Yesterday I wrote about the decline of churches in America. The facts are clear. Most churches are losing members faster than they are gaining. Those church groups that are not losing members are flat-lined, or barely growing at all. The percentage of growth, in the most spiritually virile groups, is in decline.

All of this underscores what many of us have seen coming for the last decade plus. We have entered what many think is the first stage of the long term breakup of Christendom. This appears to have begun in the 1990s. The evidence is now beginning to show us when it began. But the evidence does not clearly tell us why it began thus the conclusion as to what happened is unclear. And what we should do in the face of this tragic loss is not clear at all. Groups of all sorts offer solutions and advance ideas for how we should proceed in a “new world” context.

My conclusion is rather simple, but I think rather profound in its own way. We must make faithful disciples in a radically new world. The way we evangelize, make disciples and build churches has to change. To not question all of this is unwise and will lead to even greater waste of resource and energy. Most of all it will lead to fewer and fewer followers of Christ with a distinct Christian worldview and lifestyle.

The evidence is now obvious—the culture around us has dramatically changed. The moral and social foundations have crumbled. Whatever awareness we had of God’s kingdom in our midst has been all but lost. Older Christians have generally settled for business as usual while things decline around them. And the generation born since the late 1970s is leaving the church in record numbers. This drop-off in church attendance is so sharp that even optimists put the church attendance of Gen-X at less than 10%. (The national average is still somewhere around 32-35%.)

Churches are closing and closing fast. Yesterday, I read about five Catholic churches without services and priests in Peoria, Illinois. What makes this so staggering is that Peoria is middle-America and a diocese that has produced a large number of priests historically. It is now undergoing serious shortage and decline. Even evangelical mega-churches are in trouble in some places in Chicago. I know of several in my immediate area that have declined by as much as 50% over the past five years. Others are scrambling to pay their mortgage or keep their staff, some of which is attributable to the economic problems. But this is all more than an economic shift. From George Barna’s polling to the more reputable Pew Research data the news is still pretty much the same. Pew sees a more robust practice of faith than Barna but both track the decline I speak of.

Church_Unity_143007398 I said that my solution was rather simple. It is. I think we have disobeyed Christ so completely that this growing loss is the result of divine judgment rooted in massive disobedience. To put this simply we were afforded a long-term luxury because the traditions of faith and church practice were so deep in America’s public soul. This is no more. After a brief spike upwards, following World War II, the decline began slowly in the 1970s. It grew in the 1980s and became a trend in the 1990s. Now it is a settled fact and there is nothing, short of a full-scale spiritual awakening, that would slow it down right now.

I believe the solution lies in recovering the truly biblical practice of making disciples. We must do more than draw people, get decisions, conduct campaigns. (All have their place but they are not working in this present post-Christendom context!) We must re-evangelize the church. Multitudes of our own people are not mature Christ-followers at all. They are content to attend church but they have little or no part in the kingdom from day-to-day. They have no sense of mission, no divine calling that makes them excited to face each day for the glory of Christ.

Second, we must encourage the unity of Christians and churches in a Spirit-given reality that transcends our tribes and sects. We must stop attacking one another and start showing the world that we love one another. 

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  1. Bryan Cross November 12, 2009 at 6:48 am

    What exactly do you mean by “we must encourage the unity of Christians and churches in a Spirit-given reality that transcends our tribes and sects”?
    (That’s not a rhetorical question; I simply do not understand what you mean by that sentence.)
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  2. John H. Armstrong November 12, 2009 at 8:29 am

    Bryan, I mean (I think) about what it seems that you mean when I look at your blog site. We need a unity that goes beyond our present forms of seeking to bring everyone back to Rome or to the East but rather one in which the Spirit guides us to something that respects our differences and histories while it also creates the new wineskins of a unity that is primarily about John 17 (“relational unity”) not about finding the right single (historic) federation, configuration or organization. This is sometimes called “the new ecumenism” and seeks to regard all tradition(s) as important to the recovery and development of deep unity that is both confessional and relational. In my view the kingdom and Christ’s mission inform and guide this new ecumenism.

