If you care about the church at all—or hope to see its demise—you have likely found it impossible to ignore the latest news about church decline. Every survey (see here) tells a foreboding picture of the Church’s imminent demise. Fewer young people attend service; more people are unaffiliated “nones”; strident atheism has a rising number of heroes; those who call themselves Christian are doctrinally clueless and don’t even think Christians should evangelize. You put all that together and wonder what kind of future the Church has.
But there are Biblical, theological, and historical reasons not to believe that that prevailing wisdom of the Church’s decline is actually news. That is to say, church decline is biblically predicted, theologically normative, and historically a trend. That such decline is happening now should not surprise us at all. Rather, we should continue to marvel that anyone goes to church at all.
Reasons to Worry
But before I offer that bit of positivity, I understand the reason for panic when noting the significant statistics of church membership and attendance decline. I have long regarded the Church as an institution that not only should be preserved, but that its preservation was necessary for our American civilization to prosper.
Some, for example, are terrified of other institutions dying for the catastrophic results that will inevitably follow. Imagine the National Park Service pulling up stakes and allowing Hollywood to buy up Yellowstone. Or imagine the Girl Scouts coming to an end. Can’t you hear the women who have supported and participated in that organization for years becoming anxious about what will happen to our young women once that organization disappears? Or what of the Fire Department, your local Symphony, a university, or even your favorite restaurant chain?
The Church, as far as I can tell, plays a monopolistic role in communicating divine truth to the world. It’s pretty well impossible to overestimate the value of that. But it also acts as a critical instructor of norms, values, and morals. Should we be surprised at the rise of opioid addiction, pornography consumption, mass shootings, the breakdown of the family, and a dearth of authentic community as the very institution that provides those positives and fights those negatives is on the decline? No. In fact, it is all predictable and things will get predictably worse as the Church continues to be ignored.
That is why I achieve peak anxiety when one of the links above finds its way onto my Facebook feed. I know that there will be a tremendous social cost to our desertion of the Church. At best, we will have a relatively pleasant society that can’t remember from where it obtained its manners and morals in the first place. At worst, we will have a society with no manners or morals at all. I am expecting the worst and hoping for the best.
Christianity Was Not Necessarily Designed to Be Popular
But as I said, there is no good reason for us to believe that anything else would be the case. Jesus tells us to expect this. From John 15 (NIV): “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." Well, he couldn't be clearer, could he? There are simply no grounds in either Testament that would leave us to believe that friendship with Christ would lead to anything but enmity with the world. In such an environment, what else would the Church do but contract?
Theologically, the call to discipleship/membership is never presented as universal. Jesus says, "The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." However much you may despise Calvinism, there is no denying that there is a group of "the elect," and God is under no compulsion to ensure that this is a robust group of wide acclaim. It is not God's mission to create a body of substance to match our standard of success.
Rather, God rather mysteriously calls His people in His time to accomplish His purposes for His glory. And since the path to destruction is wide, what is the theological path that would lead us to believe that Christ's Church should be substantial?
Historically, we have seen Church attendance ebb and flow. We currently live on the back end of a significant flow, the rise of Church attendance in the wake of post WWII optimism. Remember that the ‘50s were the best of times. That increase gave our nation confidence that the Church would always just be a staple of American civic life. We didn't realize that that period was abnormal, and as modern philosophy seeped into the 60s and beyond, we are simply experiencing the regression to the mean.
Early American history was no religious golden age either. Church attendance was likely much spottier than we think. American civilization was course and crude in the early years and peak attendance was 60%. Great numbers to be sure, but how much of that was social pressures and norms rather than authentic desire to fellowship and desire? And still, there were 40% who bothered not to attend despite that!
When I think about my own congregation, we certainly have our struggles. But we also have a lot going for us which I won't catalog here. And yet, given what we do on a Sunday morning and how we do it, I should not be surprised that we are a small congregation. To your average American, we probably look like we are practicing witchcraft with our fancy garb, pipe organ, and repeated creeds. It's a wonder anyone shows up at all.
And that's the thing. When we are worried about church decline, are we ever thankful for the people that actually are there? Or do we just lament those who are enjoying nightclubs and brunch instead? And consider what is being asked of them, sometimes more callously than at other times: give up your ambition to follow Jesus; give up your money to support the Church’s mission; show up here on a day off and probably another day as well; make new friends in a time when such friendships are unusual and uncomfortable.
Sure, you get spiritual rewards in return: peace, hope, love, joy, and the big one, eternal life with your loving creator and Father. All good things. But they must pale in comparison to the promises of the world.
The headlines of decline are really only the result of an unusual surge in church life after WWII. The headlines, in any sane world, should be screaming something like the following: "In Spite of Stories of Abuse, Regularly Being Asked for Money, Losing the Ability to Sleep In, Being Asked to Live a Moral Upright Life, and Losing Any Real Sense of Personal Autonomy, Millions of Christians Attended Worship Services on Sunday."