-and-Country civil religion that prizes cultural conservatism more than theological fidelity. Either way, a Christianity that reflects its culture, whether that culture is Smith College or NASCAR, only lasts as long as it is useful to its host. That’s because it’s, at root, idolatry, and people turn from their idols when they stop sending rain.

Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news. The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that the Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction. Only a strange gospel can differentiate itself from the worlds we construct. But the strange, freakish, foolish old gospel is what God uses to save people and to resurrect churches (1 Cor. 1:20-22).

We do not have more atheists in America. We have more honest atheists in America. Again, that’s good news. The gospel comes to sinners, not to the righteous. It is easier to speak a gospel to the lost than it is to speak a gospel to the kind-of-saved. And what those honest atheists grapple with, is what every sinner grapples with, burdened consciences that point to judgment. Our calling is to bear witness.

We don’t have Mayberry anymore, if we ever did. Good. Mayberry leads to hell just as surely as Gomorrah does. But Christianity didn’t come from Mayberry in the first place, but from a Roman Empire hostile to the core to the idea of a crucified and resurrected Messiah. We’ve been on the wrong side of history since Rome, and it was enough to turn the world upside down.

The future of Christianity is bright. I don’t know that from surveys and polls, but from a word Someone spoke one day back at Caesarea Philippi. The gates of hell haven’t gotten any stronger, and the Light that drives out the darkness is enough to counter every rival gospel, even those gospels that describe themselves as “none.”

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For more on this, see my new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.

SOURCE: Moore to the Point

“Autopsy of a Deceased Church” by Thom Rainer

I was their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time I got there the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. The large sanctuary seemed to swallow the relatively small crowd on Sunday morning.

The reality was that most of the members did not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudgingly agree to retain me.

I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were difficult.

On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car. “What do you think, Thom?” he asked. He could see the uncertainty in my expression, so he clarified. “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news. “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong. The church closed just a few weeks ago. Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously. This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.

My friend from the church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church. Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years. I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy. Here are eleven things I learned.

  1. The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transition toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower-class residents.
  2. The church had no community-focused ministries.  This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.
  3. Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other places where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.
  4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.
  5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.
  6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.
  7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.
  8. The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.
  9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.
  10. The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.
  11. The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples. As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying. Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.

What do you think of the autopsy on this church? What can we do to reverse these trends?

Source: Thomrainer.com

Seven Deadly Sins of a Dying Church

Here is another fantastic article by Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay Christian Resources.

I stood before some 700 church members on a Sunday evening. My task was straightforward. I was to share with them the results of a consultation my team members and I had worked on during the past several weeks.

The presentation should have been easy and uneventful. To the contrary, the time proved to be stressful and contentious. When I pointed out even a small area of concern with suggested remedies, dozens of members raised their hands to tell me how wrong I was, how the evaluations of the consulting team were far off base.

The church in question had been in decline for nearly two decades. Yet, from the perspectives of many of the members, the church was healthy and thriving. From my perspective, the most obvious reality I saw was denial.

Lessons from the Past, Lessons for the Future

Over the past 20 years, one of the richest blessings in my life has been the opportunity to study and consult with thousands of churches. I’ve seen hundreds of healthy churches that have taught me valuable lessons.

Unfortunately, I’ve also seen thousands of churches whose ministries are declining, whose members are discouraged, and whose evangelistic impact is negligible. Recently, I reviewed many of my past consulting and research projects to discern common characteristics of declining and dying churches.

I found what I call “seven sins” that characterize dying churches. These issues are not mutually exclusive; they are often directly related to each other. Rather than being a source of discouragement, I pray that my elucidation of these seven sins will be a tool to help you avoid the pitfalls that other church leaders have experienced.

Sin #1: Doctrine Dilution

One of our consultants sat in a Bible study class of a church that had brought in our team for a long-term consultation relationship. He had been told that the class included some of the church’s strongest leaders. Much to his surprise, the entire Bible study was a debate on whether or not a non-Christian might go to heaven. After much argument, the conclusion was that God would indeed allow such a person into heaven.