  3. louise scarborough November 12, 2009 at 9:05 am

    What kept me going to church was the presence of the Holy Spirit; my pastor always invited & welcomed the Holy Spirit to have His way in our services. Also we had an hour 1/2 of wonderful praise and worship. Wonderful, alive and who can leave the presence of God. Everyone wanted to stay. Who wants to go to dead churches? Keep it alive in Christ with His operating power of Holy Spirit. Heavens open and feels like Holy Ground. Get good praise & worship music. Keep it alive!! No one wants to hear about denominations anymore; we want more of Jesus!! Kingdom raising of Christ authority and army of God being raised up.This seems to be the move now in Body of Christ. Like unconventional radical, maverick Body Christ is raising up now. Real church not some dressed up unrealistic image that church previously presented. God Bless and Christ Rules!!

  4. Grant November 12, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    I can’t agree more. It appears to me that that the goal of making disciples is not a focus in most churches. All Christians require more training than simply sitting in a worship service. They need to be trained to handle the Word of God and trained to search for the glory of Christ from Genesis to Revelation. My own life was transformed when someone gave of himself to walk me through the Bible book by book.
    My prayer is that the Lord will send prophets in the order of Haggai and Zechariah to stir the hearts of our church leaders (Zerubbabel and Joshua).

  5. Andrew Gerhart November 12, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I agree that making disciples, maturing followers of Christ, is important. But then I read an article in a denominational magazine that reminded me of the step before making disciples: renewing our vision of the excellencies and beauty of the Triune God. This vision and realization of His beauty drives us who follow to love, serve and desire to grow more like Him. Without it can we not make disciple-making into one more program. His majesty pulled and compelled us to come to Him in the beginning and should precede our return to Him.

