As the new century begins to unfold, we often hear many so-called and often self-proclaimed “experts” on culture and religion predicting the extinction of Christianity. If one listens closely to these pundits, it would seem the faith is already in its death throes, gasping vainly for its final breath. Are these doomsday prophets correct? Is the ancient and once-vibrant church universal on the cusp of being relegated to the dust bin of sociological irrelevance?
The answer is clear: Yes and no.
If one is speaking of the Church in its traditional form and structure, securely anchored to its dated and increasingly ineffective methodology of encountering the world, then the answer is a resounding yes. The Church of yesterday is rapidly becoming just that – the Church of yesterday. Stubbornly clinging to a Jurassic vision of its mission, function, and structure, the traditional church is incapable of successfully navigating the shifting shoals of the post-modern world. To make matters worse, people outside the Church have an increasingly negative view of Christianity in general and Christians in particular.
There can be little doubt that we are living not only in the post-modern age, but the post-Christian age as well. Some of our more cocooned brothers and sisters may be in denial of this fact, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. And now hear this, things are not going to go back to the good old days. As the old saying goes, once it’s a pickle, it ain’t gonna be a cucumber ever again. Don’t just take my word for it, take heed of these statistics, culled from the research of several prominent church historians and sociologists, as well as renowned researcher George Barna.
Historians postulate it took from the beginning of the church to the year 1900 for followers of Jesus to make up 2.5 percent of the world population. In the seventy years beyond that, it more than doubled. By 1970, the number of committed believers in the world expanded to over 6 percent. From 1970 to 1992 the number doubled again. So right now, in the world it is something like 12 or 13 percent. These are flowers of Jesus Christ, people who say, “I am born again.” Here’s what’s really interesting. Seventy percent of this growth happened in the last fifteen years. All of that sounds pretty good, Turner, so why are you waving all these red flags in our faces? Well, here’s why:
Seventy percent of that growth is happening outside the United States.
The trends on our shores are just the opposite. In America today, over 85 percent of the churches are stagnant or dying. And while the appearance is there is an abundance of churches, the truth is most are nearly empty buildings with an average attendance of fewer than seventy-five. Every week more churches close their doors. Even in Nashville, the buckle of the Bible Belt and home to numerous large para-church ministries, churches are being turned into storage buildings, office complexes, and strip joints. Some downtown churches are more famous for the architecture than for the person and purpose they were built to glorify.
“America is fast becoming the land of empty church buildings and hollow religion,” said David Foster, founding pastor of one of Nashville’s largest congregations. “Out of 450,000 Protestant churches, we lost fifty thousand churches in the ‘90’s. I heard a denominational leader say recently roughly 5,000 ministers are leaving the ministry every month. These are obscene and sobering numbers.”
Not such a pretty picture, is it? I live in the heart of the Bible Belt, where people still go to church in large numbers and Christianity remains a strong force in the cultural mix. We have no real shortage of churches and, except for several crisis-driven denominations, few churches are actually closing their doors. Still, the trend of declining numbers is more apparent in the larger cities in the Bible Belt, like Nashville, Memphis, and Atlanta. In other parts of the country, entire denominations seem to have on foot in the morgue and the other on a banana peel.
Denominational leaders and church leaders tend to react in one of four basic ways: outright denial; panic-fueled tail chasing, like a dog running in circles; blaming everyone but themselves; or trying to find new, creative ways to fix the mess. Only Number Four has the proverbial snowball’s chance.
A significant section of the Body of Christ has arisen, showing not only signs of life, but also a freshness of vision, a flexibility of methodology, and a contagious optimism. Often referred to as the “EmergingChurch”, this proactive, mission-driven force in the Church is proving that the demise of the Christian faith is, to echo Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated.
In my mind’s eye, I often see Christ standing before the fetid tomb of Mary and Martha’s brother. With a calm, reassuring voice, Jesus spoke:
Lazarus, come forth!
Some of those assembled there initially expressed concern:
But Lord, he has been dead four days. He stinketh.
In spite of the odor, Jesus called his friend back to life and Lazarus responded. Still wrapped in his burial cloths, the once-dead man now walked with new life. As the vision progresses, it is no longer Lazarus who I see resurrected at the Lord’s call, but the contemporary Church. Particularly, I see the revitalization and renewal of the old Mainline denominations, so rich in tradition and resources. These denominations have experienced the greatest loss in terms of numbers and influence, yet it is these very segments of the Church that have the most to offer.
To be continued……
(c) L.D. Turner 2013/All Rights Reserved