In every church I have served over these 26 years, people always had the “answer” to church growth. “Pastor, we need you to help us get more people, so they will give offerings to meet budget, and we will be able to afford more programs so that we can keep our doors open.” I am not naïve enough to believe that churches can operate and do great things for God in their communities without money. However, if the solution is stated more people=more money, we are missing the point of church.
One lament among some church folk is, “Why don’t people come to church anymore? What can we do to fill our pews again?” Additionally, judgment is pronounced without discussion: “These godless heathens are being led astray by society—which, incidentally is headed for hell on a bobsled.” “If only people would repent, read the King James Version of the Bible, and pray the sinner’s prayer, only then will they come to their senses.” If only it was that easy…
Being the ultracrepidarian that I am, I will offer a less-than-complete list of reasons I believe that church attendance continues to be in decline. The list is derived from conversations I have had with people and reading I have done.
First of all, many people believe the church has lost its relevancy when it comes to addressing the issues of modern society. In my opinion, this often comes to light when talking about the inerrancy of scripture. Some Christians believe the maxim, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” “That settles it” leaves no room for discussion. If something is “settled,” then the door is slammed shut. That’s all well and good until we run across the discrepancies and contradictions that occur in scripture—e.g. two entirely different creation stories. There are too many to go into in this post. The Bible is not a science book, nor is it a chronological history book. I was taught in catechism that it is a theological history—a history of God’s working in and through the lives of people and how they interpreted and understood God’s actions.
Some Christians are all too apt to slam the door rather than taking time to consider the context and culture—the sitz im leben (one of my seminary phrases which is German for “setting in life.”) The Bible, while definitely full of timeless truths and the word of God, was written in a different time, in a very different part of the world, by people who knew little about the world beyond their own country. Besides all that, the scriptures were written decades and generations after the scenes and stories they describe! Before being written down, the stories were passed on to future generations in the oral tradition—yes, they told the stories over and over.
We pastors have a very holy task when preaching and teaching the scriptures. If we pretend to have all the answers, or that the Bible has all the answers of modern society, people who desire to know about God and are seeking guidance may be turned off by pat answers. Rather than being told you must believe this way or you are screwed, many people are looking for places and people with whom to delve into the big questions of life. If they encounter judgment for not buying it all—hook, line, and sinker—the chances of them stepping away from the institutional church increases exponentially.
It does not have to be that way. When a community of faith runs on grace, mercy, and forgiveness, as well as the realization we are pilgrims together on the journey, people feel more inclined and encouraged to stay and explore the questions of life together. (DISCLAIMER: There are people who want to be told what to believe and what they have to do. There are churches that are fine to do just that!)
Secondly, some people are turned off by church because of the hypocrisy they witness from Christians. In other words, the church does not practice what it preaches. Church folk are singing the right songs, paying the right amount of offering, quoting the right scriptures, and saying the right things. However, the actions of some church folk Monday through Saturday does not remotely resemble Sunday’s image.
The Bible says God made us caretakers and stewards over creation. What people see is the raping, plundering, and pillaging of the planet for the comfort and financial gain of the few. The Bible says we are to welcome the stranger and foreigner, care for the poor, and befriend the friendless. People see Christians making excuses for villainizing the immigrants, the poor, and other religions. The Bible says all human beings are created in the image of God and are therefore beloved by God. There are no exceptions listed.
Some Christians have taken on the role of the “Heavenly Hall Monitor” to determine who is worthy to be a child of God. The monitors of heaven’s hallways omit those who worship differently, vote differently, love differently, and believe differently. These attitudes are enough to keep many people away. Can we blame them? Who wants to put up with that judgmental crap when they are trying to find their place in God’s grand design?
Thirdly, there are people who stay away from some churches because of the belief by some that the United States is God’s favorite child. The funny thing is, God had not even heard of the U.S. until 245 years ago. While America was founded on the principles that ALL people should have freedom of religion, all of the founding fathers were not Christians. (I kid you not.) God is not now, nor has God ever been, an American. The God of the Bible is the God of all people and nations. The Bible says that. Some people are resistant to the idea that we live in a global village where everything every country does impacts the world. That resistance, does not mean it isn’t true. This one earth is all we get, and it is ours to share.
What people see today who are on the outside looking in at the church, are Christians who support candidates and policies that are not only unbiblical, but also unchristian. Some politicians are supported by big denominations, religious leaders, and religious special interest groups. Some of these politicians behave in blatantly unchristian ways—name calling everyone who disagrees with them, lying to people’s faces, mocking handicapped individuals, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, megalomania, etc. Christians line up behind these folks wearing Jesus on their sleeves and waving the American flag!? People see well-meaning Christians supporting a pro-life movement that seems to be more pro-birth. After these babies are born, there is no one to adopt or care for them. Instead, it is becoming more and more difficult for their parents and guardians to receive needed help. Sadly, many people look in and wonder how can we support people and policies that are so far from the Biblical mandate for caring for others.
When asked what motivates people to start going to church, or to go back, many say they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be a part of a community that brings people together, rather than furthering the divisions that exist. They want to be part of a community of faith that heals and helps those with needs and who are hurting. They want to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. (Matthew 25) They want to build bridges of love and tear down walls of hate. In other words, in addition to hearing the right words and putting on their Sunday best, they want to make a difference in the world Monday through Saturday. They want to know how to live like Jesus and not just talk the churchy talk.
Even though I am an ultracrepidarian, I do not have all the answers–only some of them. If I did have the answers, I would write a book and retire—not from work, but from being an ultracrepidarian. In the meantime, my modus operandi will be acting in the love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness of Christ. Yes, I pray to be more like him, but I more fervently pray to see the Christ in others. God bless us all!