  6. Bryan Cross November 12, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Although you and I clearly share a desire for Christian unity, I don’t think we’re on the same page about what that true unity is. I’m Catholic, as you know, and the Catholic Church claims to be the Church that the incarnate Christ founded. From the Catholic point of view, true unity requires full communion with the successor of the Apostle to whom Christ gave the keys of the Kingdom. And that is because from a Catholic point of view, by His unique gift of the keys to St. Peter, Christ made St. Peter (and his successors) to be the material principle of unity for Christ’s Church, until He returns. In other words, to be in full communion with St. Peter’s successor is to be in full communion with Christ’s Church; to be in schism from St. Peter’s successor is to be in schism from Christ’s Church. (CCC 2089)
    So I do not agree that we need to “go beyond” the “present forms” of unity, if that means going beyond the unity Christ established in the Catholic Church and preserves within the Catholic Church. If by “go beyond” you mean that the present state of disunity among Christians is something we need to go beyond, then of course I agree. But there is no greater unity than the divine and indefectible unity that Christ, the God-man, established. Even the gates of Hades cannot divide the Church, because Christ cannot be divided (1 Cor 1:13), and the Church is His Body. When you claim that we must “go beyond” the “present forms” of unity, you seem to imply that the divine unity that Christ initially gave to His Church is no longer present, and that we must therefore form a new unity. But, what do you think happened to the indefectible Church that Christ founded, i.e. the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? It sounds like you think it no longer exists. Why think that Christ’s Church split into fragments, rather than that many sects separated from it, and are now in schism from the Church? Do the majority of [material] heretics and schismatics believe they are [material] heretics and schismatics? Of course not.
    If you think we must start a new unity, then because we are mere men, the unity we start will be man-made, temporal, corruptible and futile, just as was the attempt at Babel, as I argued in “Babel or Keys?” Only if we find the divine unity that Christ, the God-man, established, and enter into that unity, will we be truly united. So the unity which we must find and enter must be a unity that has endured from the time of Christ to the present.
    As for John 17 being primarily about “relational unity”, if by ‘relational unity’ you mean a unity of love, then I don’t see what there is to work for. Catholics and Methodists and Anglicans and Baptists and Presbyterians and Lutherans and Orthodox do not hate each other. We love each other, for the most part. So, in that sense we already have “relational unity.” Sure there are some anti-Catholic folks, some Fred Phelps types around. And perhaps there are some Baptist-hating Catholics, though I’ve never met one or heard of one. I’ve never met a Protestant who hated me for being Catholic; every Protestant I’ve met loved me as a brother in Christ, even if they thought my love for Christ was in spite of my being Catholic. So if “relational unity” means love for all those who love Jesus, then it would seem that your quest for unity is over, and that you can now retire. 🙂
    But from what you say, I think what you mean by ‘relational unity’ is not just mutual love, but mutual [ecclesial] acceptance in spite of having disunity regarding doctrine, disunity regarding the sacraments, and disunity regarding magisterial authority. In other words, you seem to be saying that Catholics (and Orthodox, and everyone else) should lower the bar for what counts as true unity, and treat the present doctrinal, sacramental, and governmental disunities among Christians as though these disunities are compatible with true unity. All Christians, you seem to be saying, should be content with some ‘mere Christianity’-type common ground in the first two aspects (i.e. doctrine and sacraments) and mutual recognition in the last aspect (i.e. ecclesial government). But wouldn’t every group of heretics in the history of the Church have rejoiced in such a proposal? And wouldn’t every schism from the Church (e.g. Donatists and Novatians, etc.) in the history of the Church have likewise rejoiced in such a proposal? It removes any objective criteria for heresy and schism, for “all heretics appeal to Scripture” as even Protestants have noted. If your proposal is a mere-Christianity model, then you have just replaced one Magisterium (i.e. the Catholic Magisterium) with another magisterium (i.e. whoever has decided definitively that all that is necessary for true unity is this mere Christianity). And if that person is you, then you have, in that respect, made yourself out to be Pope, by treating yourself as having more authority to determine what all Christians need to believe, than does the Pope. But, I hope we agree that you don’t have the authority to do that, and neither do I.
    If God is a God of truth, then the Spirit cannot guide us to “something that respects our differences” if those differences include contradictory theological claims. The solution to heresy and schism is not to redefine them so that heresies are now ‘variations on non-essentials’ and schisms are now ‘branches.’ The solution is to determine the standard Christ established for distinguishing orthodoxy and heresy, and that standard must fundamentally involve the keys He gave to Peter, whether exercised in his office alone or with all those bishops in full communion with him.
    If men, even Christians, around the globe form a “new [global religious] unity” that is not a reconciliation to the already existing and uninterrupted ecclesial unity the incarnate Christ established 2000 years ago in His Body, the Church, then, whoever is at the head of that new unity will likely either be the Antichrist or be closely connected to him. Ecumenicism can lead ultimately in only one of two directions: man-made catholicity, which is the City of Man, or [God-man]-made catholicity, which is the City of God, i.e. the Catholic Church. And the difference between those two makes all the difference.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  7. Christian Praise November 12, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    We can do nothing on our own. We must be a place of being led by the Spirit of God. Times are changing and what worked yesterday does not work today. I believe God allows this for a purpose so that man does not depend on his own understanding but trusts and relies on God.