When such cardinal truths as the doctrine of exclusivity become issues of doubt, a church is in trouble. There’s little motivation for outreach and evangelism if other paths and other religions are equal to Christianity.

Ironically, in our survey of unchurched persons across America, we found that these non-Christians were much less likely to attend churches with weak doctrinal beliefs than those with strong ones. “Why should I waste my time in a place that does not have much certainty of belief,” Amy, a 29-year-old unchurched person from Arizona, told us. “I can find plenty of uncertainty in the world.”

Sin #2: Loss of Evangelistic Passion

It is no surprise that declining and dying churches have little evangelistic passion. In my January/February ’05 Outreach column, I highlighted one of the major reasons for evangelistic apathy: Many senior pastors either don’t have or have lost their evangelistic passion. Congregations tend to follow the passions and visions of those in key leadership positions, particularly the pastor.

Sin #3: Failure to Be Relevant

Unfortunately, many churches in America are out of touch with the changing trends and values of today’s culture. Some churches, for certain, abandon many of the cardinal truths of the faith in their quest to be relevant to the community they serve. But even more churches are woefully unaware of the realities, hopes, and pains of those around us. Failure to be true to doctrines of the Christian faith leads to apostasy. Failure to understand the world in which we live and serve leads to irrelevancy.

Sin #4: Few Outwardly-Focused Ministries

In a recent survey of churches across America, we found that nearly 95% of the churches’ ministries were for the members alone. Indeed, many churches had no ministries for those outside the congregation. Many churches seem to exist only for themselves. While there certainly should be ministry available for church members, often the balance between external and internal ministries is heavily skewed toward internal. When churches seek to care and minister only to their own, it’s a likely sign that decline is in motion and that death may be imminent.

Sin #5: Conflict over Personal Preferences

Some of the more vicious internal battles in congregations today are not fights over defending the great truths of the Christian faith. Instead, members have conflict over their preferred worship style, the way a room is painted or carpeted, and the type of pulpit the preacher uses. Battles like these are sure signs that members are more concerned about their needs than the needs of the hurting and unchurched people who live and work next to them.

Sin #6: The Priority of Comfort

A few years ago, my youngest son, Jess, was a high school senior on the football team. Because he gave so much of himself in the Friday night game, he often slept late on Saturdays. Around noon, he’d trudge down the stairs, turn on the television in the family room, and collapse on the sofa.

One Saturday, I passed him as his extended body contorted on the sofa and noticed that my football player son was watching HGTV. Curious, I asked Jess why he was watching a home and gardening show. His response was classic—“’cause the remote is broken.”

Many churches are in definitive patterns of decline because church members simply will not move beyond their couches of comfort. It’s much easier to do things the way we’ve always done them, rather than to get uncomfortable in the world outside the walls of the church.

Sin #7: Biblical Illiteracy

Only 3% of churches in America have a planned method of instructing their members to learn the Bible in its entirety. While studying the Bible shouldn’t be limited to a church setting, it’s imperative that churches take the lead in these types of endeavors.

When only three of 100 churches even attempt to provide a way for their members to understand Genesis to Revelation, biblical illiteracy is likely to occur. And biblical illiteracy means that our churches may not be obedient to the calls of Scripture because they don’t know what the Bible says.

Lights in the darkness?

Our research shows that many churches in America are sick, declining, and dying. Still, I remain an obnoxious optimist about the American Church. I’ve seen many churches reject the darkness of these seven sins and do something about their decline. They’re truly lights in the darkness.

I recently concluded a one-year consultation with a church that had seen a reversal of almost all the negative trends in its congregation. The pastor summed up the experience well: “We were not lacking in resources or know-how; we were just lacking in obedience. When we made a decision that mediocrity and complacency would not be acceptable, God began to bless us. It is just that simple.”