Several months ago I wrote an article about the rapid decline of the Southern Baptist Convention. In it, I suggested that this denomination — my denomination —needs to take a serious look at our approach to ministry and rethink how we engage our communities with the gospel. The root of our decline, I surmised, is the outdated methods we have used in sharing the gospel message in our culture. I advised churches to change their approach in order to see attendance numbers move in a positive direction.
I was wrong.
The problem is much deeper. My analysis of the situation was akin to a doctor declaring a patient’s nose bleeds to be the result of a sinus infection when the reality is a cancerous nasal tumor.
The decline of the church in America isn’t because of a few programs that need tweaking. Countless churches all across our nation are forever closing their doors not just because they lack innovation. The problem is much greater. It’s actually the result of who we have become as a country.
This week I read yet another article regarding the declining numbers in American churches. Any Google search on this topic will result in dozens of links to websites with studies and reports concerning the deterioration of the church in the United States. This is true among Roman Catholics, across virtually every Protestant denomination, and in every region of our nation.
Again, this Google search will reveal numerous articles; however, each article will generally point to one of two reasons for this decline:
1 — Atheism / Agnostism is on the rise. Although most wouldn’t apply one of these labels to their belief system, they would say that they just aren’t religious. Researchers have given this group the label “nones.” According to the latest statistics, this group now represents nearly a quarter of the American population. If the “nones” were a denomination, they would be the largest in our nation. Each year, the percentage of our population identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation increases.
Obviously, this isn’t good news for the church. As an older generation (generally more connected to churches) dies off and is replaced by a new generation (less interested in church involvement), church attendance will invariably decline.
However, in my research, this isn’t the greatest problem facing the church in America. The chief reason the church is dying is due to the fact that:
2 — Practical Atheism / Agnosticism is on the rise. Simply put, these are the ones who say they believe in God, but it makes no practical difference in their lives. This is especially true in how their “faith” relates to their church attendance. Over the last two decades, the average church member’s weekly worship attendance patterns have changed dramatically. Gone are the days of a family being at church on a Sunday morning 50 Sundays out of the year. While there are varied, numerous reasons for this decline in attendance, the reality is that it has been more detrimental to the effectiveness of the church than anything else. Throughout history and in many places around the world today, the church thrives within highly secular / atheistic / antagonistic societies. Against great persecution, the early church flourished in the Roman Empire. The church in China today is experiencing explosive growth within a communist nation. The rise of the “nones” isn’t the church’s primary problem. Our decline is coming from within. Christians are the reason the church is losing her influence. To quote the old proverb: “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.”
What does all of this mean for the future of our nation? To get a pretty good picture, all we have to do is look across the pond.
Currently, in the United Kingdom, more people identify themselves as non-religious than Christian. In England, by 2025, it is estimated that only 4.3% of the population will be members of a Christian church. The home of Spurgeon, Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, John Knox, William Carey, C.S. Lewis, and countless other great Christian pastors and theologians is now spiritually dead.
That is where we are headed. And we are driving there at a breakneck speed. When my children are adults, the church in America will look much different than it does today.
This isn’t an article to offer solutions. That would take a lot more space than I have here. The first step in solving this problem is to identify the real issue. Like the doctor looking at the patient and realizing that the presenting symptoms have a deeper cause.
As I analyze the situation, that’s what I’m seeing. The scans are showing that there’s a cancerous tumor. Band-Aids won’t work on this one. The prognosis is bad.
I’m just hoping that the patient realizes the severity of the problem.
Kevin Mills is the Lead Pastor at Northway Church in Macon, Georgia.