  8. John H. Armstrong November 12, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Christian Praise, in his/her sheer simplicity, gets closer to what I see as biblical Christianity than Bryan, a devout Roman Catholic brother. This disagreement will not go away by hoping it will thus Bryan’s view should be respected as that of the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time I pray for something very different to happen over time. Though Catholics do not all agree I believe Vatican II opened some windows that will not be closed by Bryan;s consistent logical defense of older (orthodox) Roman theology. Catholics, like we non-Catholics, can and will change in my view.
    This difference, over authority and the nature of the church, does clearly divide us right now. If may still divide us tomorrow but we should not accept it too easily. If our heart is broken over our divisions then we should be troubled and not triumphalistic about the solution. My heart is broken!
    Suggesting that the solution is for me to “come home to Rome” (as such) is not a real solution given my faith and conscience. So we will have to start where we are and seek to draw closer to Christ first, not to the visible church. This is the major difference between my approach and Bryan’s. Like Bonhoeffer I believe that “Christ (really) is the Center.” And I do not think that Christ and the Church are one and the same in the way that Rome teaches (that it is mystery of the body of Christ on earth). The Church can and does err. The Church can and does sin. Christ did not err or sin. It is the theology of our real differences at work here that separates us but I do not believe this theology cannot be altered by the course of real ecumenism and by new ways of listening to the Spirit through both Scripture and Tradition. My view, if you follow this debate carefully, is not the “typical” evangelical view on these matters nor is it Roman Catholic, thus there is room for confusion by some but it allows for incredible new attempts at real, visible unity.
    I do not expect some Catholics to agree with me but not all Catholics think exactly the same way that Bryan does on this subject. Consider the progress made by the ECT process, one which is clearly unofficial but effective. Consider the Lutheran/Catholic accord on justification, which is official. This kind of ecumenism is what I teach, not the ecumenism of formal compromise but of informal faith communities working as one to love Christ together. Though Bryan agrees (I think) I see this as much more important than he likely does. One of the great values of this interchange is allowing people to listen and see how two Christians differ so strongly but not as they did one hundred years ago.
    My forthcoming book, Your Church Is Too Small, will develop all of this carefully. Bryan has spoken the faith of many conservative Catholics but others have a different vision of how to move into the future and there are Cardinals of the Roman Church (Kasper, Arinze, etc.) who are far more open to seeing these mysteries in newer ways. I pray for more of this dialog to increase. Thanks Bryan for articulating your Roman Catholic position so all readers can see it for themselves. I honor that right and disagree with your theology, as you know.

  9. Bruce Newman November 12, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Reading exchanges like this and getting a whiff of just what your book is about, I find myself thinking that many of we Christians actually fear the kind of transcendent spiritual reality you speak of. It sounds incredibly freeing but it would also mean a relaxing of the grip we have on certain concepts that I think we should be sitting much more loosely in. Only someone who really trusts the Lord would be inwardly relaxed enough to ward off the initial feeling of threat. I think one can easily see a snapshot of this in the way the twelve apostles acted while Jesus was with them compared to how they thought and acted when He was gone (but had sent the Holy Spirit).
    Personally, I tremble at the thought of the task before us and of how much I have to learn.

