How Will We Address the Problem of the Church in Decline?

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.