The Decline of Churches in America
There are churches failing all over America…and that may be a good thing. I am not rejoicing in the death of a church. It is always painful to see a congregation that people once loved close its doors. But I have noticed these final breaths of a church often follow years of sputtering started by a simple ailment. Leaving the straightforward pure Bible behind in favor of other goals is most often the root cause. The something else to pursue could be social justice, being a social club, or supporting a candidate. It could even be growth and evangelism focused on that church. It really doesn’t matter the justification offered. The big issue is they leave the Word of God. For a discussion of the Perils of the Social Justice Gospel, click here.
If churches are defined by being about Jesus, His Body and His Word, what should happen when this occurs? If the Body of Jesus stops preaching Jesus, it seems appropriate for it to no longer to be considered a church, right? Perhaps these churches fading away is exactly what should happen once they lost their first love?
There are many churches in my suburban town. The main route has one on just about every corner. They are from all the big denominations. These great stone structures and white clapboard beauties have hosted thousands of believers over the years. If you walk down Main St, it looks like the town is thriving in the Lord. This is far from the truth.
The majority of these lovely buildings are all but empty on a Sunday morning. Built in a different time, they are shells of their former glory. A small handful of older folks who attend faithfully are all that is left of once thriving communities. It is worse in the major city nearby. There are great, empty church buildings crumbling into decay all over that city. There is no one there to even care about the structure much less attend the church. If they are lucky, the building gets sold and turned into a condo association. The rest of the structures rot away as time and neglect take their toll.
The few prominent churches that are still physically alive are perhaps in even worse shape spiritually. They have living people but are far away from what God called them to do. Where once they preached the Gospel boldly, they are now not much more than social clubs or political actions groups. They avoid all of the hard subjects like sin, death or sanctification. Those issues would offend people and they need money to keep up the buildings.
As I look around my town and see these churches slowly decline and fade away, it is so easy to get discouraged. What happened to these once Spirit-filled congregations? There had to be something there once, right? Where did these churches go wrong?
Put simply, they stopped preaching Jesus and Him crucified as the center of their world.
2000 Years of the Same Temptation
The churches lost their true mission in this world. It is not to bring local businesses together or even feed the poor. These are expected results of a healthy church not the core of its meaning. The church is about Jesus and Him Crucified. It is so easy to lose sight of this truth. Paul warns the Galatians about the same temptation 2000 years ago:
The Galatians replaced the Gospel of Jesus with a different gospel based upon works. Since it is a gospel based on anything other than Jesus and Him Crucified, it was a false gospel. The modern version of this temptation is not based in the Law like with the Galatians, but it is no less toxic. It may be the be a good person gospel, the fix the world gospel, the social justice gospel or the don’t offend anyone gospel – the main point is it replaces the Gospel of Jesus with something else and suffered the results. As soon as we stop preaching the Risen Lord, we lose access to His power to fuel our churches. Man’s power wanes over time. The Holy Spirit never tires out. For an example of religion that lost sight of God, see Are We Serving an Empty Temple?
From Thriving into Ruin
There is an old story that perfectly illustrates the progression that takes place from a thriving Jesus loving Body of Christ to a crumbling ruin:
Let every pulpit rightly say, “we preach Christ crucified!”
A strong church once inscribed these words on an archway leading to the churchyard. Over time, two things happened: the church lost its passion for Jesus and His gospel, and ivy began to grow on the archway.
The growth of the ivy, covering the message, showed the spiritual decline. Originally it said strongly, we preach Christ crucified. But as the ivy grew, one could only read we preach Christ, and the church also started preaching “Jesus the Great Man” and “Jesus the Moral Example” instead of Christ crucified.
The ivy kept growing, and one could soon only read, we preach. The church also had even lost Jesus in the message, preaching religious platitudes and social graces. Finally, one could only read we, and the church also just became another social gathering place, all about we and not about God.
How many churches are in the “We Preach” or “We” stages today? How many of their congregants are confused why no one new has attended in 20 years?
We preach Christ crucified! It is amazingly simple yet powerful. It is the message of salvation to Jew and Gentile. It is a message so simple that even a child can understand it. It is a message so deep that we can spend a lifetime proclaiming it and still only scratch the surface.
It is the Gospel of Jesus. It is the message that is foolishness to those who are perishing but what is it to those being saved?
It is the very power of God.
If a church believes in the message then nothing can stop it. It has the power of God on its side. This is the belief that built those great buildings that are now crumbling.
If it doesn’t believe the message, then no amount of sermonizing or fancy programs can help. It will wither away and decline. The world always has something more interesting to offer than dead, powerless, place-holding religion.
New Life Springing Up Everywhere
If you explore my town a little further you will find a curious thing. Once you get past the great but sparsely attended churches that dot the main street you will find something fascinating. In schools, old catering halls, community centers, and even old funeral homes you will find growing groups of believers who are on fire with the love of the Lord. They speak all different languages, can be rough around the edges and don’t have a huge national structure behind them. Their grand history goes back a year and they pay their rent month by month. There are no endowments involved but they worship the Lord with fervor. They love and believe on His Word. They preach His Gospel. The Gospel may be in a simpler form than that given by the guy in the clerical robes with a Masters in Divinity, but they unapologetically believe it and proclaim with all their hearts. There is a big difference. It is the very power of God on display. They are Born Again in Christ, an amazing miracle of God.
Benjamin Franklin used to love to listen to the great evangelist, George Whitfield. Franklin did not believe the Bible so him regularly attending a Christian preacher proclaiming Jesus was a curious thing to those around him. Franklin admitted that he did not believe what Whitfield was saying. He just loved watching him preach because it was obvious that Whitfield knew it was true. He believed it and it was therefore wonderful to behold. Franklin could see the power of God on display even if he himself could not bring himself to submission.
Is the Church Dying?
What is the church? From great cathedrals to ancient stables, it has always been the people who are on fire for Jesus. From George Whitfield to the local pastor who meets at a Kiwanis Hall for church, they are Jesus’ sheep. They always hear His voice. This Body is growing at a rapid pace even as some church buildings decay and fall. The buildings never mattered anyway. Our Lord was born in a stable. I don’t think He cares much about the building.
So should I despair when the great churches of the past fall or are hollow imitations of what they once were? Sure, to some extent it is sad what has happened to once faithful churches. But the Church is always so much more than the building or a specific denomination.
The gates of hell have not come close to prevailing against God’s church and never will. God is not being defeated when old churches decline. He is just bringing in His harvest from a different area. The place where His power is on display is where His harvest will be.
It is all going according to God’s plan. Even when things look like they are falling apart they are just falling into place.
Do we trust Him?
Love to all,
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