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Steve McSwain

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The Decline of the Church: Will 2012 Be More of the Same?

Posted: 12/29/2011 3:04 pm

I'm always a little amused, but saddened too, by the the church growth and decline reports. Here's one of the most recent reports: "Growing churches continue to grow and declining churches continue to decline," according to the National Council of Churches' 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches. What many of these reports do not say is that the churches that are growing, are simply picking up the members of those leaving the declining churches.

"If the current decline in church attendance were the medical case history of a hospital patient, the diagnosis would read: "Chronically ill; resistant to change; on life support; likely terminal." The church itself is the one institution most in need of the very thing it proclaims to the world -- salvation."

That's an excerpt from "The Enoch Factor: The Sacred Art of Knowing God". There's more. 34 million Americans have given up on organized religion. Yet, for many of these dropouts from churches, synagogues, temples and so on, spirituality is still a vital part of their lives.

As for me, I grew up in the church, the son of a Southern Baptist minister. When I graduated from college, I went to seminary, and after several years of study, I began my career as a professional minister. It wasn't long, however, before I discovered that the church was more lost than the world it was trying to save.

Go into many churches today, for example, and, instead of finding an institution interested in saving the world, what you will likely find is an institution vastly more interested in saving itself.

Without question, the church is desperately ill. I should know. I have worked in literally hundreds of them for the last two decades -- everything from Baptist to Lutheran to Presbyterian to Episcopalian to Methodist to Roman Catholic... you name it. I've been there. What gives some reassurance is that, here and there, I see glimmers of hope like single lights on a string of burned out tree lights, still burning.

The grim fact remains, however, that the overwhelming majority of churches in America are in a major decline mode. In the US alone, more than 35 million people, many former churchgoers, want nothing to do with the church anymore. Yet, if you listen to church leaders, as of course I do, you get a very different interpretation and explanation for the church's decline. The most frequent explanation for the decline is the "secularization" of our culture.

Here's the reality, however. Most people have left or are leaving because of one or all of the following reasons:

1. They are so beyond being told that science is evil and suspect and that things like the Genesis account of creation are to be taken, not as a spiritual explanation for the origin of the universe, but as a scientific explanation. They're also beyond being told what to think, how to live, the choices they must make, and the beliefs they must subscribe to in order to be approved.

2. Many churches are trapped in traditions that have died or are dying along with their aging populations. Traditions are good but, when traditions harden into institutions, as of course they almost always do, the traditions die with the people who cling to them. What's left are like pyramids of what used to be, mere objects to admire for their magnificence and beauty, but hardly for their relevance.

3. Others have left the church, or are leaving, because they've had it with the conflict, the almost incessant bickering, backbiting, disagreements, debates, and, as a consequence, the division that is church life in most congregations today.

4. The church has created a world of make-believe enemies and so has blinded itself to the fact that the church is its own worst enemy. Churches are patently disconnected to reality. It's as if they are no longer "in the world but not of it," as Jesus instructed. Instead, the church is increasingly obsessed with its-self -- its collective ego -- as well as its own survival. In many churches, worship has become the declining weekly gathering of prejudiced, narrow-minded, frightened people who seek temporary solace in their increasingly neurotic preoccupation with matters of little or no consequence. The sane are leaving this insanity.

5. In many respects, the church is still the most segregated place in America. Where I grew up, some 40 or so years ago, most of my neighbors attended, or said they did, the Baptist church my father served. That is, if they were white Baptists; the black Baptists attended their own church. Even though the civil rights movement made a difference in America, it has made little difference still in most churches in America. This, in spite of the fact that, today, your neighbor is just as likely to be black as white or Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or atheist, as Christian. Such is the real world and it's increasingly the-place-of-the-work world, too. So, my suspicion is, people are leaving the church because they've rightly decided it makes more sense to live in the real world -- a desegregated one.

Of course, there are a plethora of other reasons people have left or are leaving the church -- greedy, materialistic leaders, leaders who are sex offenders, leadership that glosses over wrongdoing by church leaders, and the preoccupation of many churches with the end of the world. Unbelievably, there are many churches that are actually praying for and seeking to elect political leaders who wish to usher in the end of the world and hasten the return of Jesus. You've likely noticed the wags on religious television with their endless predictions of the end of the world. I've always found this curious thing and have wanted to ask these people, "if you actually know when the world is going to end and you truly believe it's going to occur at any moment, why would you keep asking people to send you their offerings? Wouldn't you instead be giving away everything in preparation for the end?"

If people used to go to church to find hope, they're leaving the church because many of them are tired of worshiping with neurotic and, in some cases, even psychotic people who have, for all practical purposes, given up on the world. Since their evangelistic efforts have failed to convert the world to Christianity, leaving it is easier. So, while many are leaving the church in hopes of making a difference in the world, many within the church are looking to simply leave the world. What kind of twisted insanity is this?

Now, if you were to conclude from this brief analysis that I've totally given up on the church... well, let me set the record straight. I have not. At least, not yet. I actually hold membership in several churches. I'm a Baptist by upbringing and training and I'm a member of Highland Baptist Church, in Louisville, Kentucky. It's one of those rare -- and I do mean rare -- bright lights. It's a Baptist church that truly seeks to live out the teachings of Jesus. And, because the church does, it has become, among other things, an LGBT friendly church. It is known and respect across the city as truly a Christ-honoring church. What makes it so rare is that the congregation truly seeks to "love enemies," "to do good to those who are evil" and so forth.

I'm also a Roman Catholic by choice, an associate member of the Episcopal church, as well as a member of a local Unity congregation. As I find a light, I seek to unite. I realize how unconventional it is, but it's my way of encouraging them to keep shining, to continue modeling the hard teachings of Jesus. For example, I like the Unity Church's emphasis on spirituality and their positive affirmation of all people regardless of the spiritual path they've chosen to follow.

Yes, I hold out some hope for the church -- a hope that the church will move beyond its collective insanity -- where the interest is only in what separates it from others; where the obsession is, as I describe with The Enoch Factor, the madness of insisting, "We're right! You're wrong!" "We're the chosen ones; you're not!" or "We're in; you're out!" And, instead, affirm and defend all people, whoever they are, whatever spiritual path they've chosen to follow as they seek to discover themselves, connect with Transcendence, know and spread peace and happiness, and live an ethical life.
In the end, what could possibly matter more than this?

 
 
 

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