America is currently experiencing a decline in church attendance and health. Buildings are being sold, young people are bolting and biblical literacy is evaporating. With sincere concern, many are rearranging deck chairs as the ship continues to sink. Some seek a more polished strategy to stem the decline but in many cases, it doesn’t. Others feel helpless and sing, “Nearer my God to Thee.”
Is the Church the Culprit?
In the face of tumultuous change, many churches turned inward and lived in the past. A spiritual “static cling” kept them in a comfy bed of nostalgic irrelevance and practical indifference. Time to wake up! Jesus did not establish His church to live in or for any one cultural era. Even if we successfully re-form churches on the surface just for a new “era” that will also someday be gone, we may pacify a few critics but we still won’t deserve to exist in Jesus’ name.
Another take is that we have been too graceless, rigid, inactive or self-absorbed, thus turning off insiders and outsiders. Perhaps, but those flaws also flourished in times when American churches were booming.
Some claim churches are dying because Christians aren’t (a figurative reference to Jesus’ demand for us to die to our sinful selves and live for him). When enough members forgo this “death,” congregations get brittle and break apart. Again, this is not new.
Perhaps our leaders have been too silent or intimidated in the face of moral chaos and theological upheaval. The fundamentals of biblical Christianity remain posted on many “what we believe” pages on church websites but we don’t let them out often or clearly enough in public. We fear being called “fundamentalists” along with many other loaded labels our culture pins on us.
Is Our Culture the Culprit?
When the gospel becomes less comprehensible or palatable to the popular culture, why do we rush to blame the church for her decline? American culture is becoming radically secular. Tolerance for biblical faith is fading. The gospel, rightly embraced and expressed, may itself be a reason for our decline. The truer we are to Jesus, the less we fit worldly paradigms and values. Our culture prefers do-it-yourself religion to biblical faith. People presume they can figure out good and evil for themselves. Yes, the serpent’s strategy first used on Eve still has legs.
Wanting to keep insiders and win outsiders, many churches soft-pedal the tougher elements of our faith and try harder to compete with the culture, or worse, conform to it. Like a ship at sea, we sink as we take in too much of the ocean. Feeling the competition, many churches positively teach their young how to feel like Christians but not how to understand Christianity. College professors easily tear such a feelings-based faith apart. And since Hollywood still out-performs most churches in manufacturing feelings, we lose many we once entertained. Young believers who meet the world woefully unarmed often become casualties.
Our popular culture largely considers the church as “primitive,” “narrow,” “irrelevant,” and “provincial.” The truth is, this culture will soon be all those things in the eyes of future generations. Meanwhile, if Jesus’ word is true, the church (even if numbers decline) will survive all the passing cultures and civilizations that critique her.
A Commitment Crisis
The culprit theories above have certain merits. Still, even our best efforts at blame leave us adrift as storms loom on the horizon. I think a hard look at the family in America brings us closer to the problem. Paul practically equated the church with marriage (Ephesians 5:32). Have you noticed that the decline of marriage and the nuclear family in America is simultaneous with the decline of our churches? The family and the church are both under attack for similar reasons and, apparently, with the same result—decline! Because family breakdown impacts the young most, it is the young, more than other age group, who are turning away from church. As the family goes, so goes the church.
“Oikos” is the New Testament Greek word for home, household or family, the basic unit of society in NT times. The early church derived much of its definition and shape from the oikos. To Paul, family function was directly related to church function. A husband serving as the Christ-like head in his oikos was, for Paul, a godly model for the relationship between Christ (the groom) and the church (His bride). Paul thus saw the oikos as a fair testing ground for discerning leadership qualities for elders and deacons in Jesus’ church. He asked, “If a man does not know how to manage his own [oikos], how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Timothy 3:5). As care for the family crumbles, so does care for the church. Since we are God’s oikos (Hebrews 3:6), it stands to reason that family decline would be tied to church decline at the hip.
Personal relationships involving deep commitments are hard work. As our culture grows more impersonal and commitment gets less cool, respect for marriage falls. When relationships get difficult, it is popular bolt. Like families, no church is stronger than the relationships she maintains, first with God and also with each other and the community. Relationships matter! Meanwhile, secularism continues to erode morality, marriage and meaning inside and outside the church. In a highly secular era when families are disintegrating, why would we expect churches to grow? It is high time to fight like Christians for the nuclear family and for singles like me to join the good fight. But first, we must renew our baptismal commitment to die to ourselves, rise forever with Jesus and trust Him to love and protect His bride.