Reading the Numbers – Church Decline in America

UnknownFor some time it has been obvious to me, as I observe churches of all varieties and types, that church attendance and membership is in significant decline in the United States. All serious polling supports this conclusion but, as important to me as these polls, is my  personal anecdotal experience gained from spending hours with ministers in all traditions, from Catholic to mainline Protestant and conservative evangelical. The only exception to this obvious decline is among Pentecostal and holiness churches and there the numbers are growing very, very slightly. On the whole I conclude these numbers have flat-lined but time will tell.

From historic highs in attendance and membership in the late 1950s and 1960s the mainline began its decades-long slide in the 1970s. In the last decade the historic mainline declined 3.4 million out of some 17 million. This is spread across all groups with a few doing slightly better than others. (One example of a mainline group doing slightly better is the denomination of my ministerial ordination, the Reformed Church in America, RCA). The RCA has declined but it has also started some healthy and growing new urban churches that are refreshing to observe and experience!) The same recent study said that conservative Protestants (e.g., Southern Baptists, Evangelical Free Church, etc.) declined by 300,000 out of 27 million. But if these numbers are added to the Pentecostal and holiness numbers there is a net gain among conservative churches of some 200,000.

I find this type of research both intriguing and inherently flawed. Let me explain. For one thing, this “loss” of members does not measure what is really happening. One entire generation (made up of those born since 1982) has left the church in large numbers, larger than in any previous generation (by far) in the last one hundred years. Second, my own generation, the “baby boomers,” is now becoming less and less involved in church. I am no longer surprised to discover that many in my generation, people who spent their lives serving churches, have now dropped out. In many cases they are not entirely gone but they are attenders, not joiners and builders of the institutional church. Let me explain this phenomenon a little bit.

There is no data, at least so far as I’ve seen, to explain this loss of boomers to the church. (Some say the house church is 2-3% of total church in America but this is very hard to measure and likely overblown.) But the loss of boomers is real and I am talking about a loss that runs across all groups. Here is how I’ve experienced this change and what boomers tell me when I ask them about it.

We poured a lot of our money and work into buildings and institutional models and now we see very little in them that excites us about the real impact that the church can make in the lives of people. We have not given up but we do not build and invest the way we once did.

We desire to worship God, to meet other Christians in some expression of community and we want to support the work of Christ yet other than a weekly time of gathering for worship we just have no joy in getting involved in the structures and daily demands of a church.

We believe the gospel. We even love mission. But we are tired (“burned-out”) and ready to spend our remaining days doing something more enjoyable and satisfying for the kingdom of God than what we see in the churches that we’ve been a part of. Plus, some of our churches have closed and we are not drawn to get deeply involved in the mega-churches.

Have these boomers dropped out? Well, in many cases the answer is yes if you mean dropped out on being the leaders and workers in local churches. But no if you mean they’ve stopped following Jesus and can still find great joy in serving and sharing. These same folks who have dropped out of the “church” (as we’ve know it) have ended up in many places. Most have not chosen to sleep in on Sunday. (An honest confession–my wife and I enjoy Saturday vespers at 5:00 p.m. where the number of people is small, thus we all can speak with one another each week when we pass the peace, receive the eucharist and hear the Word each week. We are deeply nurtured in the liturgy and the rhythms of the church calendar and seasons.)

When I say this out loud to boomers they almost apologetically respond, often in private. Again, I am not talking about church drop-outs. These are people who pray, read Scripture, love to spend time with me in discipleship-oriented conversation and envisioning. These are folks who give money to the kingdom of God, often quite generously. But these “burned-out” boomers are saying, “Enough is enough.” Church as we’ve experienced it is no longer meaningful to us at all. I’ll be honest, I get this and I believe that I understand why.

Just to be perfectly clear, these boomer Christians have not given up the faith. They have reared their families and are now grandparents. They love Christ but they are tired of Christians engaging in culture wars and running huge programs based on cultural fads and music styles. They are tired of being “preached at” about loyalty to the programs of the pastor and church board. They are no longer drawn to support these things that they seriously doubt have any real impact on the world around them. A few have formed house churches but these are not satisfying to most of us for a number of reasons. (Such house churches tend to be reactionary and not deeply missional.)

What is the future of this expression of faith? I am not entirely sure but I find many among them drawn to my vision of a post-denominational Christianity in which money and time is given to real mission and service, not to sustain programs in larger churches. I wonder if some small churches (those that can move away from programmatic thinking and survive) will recover vitality in the process. For my wife and I this is the case. We love our church of 200 or so active people. We feel connected and we have a congregation where we now know most of the people after being there for seven and a half years. We picked our church by starting with the closest church to our home. We wanted to connect with our church and neighborhood. In some ways this is the older “parish” model in a new form. We have ministered to neighbors, connected with church members more closely and even found funerals, and other celebrations, more relevant since we actually know the people, and our neighbors, all of whom come to these life-altering occasions if they show up.
Look, I believe that when you embrace the good news of the kingdom you are brought into community life. This life is life with Christ in the Spirit and others are always a part of that life. We are not called to live solitary lives of quiet desperation. The question here is not “private” faith alone but new (old) ways of sharing community life with others in the church.

Here is the interesting thing about this developing reality. Boomers have more connection with millennials than ever. But, on the whole, both generations have not discovered this yet, at least not as I hope that they will very soon. One reason I write such words is to foster this new, deeply Christ-centered, bond between the older and younger.

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