A recent thorough survey of religion in America told us something we already knew—by pretty much any measure the number of people engaged with religion is dropping rapidly. The study isn’t with fundamental or even evangelical churches—it cuts broadly across denominations, generations, and social groups, measuring religious interest over multiple decades. And the news isn’t good.
Our natural instinct is to sniff around for a cause and then blame the problem on our personal pet peeves. We end up with contradictory answers:
We’re not culturally engaged enough… or maybe we’re too cultural.
We’re not reaching younger generations… or maybe it’s the juvenalization of the church.
Too traditional in our worship or not traditional enough;
too concerned with politics or not concerned enough;
undereducated or overeducated…
It’s all about what matters most to you.
Which just makes the quandary worse. When the prescribed medicine is just my personal preference, it doesn’t clarify; it just makes the argument louder. I’m going to say that the health of Christianity in the US comes down to people’s lives. But let me get there with three observations.
1) There is no simple explanation.
Remember that time in 2008 when the entire world economy was going to end basically next week? The odd thing was that no one could agree about what was going on, why it happened, and what exactly to do about it. They just knew it was bad.
And do we think that religion will be clearer? It hardly makes sense that a multi-generational demographic shift across multiple groups and denominations is going to have one cause, least of all a simple one. It’s even less likely that you and I know what that is.
So let’s just admit that. Why did Old Testament Israel decline spiritually until they landed in captivity? What went wrong in the early church after 350 AD? What happened to Lutheranism in Germany or grassroots evangelicalism in the UK last century? A lot of things with lots of reasons that historians still don’t agree on. About the best simple cause we can come up with is sin. But you already knew that.
2) It’s not just about numbers and charts.
There’s a tension here. Every pastor ought to want to see his church grow; every believer ought to yearn to reach many lives. But we should also know that charts don’t ultimately prove anything about the health of God’s church. Most of us understand that just because a church is big and glossy with lots of campuses doesn’t mean it’s doing things right. Why then do we reflexively assume that when the church at large is in decline the pastors ought to do something and fast?
We should remember that Jesus’ ministry didn’t make a cultural impact—certainly not during His life. They murdered Him, after all. Some of the best preachers in the history of the church pastored very small churches. There’s even biblical warrant for ministry that is divinely guaranteed to fall flat before it even starts (Isa. 6:10):
“Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
There are lots of things we could do to strategize and reach out. But none of that guarantees extraordinary success. If anything is absolutely clear, it’s that ministerial success is not due to strategically running your church like a successful company.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zech. 4:6).
In other words, failures in ministry ought not to drive us to desperate strategies, throwing accusation grenades over our shoulders or wringing our hands in worry. It ought to drive us instead to the one and only truly transformative strategy—the gospel.
3) I’m responsible for me.
Earlier I commented that only one cause of decline is absolutely clear—sin. I can’t really answer for the decline of the American church at large; I certainly can’t singlehandedly turn it around; nor should I lead my life continually under the burden of saving the nation from religious dystopia. It’s actually much simpler. I should be like Jesus. I’m responsible for me. By the power of the gospel and the truth of His death and life, I should live like He told me to live. There’s plenty of urgency to be found in the life commission I have, no matter where or when I live. For those whose lives I touch, I ought to be like Jesus Christ and speak of Him whenever I can.
We do well to be concerned about the future of the American church. Human beings are passing their lives in rebellion against Jesus’ rightful reign. But there is also cause for tremendous hope. Jesus’ reign was never American and its certainly isn’t limited to that. His kingdom is expanding right now around the globe. And the power of the gospel is the same in North America as anywhere else. Let it change your life first. Then go touch the lives of others. That’s the most transformative thing you can do.