When we get up on Sunday morning and drive to church, do we ever consider the health of our church? We expect it to be there, week in and week out, doors open, temperature set just right, music planned out, sermon prepared within the time allowed so that we can get in and then get on our way. Church in America is comfortable, consistent, pre-planned and delivered in a tidy package each week to the faithful. Deviate from that organized delivery model and church leaders will hear about it in no uncertain terms. Regular complaints include temperature, too hot or cold, music too loud or too contemporary and of course the pastor went too long with his sermon. Overall these are not seen as problematic, sort of the usual stuff, but how is the health of our churches in America?
There are two standards to be considered, attendance and spiritual well-being, one of which should be easy to gather but the other is not something that can be measured. Of course, most would agree if spiritual well-being is thriving then attendance will be the first place to reflect it. That should go both ways, at least in logical consideration, but that is up for debate. In any case, let’s start with the numbers which are not as easily found as you would hope. Gallup is a well known and respected polling institution that addresses just about every aspect of life in America as we know it, from business to entertainment, politics, and religion. According to the numbers from a Gallup* telephone survey in 2017, of a random sampling of about 1,000 Americans nationwide, interviewers ask respondents questions such as, “In the last seven days, did you attend a church service, excluding weddings and funerals?” to determine their church-going habits. From this survey, 40 percent responded yes, which would indicate nearly 130 million people attended church last Sunday in America. However, according to a more in-depth research study conducted by the Evangelical Covenant Church, taking data from over 200,000 orthodox Christian churches over the past 10 years, the actual number of people in a pew each Sunday in America is closer to 52 million, nowhere near the numbers that Gallup would extrapolate from their random samples. More troubling is the overall percentage this represents, basically 17 percent of America goes to church each week. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but at the surface, they do not speak well for the spiritual well-being of our congregations or for the outreach efforts from the church.
Our one true calling that speaks to all Christians is the great commission given by Jesus Christ in Matthew chapter 28 – to go and make disciples of all nations. Period. That is our calling, yet across America, our churches are not reflecting this in their attendance numbers. The reasons are many but let’s take a few examples from some of those best suited to address this troubling issue.
As president of the Bridgeleader Network, David Anderson, senior pastor and founder of Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Maryland., has consulted with church leaders nationwide. In his work, he has observed a noteworthy and troubling trend within the mid-sized congregations across the country. He has found more than half the mid-sized congregations have lost or unintentionally turned away from their evangelistic focus, and instead adopted what he calls a “club mentality.”
He explains it like this, “You have just enough people not to be missional anymore. You don’t have to grow anymore to sustain your budget.” They hit that comfortable sweet spot where needs are no longer driven by growth. They’ve arrived so to speak.
That is a dangerous place to be, just big enough to comfortably pay the bills but not so big that you have problems making room for more classes, additional services, and all the issues that come with growth.
Thom Ranier, CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, gives this example, “We have become so comfortable and complacent with the way we do church that we don’t want any outsiders to mess it up. In other words, we will fight for the precise worship style or carpet color we want, but we will yawn at the thought of our neighbors going to hell.”
Let that sink in for a moment…
When the church embraces its own sovereign space, celebrating within the comfortable confines of its own creation, surrounded by a like-minded social circle, they stop reaching out, instead choosing to focus inwards. It becomes the responsibility of those on the outside to find their way in – while the church turns its energy towards social justice, no longer testifying to the love of their creator, replaced instead with a spirit of protest to all that is wrong in the world. Isolated inside this bunker of truth, they lose sight of their one true calling – to share the love of Jesus with a lost world.
The church today is not silent, in fact, speak of abortion and organizations like Planned Parenthood and you’ll have plenty of church members ready to speak out. But is that our true calling, to beat the drum in the name of social justice? That’s not to say the church should avoid speaking out, but the priority of our mission seems to be lost in the shuffle. If Christians embraced their duty as missionaries in daily life, demonstrating and sharing the good news of our Savior, think of the impact that would have on these other social issues. Life Beyond Horizons conducted an unscientific review of social media posts made by various religious organizations and individuals that our team tracked over a 6 month period across several popular social media platforms and what we found speaks volumes. From our sample of posts that referenced religion, 64 percent spoke about social justice and/or church persecution, ranging from abortion to freedom of religion to various behaviors seen as encroachment on church values, while 32 percent were uplifting messages of happiness found in religion, the Bible, or in Jesus, most specifically, how to feel better or how to become more empowered. The remaining 4 percent were prayer requests for individuals or groups. In all of these posts, do you see what is missing? We did not find one single message on social media that called to the lost with a message of salvation. Not one single message of salvation, either from an individual or an organization that we tracked. Are we afraid of offending someone? (Read our message What are you afraid of? for more on this issue) What if we fought for lost souls just as hard as we fight for the unborn child? What if we trusted in Jesus and believed in our hearts that He truly is the miracle worker, then set our priorities towards salvation first? Imagine saving the lost and the impact that would have on our social issues. If you follow what I’m saying, I believe you will see that salvation trumps everything else. Answer this question, do you think we fight for change in an effort to make this world more palatable for our own existence? We don’t like being uncomfortable, so we stand up for change, we want to protect our right to religious freedom so we can worship in the way we choose – but why? If we are not serious about reaching the lost by explaining our own salvation story, sharing how Jesus died for our sins so that we can have atonement through his sacrifice, if that isn’t our passion, then I say religious freedom does not matter.
