Is the American Church in Decline?

Is the Christian church of America in serious decline? Is the modern U.S. church a pitiful representation of the church described in the New Testament, the church Christ died to establish, the church we are called to be?

I believe it is. My colleague, Rod Heggy, believes it is. Our concern for the modern church is one reason Rod and I have launched this blog. We want to have a discussion about the modern American church with any fellow believers who will join us.

Why are we concerned?

• The local church has become a community theater rather than a training center. The congregation is an audience of strangers who come for the show, rather than a community of disciples who come to love and serve.

• The word “worship” refers to a weekend musical event rather than a way of life. Thousands of people crowd into auditoriums to enjoy a good program. No, there is not a thing wrong with music or drama or motivational speaking – but is it worship? Is it church?

• The Bible is a neglected book. One of the most familiar admissions of the modern Christian is, “I know nothing about the Bible. It is a foreign book to me.” How did that happen? What does that say about the effectiveness of the church?

• Churches have become personality cults that revolve around their celebrity pastor (often with a pretty co-host/wife at his side).

• Church leadership has passed from the hands of qualified laypeople, who by their spirituality and example have shown themselves “full of faith and the Spirit” and much needed to shepherd the flock, into the hands of salaried staff members, who by their expertise in business and marketing, know how to lead a church corporation. And this is not entirely the fault of power-hungry pastors. It is also because qualified Christian lay leaders have become so rare. But how did the church leadership shortage happen? What does that say about the effectiveness of the church?

• Conviction? Exhortation? Repentance? Commitment? Discipleship? Are these words in the vocabulary of the modern American Christian anymore? Yes, some preachers speak out against sin – but it is more common (and tickles the ear more) to denounce the sins of the culture rather than the sins of the congregation.

• Missions today no longer means supporting the work of courageous spiritual pioneers who have gone to and become part of a foreign culture. Missions means taking our own kids on yet another trip. We are quite comfortable in saying, “Our kids are the ones who get the most out of it,” without even hearing what that says about our commitment to world evangelism.

• The church is no longer God’s voice in the wilderness, crying out against the emptiness of materialism and earthly pleasure. To the contrary, the attitude of modern churches is: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” The contemporary church gives a wink and an approving nod to the materialistic lifestyle. Rather than teach through example about the simple life, many modern pastors live in greater luxury than most of their members. Indeed, many churches have wedded the gospel and materialism, espousing the repugnant falsehood that Christianity will make you rich.

Yes, of course, the above pronouncements are broad generalizations. There are surely many churches that are exceptions to this jeremiad. But those churches are increasingly hard to find. Many churches, especially the mega-churches, match the above descriptions. Many of the remaining churches are doing everything within their power to follow in their steps.

As a result, church has become an irrelevant, empty exercise. When church is just another form of entertainment, in a culture that inundates us with entertainment from all sides, what’s the point?

Is all of this nothing more than the rant of a man now past 50 who is just taking up the whine of all older generations, pining for “the good old days.” Maybe so. It was less than a generation ago that I was a teenage member of a vibrant church. I remember — from those good old days as well as from more recent church memories — such things as well-attended Sunday School classes, dynamic home Bible studies, prayer meetings, revivals, evangelism programs, and an emphasis on foreign missions.

Church was not just a stop we squeezed into our busy schedules two or three times a month, but a central part of our everyday lives. Back in those days, some people even worried that we spent too much time in church activities. Today we have certainly cured that problem. But can we survive the cure?

I have much more to say on this topic. I couldn’t say it all in one essay, or one hundred. I am sure Rod also has much to share on this subject. We have both devoted our entire lives to the church. And we continue to be active in the church today. It is from a lifetime of church involvement that we now express our disappointment.

What do you think? If you are a believer, this discussion is as much yours as it is ours. Are you frustrated, too? Or would you like to tell me to shape up and get a better attitude? Whatever you think, I really would like to know.

It is true that I am a little older now, but I suspect that I still have a few decades left to make a difference for the Kingdom. As long as I remain, I will continue to love the church and care about it. However, these days, my love for the church feels a lot like heartache.

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