Ken Myers, the founder of Mars Hill Audio, once said in his Epiphany Lectures that he does not like to be prophetic. By prophetic, he does not mean that he has been given some special word from God similar to that of the Old Testament prophets. He is not claiming a “Thus says the Lord,” type of truth. Rather, he is arguing that he sees a problem in the area of music, and presents a seemingly unpopular theological view about this topic to his audience. I can relate to Myers’s sentiment about being prophetic, and yet, I seek to be prophetic in this blog post. My article seeks to look at the current trends about the church in America, and propose that pastors need to think about and discuss this topic more deliberately in order to prepare for the future.
Current Decline in Attendance
The church in America is declining. Statistics are indicating–like those at the Pew Research Center–a downward spiral of both professing believers and church attendees. People are less committed to a local church, and those who are committed are attending less and less. The reasons for such a decrease are numerous, and in some ways, unknowable. One factor for the decrease in numbers is due to the increase in people who are identified as “Religious ‘Nones.'” “Religious Nones” are people unaffiliated with any form of religion or religious organization. The rise of this group reveals a telling truth: the impact of the church in our American society is weak at best, and non-existent at worst, therefore, we are not reaching people with the gospel.
If you will permit me, I would like to make a brief observation about what has been called “Cultural Christianity.” Many believers think America used to exist as a Christian culture. I have argued that America has never been truly Christian, but rather existed as a culture that attempted to live out Judeo-Christian values on a societal level. The church used to be the social construction of society, but many people attended church to “save face,” or build on their relational connections. Therefore, many people in these eras seemed to be “Cultural Christians,” Christians out of cultural obligation, instead of actual Christians. When new ideologies started to pop up in culture like the Sexual Revolution, a new way of thinking was introduced and “Cultural Christianity” began to wane because a new way of life was being not only permitted, but also adopted. Today, Cultural Christianity is nearly obsolete, and a new way of life has been adopted by American society so that people can identify as a “Religious None” without fear of societal degradation.
The rise of the “Religious None,” and I don’t mean that to sound negative, indicates that it will take the church longer to reach this group with the gospel. As Mike Breen once said to me in his huddle, “Christians will have to disciple people before reaching them with the gospel.” To put it another way, many Americans do not have a foundation of biblical knowledge in which a witness can draw on in order to point them to Christ. Believers living in a post-Cultural Christianity will have to explain terms, the biblical narrative, and other truths about Christianity in order to point people to Christ as the only means to be forgiven and saved. The consequences of this cultural reality portray that it will take longer to see people come to Christ, and the time needed to reverse the decline will not necessarily be a quick fix.
Current Decline in Finances
Have you ever played the game “Wack-A-Mole?” When you play this game, you hit a mole with a padded hammer and another one or sometimes two moles raise their silly heads to be hammered down quickly by the gamer. This same concept applies to the church. The decline in attendance and the rise of people who are growing away from any form of religion means that the local church will take a financial hit. If it takes longer to reach people with the gospel, it will take longer to disciple people towards biblical giving as well. Plus, many pastors are already experiencing a decline in giving according to this article in the Christian Post. Smaller churches, which make up the majority of my denomination, are also currently burdened by financial crises. In other words, the current financial decline already exists in many local churches.
Many factors seem to be contributing to the financial decline. Of course, attendance is down and this reciprocates into a decline in tithing. People are not giving to charitable organizations including religious entities like in the years past. Some generations who were faithful tithers are beginning to pass away, and the generations replacing them are so steeped in various forms of debt they couldn’t give even if they had a desire towards Christian generosity. While Christians struggle to influence the American culture, the church in America is increasingly struggling to maintain the massive overhead that “Culture Christianity” produced.
A Possible Way Forward
Pastors should be noting these current trends, and possibly rethinking ministry for the future of the church in America. At a minimum, this post should encourage discussion, but also cause us to think of ways to influence an increasingly anti-Christian culture with the gospel in the days to come. I would like to provide you with two possible ways forward:
First, think of ways to reduce the church’s overhead now. Every church is different so this thought will have many implications. Pastors should think about leading their churches towards being debt free in order to reduce the budget overhead and free up money for missional purposes. While finances may be strong, get rid of debt fast. Also, churches that are growing or running out of space should consider only building or renovating in a debt-free mentality. A church may be growing, but one decision or economic disaster could take a church of 200 down to 100 almost instantly. Just because the attendance or tithes decrease does not mean the bank will decrease the loan amount each pay period as an extension of economic grace. In fact, they won’t. Therefore, the loan amount gets spread to less people, and will financially hurt the church and their outreach in the long run. Churches should consider some of the thoughts outlined by Francis Chan in his book, Letters to the Church. Maybe one way to reduce overhead is to get rid of the church buildings all together and look more like the church in the book of Acts–meeting together in homes and reaching people in closer proximity.
Second, and here is me being prophetic, maybe pastors should prepare to become “tent-makers” in the future (cf. Acts 18:3). Tent-makers are pastors who work a full-time job and are either part-time or volunteers at a local church. When I type those sentences it really hurts as a pastor who gave up a stable career and earned two (almost three) theological degrees in order to think about getting out of “full time vocational ministry.” If you are church member, it might bother you to think that your pastor might have to give up full time ministry in order to support his family, the church, and reach more people with the gospel. However, the reality of the declining numbers may demand this possible future for pastoral ministry. Therefore, maybe pastors should start thinking about what type of careers they can work in order to embrace this consistent downward trend and create more time to spend with unbelievers.
One truth we should walk away with is that God is still sovereign. Yes, we may note the trends and think about how these declining numbers may impact the future of the church in America. Pastors, church leaders, and church members should think about and discuss what measures need to be taken in order to sustain a gospel presence in the American culture. However, our planning should never circumvent our need for prayer. May we pray that God would open the pathway to another spiritual awakening in America, and the Holy Spirit will bring people to Christ in droves. May the church be ready to disciple them faithfully according to God’s Word in order to strengthen the church’s resources to reach more people for the glory of God.