I recently read two different articles that revealed some shocking numbers about the state of Christianity, especially in America. Christianity Today recently reported that “Around two-thirds of people who usually attend church at least monthly said they were back in the pews in March (67%), roughly the same as in September 2021 (64%)” (source). That means that a third of church-goers who attended before Covid had not yet come back last September and this hasn’t changed up through last month either.
In addition, the American Bible Society recently shared that people are reading their Bible significantly less than before. “In 2022, Bible users in the U.S. accounted for just 39% of the adult population, the lowest in more than a decade” (source). They refer to this as an “unprecedented drop.” The numbers show that people are attending church less and reading their Bible less.
I have a few thoughts as to why.
- Covid showed many people they didn’t miss going to church on the weekend. Some pastors have suggested the declining attendance numbers show who were the most committed Christians all along. I don’t think that’s it. I think many Christians were in the habit of attending worship services regularly until Covid changed their weekly rhythm. Then it seems many of them concluded they didn’t miss much by not attending anymore and decided they didn’t need to come back.
- Until the church collectively decides to hold itself accountable, people will hold the model accountable by opting out. There continue to be more and more examples of pastoral abuse at the highest levels and yet there’s little conversation about how our current model might be designed to produce this outcome. Guys like John MacArthur have no business having spiritual credibility or leading a church after repeatedly abusing others and covering up abuse. Yet he and Mark Driscoll and countless others continue to find “success.” How many examples of pastoral abuse in large churches do we need before we decide there’s a problem?
- Most Christians seem unwilling to change or even explore their theological opinions and they base this on what (they think) the Bible says. Therefore, if someone finds these ideas ridiculous (such as the evangelical obsession with Trump) they are less inclined to want to read the Bible for themselves. If it appears that reading the Bible makes a person hateful, or hyper-nationalistic, or angry, or judgmental toward the gay community… then why would more people be interested in reading it for themselves if they don’t want to become those things?
- Keeping a church institution alive is not a reason to keep a church institution alive. I sometimes get weird looks from pastors when I say this, but an unhealthy church can be one of the primary sources of damage to the Kingdom of God. I think it’s time for many unhealthy churches and models to die so that something new can be born in their place. You don’t get resurrection without death first.
While each of these on this list is a significant problem, each of them also presents an opportunity.
- It’s time to redesign the church away from the weekend gathering. Church on Sundays isn’t creating Jesus-looking Christians across the board. Neither are the common metrics we celebrate of baptisms and attendance numbers. And the weekend service doesn’t seem to meet a need for people like it used to either. What does it take for people to actually act and think more like Jesus? Let’s do that. I think we should enter a season of ministry experimentation. We don’t need to cancel the weekend service just yet but I would be aggressively trying a lot of other things as well.
- It’s time to acknowledge we’ve built a model that tends to platform narcissists and creates imbalances of spiritual power. I don’t see any other healthy way forward than by decentralizing power and authority in the church. Bigger and bigger is breaking down. We need to find healthier ways for church communities to grow without over-relying on specific people.
- It’s time to ask more questions and be less certain of the ways in which we understand God. Just because you were raised with a theology that made sense to you doesn’t mean future generations will agree. We need to create more room for questions and less of an obsession with certainty. Let’s explore Jesus in the Bible together and see if some of our traditionally held theologies might need to be revisited. We need to get comfortable learning and growing and changing our minds as we experience Jesus in new ways. If it appeared that reading the Bible actually made a person more like Jesus then a lot more people would be interested in reading the Bible.
- It’s time to let go of models and institutions that have outlived their service to the Kingdom. A severely unhealthy church must be radically rebuilt or it should be closed. When we operate with a bizarre need to never let something fail we reveal our own insecurities and lack of trust in the Jesus who makes all things new. Conversely, when we make space for old methods to die we make room for a fresh breath of the Spirit in its place.
“It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.” Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic ImaginationThe numbers show that people are attending church less and reading their Bible less. Let's talk about why. Click To Tweet
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