  10. Bryan Cross November 14, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    I’m thankful for the open and respectful dialogue, even though we disagree. My intention here is not to say anything about your own faith and conscience, but simply to clarify what the Catholic Church officially teaches about herself, especially regarding future possible changes to her own doctrine.
    I have talked with a number of Protestants who think that Vatican II indicates (or is evidence) that the Catholic Church can change so as to recognize the validity of Protestant denominations. But that conclusion is deeply mistaken, and badly misrepresents the Catholic Church. (I don’t think you would want your denomination or tradition misrepresented.) The Catholic Church has no power to overturn any of her dogmas. Anyone who claims otherwise does not sufficiently understand Catholic doctrine. Apostolic succession is not a dispensable or negotiable Catholic doctrine, and Protestantism (self-admittedly) does not have it. So the kind of options the Catholic Church has with Anglicans and the Orthodox Churches are in principle not available with respect to the rest of Protestantism.
    Full communion in the Eucharist can never take place without Protestants acquiring apostolic succession, accepting all Catholic dogmas and sacraments, under the leadership of the pope. If in your ecumenical vision you are waiting for the Catholic Church to make apostolic succession optional for full communion or for a valid Eucharist, or for the Church to retract the dogmas declared at Trent or Vatican I, you will go down to your grave in despair, because it will never happen. It can never happen. Therefore ecumenical vision and ecumenical hope should not be built upon that expectation, because ecumenical vision should be built on the truth, not a misrepresentation of what each tradition teaches about itself in order to create what is a false hope.
    Cardinals Kaspar and Arinze are sympathetic to the Protestant situation, and aware and appreciative of the good the Holy Spirit is doing in Protestant communities. But they are in full agreement with the teaching of the Catholic Church on this matter of what is necessary for full communion. To suggest otherwise would be to imply that they are guilty of heresy.
    To give people the idea that the Catholic Church could someday revoke or recant some of its dogmas, or make any of its dogmas optional for full communion, is to misrepresent the Catholic Church, going directly against what she says about herself, and treating her like a Protestant denomination that can, in principle, accept or reject any doctrine. It is to recast her in a Protestant mold, and not to represent her as she understands herself. There is no such thing as two Catholic orthodoxies: “old orthodoxy” and “new orthodoxy”. No authentic development can ever revoke, reverse, nullify or contradict any previous dogma. There are not “conservative” and “liberal” Catholic theologies; there is Catholic orthodoxy, and whatever opposes it is heterodoxy. Anything else is adiaphora.
    If you want to read an accurate understanding and interpretation of Vatican II, I recommend “Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition” by Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering (Oxford University Press, 2008).
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  11. Nick Morgan November 16, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    Hi John,
    You know I had to “chime in” on this conversation. Bryan has presented a seemingly air-tight presentation of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on Christian unity, but I believe the RCC’s teaching is more nuanced then what he has presented. Having studied both the Catechism and the Adult Catechism published by the USSCB; as well as having read several books by Pope Benedict XVI, Dr. Peter Kreeft, and Dr. Scott Hahn, the RCC seems to be much more favorable toward Protestant Christians than in the pre-Vatican II era. I agree completely that our Church Dogmas don’t change, but our understanding of those dogmas and how they are applied and lived out in daily Christian life has always undergone a type of evolution. The Church simply grows deeper in Her understanding of what she has always taught, and this challenges older perspectives and practices. For example, my Mom grew up in an era where the Mass was said in Latin, Catholics were not encouraged (not forbidden though) to read the Bible and have Bible Studies, and the general attitude toward Protestants was that they were probably lost and attending their services was discouraged. Today, in the post-Vatican II era, the Mass in in the vernacular, Catholic Bible studies are encouraged, and Protestants are recognized as true brothers and sisters in Christ, though “imperfectly members of the Catholic Church on the basis of their union with Christ by faith and baptism”. It is certaily the desire of the Catholic Church that all Christians be re-united with Rome and the Pope as the successor of St Peter, but the Church officially teaches that Protestant “ecclesial communities” have the gifts and grace of the Holy Spirit and so have access to salvation in Jesus Christ.
    Having said all of this, I firmly agree with Dr. Armstrong’s statement that true ecumenism must be grounded in historic Christian orthodoxy, (our ecumenical creeds) and MUST BE RELATIONAL. Most people won’t listen to someone else’s dogmatic statements until they know that the other person genuinely cares for and respects them. To say that we already have relational unity begs the question. In my experience as an Evangelical Protestant and a Roman Catholic “revert”, the lack of relational unity is our most obvious defect. I have seen a tremendous amount of prejudice and misrepresentation of Christians toward other Christians on both sides of the Tiber. I recently finished reading “To Know Christ Jesus” by the late Catholic lay-evangelist Frank Sheed. It is an excellent book and a very enjoyable study of our Lord from the 4 gospels. I’m currently reading “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission” edited by Charles Colson and the Late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, and the clear message from both of these books is this: The real issue for Catholics and Protestants is ultimately our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. The more we know and love our Lord, the more we will want to follow Him. And the closer we follow Him, the more we begin to love all of our brothers and sisters in the whole Church, and we become grieved about our divisions rather than triumphalistic. I believe, with John, that the Holy Spirit is doing something new and mysterious in our day. He is seeking to re-unite Christians in His way, which is always much higher and more mysterious than our ways. If we desire to take our Lord’s prayer in John 17 serious, than we need to seek to hear the voice of the Spirit through the WHOLE Body of Christ, meaning the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Traditions. Healing the deep wounds of a divided Church is something only God can do, and it will probably not look like anything we could have figured out on our own.
    God bless!

