The Dwindling Church: Can We Stop the Bleeding?

[Hitterdals Church, Telemarken (i.e, Telemark)...
Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Mick Turner

For decades now, sociological research has indicated that organized Christianity in America is on the wane. Except in the non-urbanized areas of the Bible Belt, all of the old Mainline denominations like Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ have undergone a mass exodus resulting in empty sanctuaries and boarded up doors and windows. Now, just a few months back, the Southern Baptist Convention, long the stalwart bastion of conservative Evangelicalism, has admitted to decreased membership and a dramatic drop in baptisms.

The reasons for this decline are myriad and analysis of these etiological factors is certainly beyond the scope of this short paper. Suffice to say that the Christian faith, as it is practiced in the West, has largely gone off the tracks. Granted, independent, non-denominational churches have grown in terms of membership rolls, as have some of the non-affiliated Charismatic groups. For the most part, however, it is more than fair to assert that like some punch-drunk pugilist, organized Christianity in America is on the ropes.

Many pastors and church leaders were aware of these disheartening trends but there were at least an equal number who were in blatant denial. Convinced that the dwindling numbers were a temporary anomaly on the radar screen, these leaders put the blinders on as their congregations slipped away quietly. Beginning as a trickle but escalating into a torrent. Once forced into action, many churches tried this and tried that, but nothing seemed to stem the great exodus. Further, church leaders soon discovered that many once-solid Christians could not be lured back into the sanctuaries by any means. Rubel Shelly, in his fascinating book entitled, I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Christian and I liked Him Better Then, describes these discouraged former church-goers and offers a simple, sane method for getting them back in the pews:

Too many people have already settled the issue of church. They’re done with it. Over it. Out of there. And they aren’t interested in re-thinking , re-entering, or even re-inventing it. But you just might get their attention with this radical, engaging, challenging, life-transforming healing , rescuing person name Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, I think it is the only hope we have for communicating with a postmodern world. The best argument is not a syllogism or well-written book but a living demonstration of the kindness and acceptance, grace made incarnate, or love emptying itself for the sake of others.

Shelly is absolutely correct when he emphasizes incarnate grace and self-emptying love as providing a foundation for renewal of the Body of Christ. My take on the issue is similar: until the church returns to its kingdom calling, which is simply to continue Christ’s work of giving flesh to grace, restoring justice and fairness to the poor and marginalized, and spreading the Good News to all who would hear it, there is little hope for restoration and renewal.

I think the following passage by author and teacher Brian McLaren sums up well the current situation, its causes, and the future possibility of something positive being birthed out of it all. McLaren gives a cogent and moving testimony regarding the dwindling numbers in our once great churches and also makes the highly accurate observation that religion has indeed become a major obstacle to people truly finding Jesus:

…….the Christian religion continues to sing and preach and teach about Jesus, but in too many places (not all!) it has largely forgotten, misunderstood, or become distracted from Jesus’ secret message. When we drifted from understanding and living out his essential secret message of the kingdom, we became like flavorless salt or a blown-out lightbulb – so boring that people just walked away.  We may have talked about going to heaven after we die, but not about God’s will being done on earth before we die. We may have pressured people to be moral and good or correct and orthodox to avoid hell after death, but we didn’t inspire them with the possibility of becoming beautiful and fruitful to heal the earth in this life. We may have instructed them about how to be a good Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist on Sunday, but we didn’t train, challenge, and inspire them to live out the kingdom of God in their jobs, neighborhoods, families, schools, and societies between Sundays.

No friends, we didn’t train, inspire, and equip the members of the Body of Christ to do Christ’s work here on earth. Instead, we gradually erected a religious edifice that replaced a vital, relational spirituality and to put it bluntly, turned a silk purse into a sow’s ear. What’s worse, once we had the pig’s ear we did all that we could to maintain it and in the end, transformed a dynamic spiritual path into a static status quo. McLaren continues:

We may have tried to make people “nice” – quiet citizens of their earthly kingdoms and energetic consumers of their earthly economies – but we didn’t fire them up and inspire them to invest and sacrifice their time, intelligence, money, and energy in the revolutionary cause of the kingdom of God. No, too often, Karl Marx was right: we used religion as a drug so we could tolerate the abysmal conditions of a world that was not the kingdom of God. Religion became our tranquilizer so we wouldn’t be so upset about injustice. Our religiosity thus aided and abetted people in power who wanted nothing more than to conserve and preserve the unjust status quo that was so profitable and comfortable for them.

What would happen…………it we again tasted the good news of Jesus – not as a tranquilizer but as vibrant, potent new wine that filled us with joy and hope that a better world is possible? What if, intoxicated by this new wine, we threw off our inhibitions and actually begin acting as if the hidden but real kingdom of God was at hand?

What if, indeed! Friends, I am convinced that a fresh wind is blowing and that wind is from God. For those unafraid to step out of their comfort zone, shed outworn, unproductive religious baggage, and raise their sails to catch this vital and vivifying divine wind, the future is a vibrant vista of unlimited possibility. God is moving and the Spirit is calling – calling out a cadre of consecrated, committed renegades and revolutionaries who are neither timid nor tired, but instead, are bold and on fire with a passion to know Jesus at a level far deeper than the current norm. Christ is beckoning to those willing to challenge the status quo, even if it means irritating those reluctant to jettison sacred cows that have too long created barriers to truly knowing the Master. He is, indeed, issuing his call to those with a desire to take up the kingdom agenda and work diligently to bring its sacred principles into concrete manifestation in a world that sorely needs healing.

Christ is calling – calling out those with spiritual insight into the reality that all things are interconnected and that what impacts a single person ends up impacting us all. Yes my friend, Christ is calling forth those equipped with this understanding and from that wisdom, those possessing hearts overflowing with divine compassion.

 © L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved

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