What many have come to realize is the church in America has become complacent, or what we would define as a “comfort zone” type of Christianity. While speaking up for the unborn is very important, as are many other social issues that go against the moral values that we hold dear, we need to take a step back and look at our priorities, both as individuals and as congregations. Do we care about outreach, serious outreach, not just follow up emails to visitors that took the time to fill out a card on Sunday morning? Do we think our nice facilities or location in the community are the best outreach? As Thom Ranier said, “we became so enamored with the worship service we concluded that it was our outreach. But cool and dynamic worship services are not outreach into our communities. They are attractions to attend.” It is similar to a church that thinks its prime location, such as being right off the town square, somehow equates to outreach. It’s not like the premise of the movie “Field of Dreams” with its catchphrase, “if you build it, they will come.” If that were the case, how do you explain the 83 percent of America that sleeps in every Sunday morning? Do we really yawn at the thought of our neighbors going to hell? Honestly, I wonder how many people in the church actually believe that hell exists?
I engaged in a conversation not long ago with someone that did not agree with my concerns, namely that the church as a whole is failing in preparing and sending forth its members to witness, and he used a very popular “mega-church” in the Houston area as an example. He cited the massive crowds and even larger television audience as proof that the church is thriving. My reply, if that’s the best example you have, you just helped make my case that the church in America is dying. You see, it’s not all about numbers, and his example is a church of what I call “feel good evangelism” or the prosperity faith that has dominated our TV airwaves for decades. (Read our message – “The False Doctrine of Prosperity Faith” for more about this dangerous doctrine). Yes, I’m speaking of the Joel Osteen ministry, the “how to be your best self” and “how to be happy in life” doctrine. His church attendance by some estimates is in the thousands each week with a television audience purportedly in the millions. I pointed out that if you listen to his message or read his books, you will notice that Jesus is largely missing, its focus is on personal happiness while avoiding talk of sin or the consequences. This church, and many others that model after this so-called doctrine is described to us in 2 Timothy chapter 4, verse 3,
For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear.
Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, an undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, recently shared this regarding the ministry of Joel Osteen. “Joel Osteen has all the marks of a sincere person. I just finished watching the profile of his ministry on 60 Minutes, and there is not one thing about him that looks phony. He is one of the most likable, loveable fellows that you’ll ever see. I really think he believes everything he is saying. That is why what he does is so awful. The prosperity gospel that Osteen preaches will damn the very people he intends to help (if they believe it), and he appears completely unaware of the darkness into which he plunges his followers. Osteen’s lack of awareness of his own blindness was prophesied in the scriptures: ‘Evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived’ (2 Timothy 3:13). If anyone has ever been deluded by his own error, it’s Joel Osteen.”
To sum it up, not only is the church in America in decline, we see ministries around us filling the void with a message that distorts or outright deceives believers and unbelievers alike. Regarding the prosperity message and being your best self, listen to what Jesus says in Matthew chapter 16, verses 24 through 26,
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it. For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life?
There is nothing wrong with being happy, but in the context of Christian faith, we find true happiness through dedication and perseverance. If we are led to believe that happiness is found in worldly possessions or by putting ourselves and our own well-being first, we are being deceived because this message runs in direct opposition to the teaching of our Lord. Jesus warned us that we will be hated for his sake, life as a true believer in Christ comes with the promise that you will be persecuted for your faith, but we have the added assurance that Jesus will not forsake us and one day we will be together with Him in glory.
Matthew chapter 7, verses 13 and 14 states,
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Do you have the assurance of salvation today, knowing in your heart that you have accepted the free gift of salvation that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ? If not, please don’t wait for the “right time” to make that decision, reach out to us right now with your questions or concerns and let us help you gain that blessed assurance that you have been redeemed.
Romans chapter 10, verses 9 and 10 give us the following guidance to salvation,
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.
To the faithful, are you evangelizing according to our shared calling from Jesus? If you truly believe that you have been saved through grace, that Jesus Christ died for all sinners, then step up and share that message! The world is lost and we are the light, but if we hide that light under a bushel then what good are we? Share the gospel, as Charles Spurgeon exhorted, “anywhere and everywhere!” Make sure that you are doing your part and if needed call out your church to do the same. Is your congregation actively involved in true outreach in your community? If not, or if you’re not sure, ask the question and push for real outreach. It’s not a hobby, it is a direct order from our Savior. We should feel anguish in our hearts to know that narrow is the gate and few will find it. Get involved, don’t wait for someone else to take up the charge, follow our Lord’s instructions and lead the way.
John Stephen Frey is the author of this message and serves as our director emeritus and member of the prayer team
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*data for this post taken from churchleaders.com, article dated April 10, 2018, titled “7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America”
**additional statistics from Lifeway Christian Resources, Evangelical Covenant Church research project 2017 and Gallup.