  12. Bryan Cross November 17, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    I agree that charity has to be the context in which we converge together in the unity of the truth. I hope I wasn’t giving any impression of being ‘triumphalistic.’ There is a difference between being truthful and forthrightly unashamed about the fact that the Catholic Church claims to be the Church Christ founded as necessary for salvation, and gloating in that over others who do not believe it or accept it. The latter attitude would be deplorable. I also agree with you that at Vatican II the Church was more favorable to Protestants. That is partly because of a recognition that the Protestants of the 20th century were not in the same situation [with respect to culpability] as were those of the 16th century who left those Catholic bishops under whose authority they had been born and raised. The other part is that the Church wanted to affirm that the Holy Spirit can operate outside her visible boundaries in Protestant communities through what they have from the Catholic Church, i.e. baptism, marriage, Scripture, and prayer. That is what is meant by Protestants being in imperfect communion with the Church.
    You acknowledge that the Church desires that all Christians be re-united with the Pope, but you seem to counter that by saying the the Church officially teaches that Protestant ecclesial communities have the gifts and grace of the Holy Spirit and so have access to salvation in Jesus Christ. This makes it seem as though the Catholic Church believes that being reconciled to the Church is soteriologically optional for Protestants. From the Catholic point of view, Protestant communities have *some* gifts, but not the most important gift by which we are to grow in Christ, i.e. the Eucharist, and not the fullness of the Spirit we receive in the sacrament of confirmation, and not the sacrament of post-baptismal forgiveness, i.e. Penance. From the Catholic point of view, it is much harder to grow in the Christian life without all the sacraments Christ has instituted in His Church, for these are the means by which we are to receive His divine life, i.e. sanctifying grace. Without the sacrament of penance, for example, the Protestant who has committed mortal sin must have perfect contrition in order to attain forgiveness, whereas for a Catholic in confession only imperfect contrition is necessary for forgiveness (though perfect contrition is preferable). And therefore, from the point of view of the Catholic Church, it is much more difficult to grow into the fullness of the life of God and to persevere in grace unto death in Protestant communities than in the Catholic Church. From a Catholic point of view, remaining in schism is not soteriologically neutral. Furthermore, all this assumes invincible ignorance about the identity and necessity of the Church. And invincible ignorance is a very high standard, as James Akin has explained in his article “Ignorance – Invincible and Vincible.”
    When you claim that the Holy Spirit is seeking to re-unite Christians in a “much higher and more mysterious” way, I’m wondering where you are getting this notion. Are you suggesting that according to the Catholic Church, the solution to Christian disunity is something other than all Christians coming into full communion with the successor of St. Peter? It sounds like you are saying that the ordinary way of resolving schism (CCC 2089) will be transcended, and I’m wondering where you are getting this idea. Without some kind of divine revelation from God, I don’t think it is a service to Protestants to suggest to them that leaving their schism and being reconciled to the successor of St. Peter is optional because the Holy Spirit is going to do something new and mysterious. But maybe I’m misunderstanding you. Just as it is no kindness to persons not to tell them about the necessity of being reconciled to Christ, so it is no kindness to Protestants not to tell them of the necessity of being reconciled to His Church.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  13. Nick Morgan November 18, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Thanks for your response. I tried to write a rather lengthy response to yours, but it’s floating somewhere in cyber-space at this moment. 🙁 For the sake of time, I won’t try to re-write what I wrote, but I based my comments on this section from the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (CCC 818-819)
    If you would like to e-mail me personally we can discuss this more in the future.
    God bless brother!

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