THE BLOG

Today's Churches... Filling Pews or Filling Hearts?

02/11/2014 12:35 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014

I don't often write about religion because, though it seems paradoxical, religious debates anger and bring the worst out in some people. Unfortunately, I ran across a statistic about churches that intrigued me. The number ended up on a piece of paper next to my desk, and it started to haunt me. I fought it and fought it, but I finally gave up. It is time to discuss the fact that there are about 450,000 churches in America.

As I tried to get a grip on that number, I dug a bit further into the makeup of those 450,000 churches. With the population around 317,500,000 people, there is one church out there for roughly every 700 people. It is estimated that somewhere near 78% of those over age eighteen affiliate themselves with Christian religions. Around 5% associate themselves with other religions, including Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and several others. The remaining 17% or so of the population consists of people with no religious affiliation, including atheists and agnostics. In each of these groups, there are many subcategories, which paint the picture of our melting pot of a country.

Most religions are based on similar ideals that center on loving and reaching out to your fellow man. As I let this simmer a bit, I thought about the impact these 450,000 are making in our country. Many of our social challenges are dealt with by active churches and related organizations. As powerful as that activity is, an unfortunate reality is that many churches confine themselves within their physical walls. They are so busy filling pews and building structures, they forget that is not the mission.

Next, I had to ponder what would happen if all churches focused on one large problem. We often are so overwhelmed with an issue's magnitude that we have trouble starting to work on solving it. Suppose the 450,000 churches in our country decided to end homelessness. It is estimated that nearly 650,000 people in America are homeless. In reality, that figure is probably low because the homeless are difficult to find and count. I understand that homelessness is a complicated problem. Various issues factor into the problem including domestic violence, unemployment, healthcare, addiction, and mental illness. A 450,000-church commitment to ending homelessness could not only nearly end the problem, but it would also have a dramatic impact on those other issues.

Now, let's do some simple math using the above figures. I will use the "old math" that I learned because I am sixty, and I am not even sure what the "new math" is. I always thought math was math. If we divide the 650,000 homeless people among the 450,000 churches, each church would need to help find housing for 1.44 people, which seems simple to me. To carry it one step further, if each church followed up with support for these people and some of their related challenges, the world would change dramatically.

At the rear of the aisles in most churches, you will find one or more sets of twin doors that lead to a vestibule or narthex. Above those doors, building codes require a sign with a lit four-letter word--EXIT. I have always thought that sign is not what should hang above the doors at the end of the aisles in a church. As you leave your chosen church and head out into your community, you should see a sign that reads "SERVICE ENTRANCE." If everyone took that to heart as he or she left church each week, the problems in our country would rapidly become much more manageable.

So, if you are in that 83% of Americans affiliated with one of those 450,000 churches, you need to ask that important question: "Is your church just filling pews, or is it filling hearts?"