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Is Christianity In America losing ground?

How many times have you caught yourself saying, “I wonder what happened to the Smiths? I haven’t seen them in a while.”
Have you noticed that there just don’t seem to be as many young people in the church as there used to be?
It seems as if Christianity in America is losing ground with each passing year as more churches close their doors and friends fall away. Two recent books speak to the current state of American Christianity.
In “The American Church in Crisis,” David Olson, director of the American Church Research Project, notes that American Christianity is in numerical decline. In a study by the Barna Group, 43 percent of Americans stated that they attended a place of worship in the last week. Other studies, however, indicate that only 23 percent of Americans are “regular participants” at a church, attending church more than once a month. Olson claims, “Seventy-seven percent of Americans do not have a consistent, life-giving connection with a local church.”
There is not a single state in America in which church attendance has kept up with the growth of the population. Mainline churches are declining at an alarming rate, and evangelical churches, while growing, are not growing fast enough to keep up with the expanding population.
Churches from the Restoration Movement are not exempt from these difficulties. Although Stone-Campbell churches have been growing in attendance in 10 states, it is often in places where there have been few churches before. In these states any increase in attendance appears as an unusually large percentage of growth.
If current trends continue, Olson contends, the percentage of Americans attending church in 2050 will be half that of 1990.
Why are fewer people attending church than ever before? In “Quitting Church,” Julia Duin, religion editor for The Washington Times, argues that people are leaving church because of loss of community, unwillingness to reach out to singles, abuses of leadership and lack of spiritual depth. In essence, the church has stopped being the light and has, instead, started blending into the world around it.
For example, Duin argues that many churches have become irrelevant in the 21st century, unable to speak to the needs of believers, especially those in the next generation. If current trends continue, “only 4 percent of America’s teens will end up as Bible-believing Christians,” she writes. Many of these individuals see the church as being out of touch with current reality and unable — or unwilling — to deal with the issues of today. As a result, many simply walk away from church.
A major problem facing American Christianity, according to Duin, is the loss of community. Of the more than 331,000 churches of every denomination in America, only 10 percent of churches have more than 350 members. However, 80 percent of Americans attend megachurches.
“Although most churches are small, most people are in large churches,” Duin writes. Many large American churches have simply become totally depersonalized gatherings where members gather together yet feel utterly lonely. Individuals who find their niche in a ministry or small group are likely to stay, but most individuals never get to this point. As a result, many of these attendees leave church and realize that no one ever notices.
Duin notes that most churches ignore the needs of singles. Although singles are the largest percentage of family units in America, churches often overlook them unintentionally. Singles feel that their own needs and struggles are neglected. They often give up on church as a result.
Churches also neglect the needs of the spiritually mature. Duin contends that preaching and teaching is mediocre — focused on the milk of the basic tenets of Christianity rather than solid spiritual food.
Churchgoers simply feel that they are not gaining any new insight into Scripture. As a result, “Christians cannot exit the obstetrics ward!” Duin argues that we should focus on grounding people deeper in Scripture and biblical teaching if we expect to keep them from sliding out the back door.
The problems that Duin addresses reflect the reasons that she personally walked away from church. Her book often centers on her own personal struggles with church rather than presenting research. Duin also limits her comments to the decline of the charismatic movements.
In essence, Duin argues that even spiritually mature people are simply giving up on church. Although they hold to their faith in God, they have lost their faith in institutional Christianity.
As a campus minister I find it easy to lose hope when confronted with these stories and statistics. It’s tempting to bury my head in the sand and bemoan the state of our contemporary culture. But the real question is, “How can we turn this trend around?”
Olson argues that the best way to avert the crisis is to focus on intentional church planting. Olson dedicates the second half of his book to that topic. Although Olson does not disparage established churches, he points out that it is significantly easier to plant new churches than to revitalize established congregations.
Established churches are comfortable in their practices, and thus many are unable to make paradigm shifts necessary to reach the next generation.
Churches of all denominations have had a net gain of 304 churches per year for the past seven years. To keep up with America’s population growth we must increase that number by 2,900. We have a huge task ahead of us, and the church must step up its church-planting efforts to stay in line with the mission of God and the purpose of the church.
I was disappointed that Olson had no other advice for established churches. He thinks it improbable that established churches can reach unchurched individuals. I disagree. Although their task is more difficult, established churches can play a significant role in reaching the unchurched.
For those who were “formerly churched,” Duin argues that the most important thing churches can do is invite them back. Let them know that they are missed and that the door is always open for their return.
Many simply want to know that they matter and are missed. Furthermore, Duin urges a “Catch-and-Release” ministry. When new people enter the church, plug them directly into a ministry where their talents can be used. People want to feel needed and included; allow them to take ownership of a ministry and build community.
These books are helpful for anybody who thinks, “We must seek to turn the tide.”
The decisions we make now will determine whether our churches can thrive and prosper in the changing American culture or wallow in irrelevance.
May we seek to plant and revitalize churches to become communities where people live out the Kingdom of God.
DANIEL MCGRAW is campus minister for the Hawks for Christ ministry at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. The Southside church in Lawrence sponsors the ministry.

  • Feedback
    When Christians stopped having children the church began its decline. People of denominations, atheists, Muslims, etc continue to have many children the church shrinks as percent of the population. As Christians avoid the Bible the church becomes illiterate and shrinks in numbers.
    As educated people stop having children and the uneducated continue the country becomes less literate. As the workers stop having children and welfare recipients continue, the country becomes a country of takers.
    April, 8 2009

    As a campus Minister myself I agree with most of what is written here. If we are going to stop the decline and start growing again it is clear some things will need to change.
    First, we must reconize that we are shrinking (There is much denial about that).
    Second, we must start reaching out to the lost world with the message of hope we have.
    Third, we must bring our worship services into revelance with our current culture
    (We must stop fighting over likes and dislikes).
    It is true that church planting will be easier and a very effective way to reverse the trend, but it is not the only way. Elderships can reverse the trend of decline if they will return to the method God recommended in Scripture when He instructed His people to repent of their self-direction and self-protection as described in 1 Kings 8:15-53. His promise is the return of favor and blessings. This will allow an existing church to begin to grow again.
    We must remember that it is the Lord’s Church and it is His will we must obey.
    March, 13 2009

Filed under: By The Numbers Staff Reports

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