It's no secret that the Church is in decline. People are leaving or just not showing up in the first place. Mainline congregations are disappearing, and even the bulwark that was conservative evangelicalism seems to be on the downhill slide. What's going on?
I've read or heard all sorts of answers to this question, and I think most of them are valid. They range from arguments pointing to the injustice of an institution that insists on preserving crumbling buildings while ignoring hungry children, to the ignorance of an institution that ignores widely held, modern scientific beliefs in favor of antiquated worldviews that were never really intended to be what modern science is, to the irrelevance of a an institution that claims love and forgiveness as its core virtues yet often promotes intolerance. I've heard others answer such questions by claiming that the real problem is liberalism/conservatism, a distancing from "old time religion," or the melding of religion and politics. There are an awful lot of attempts to answer the question of contemporary, American church decline, but it seems all of them are "big idea" attempts, answers aimed at some grand issue that lies outside of the actual walls of a church building, answers aimed at those in charge or those who are easy to target. I have a different theory, and while I think it in some ways touches on some of the previously offered answers, I think it's something we've all largely ignored.
You see, I think what's really wrong with the Church can be observed by a casual drive through any town in America (especially the South). Take where I live for example, you can drive in any direction, and you are going to run into a church...then another church...and then another church...and then another church...And here's the thing, they all look a little different, maybe they even have different names or titles on the sign out front, but most of them are practically the same. In the county where I reside there are just over 117,000 people and about 475 churches (according to the Yellow Pages). If I do my math right, that's about 246 residents for every church...but you and I both know that's not how it works.
There are a few mega-churches in our county (with close to or over 1,000 in attendance for Sunday morning services), a few "medium-sized" churches with between 100-300 people (I serve one of those congregations), but by far the majority of those 475 churches have fewer than 50 people in attendance on Sunday mornings (with many of them averaging less than 30). What that translates to is an "over-churched" population, a county with more churches than it can actually sustain. This is not a unique situation; in fact, it seems to be the norm.
Why are there so many churches? Why are there more churches starting every month? Well, that seems to be a complicated question...at first. Some will say that there are so many churches because they started in a time when those communities were small, and travel was difficult. I can buy that, but that's not the case anymore. Some will say new churches start because there are people who "aren't being reached" by other churches. Ok. But do those people really want another church? Are they looking for more of the same thing they offer down the street? I think the real reason there are so many churches and more churches are popping up is quite simply a lack of accountability and conversation--and not on the part of the clergy!
Think about it like this: a church member hears something the pastor says in a sermon and immediately decides he/she doesn't like what he/she has just heard. A few weeks later, this same church member decides he/she doesn't like that there's a new ministry beginning focusing on an area/topic/people group of which he/she doesn't approve. These kind of things happen, and this particular church member decides to withhold his/her tithe and eventually decides to leave the church altogether. Why? Because there's another church down the road that does things the way he/she likes
Or what about this scenario: A family decides they don't like the new pastor of their church. The new pastor spends too much time focused on missions, social issues, pastoral care, or whatever issue this family deems unimportant. So they decide to leave, or to rally enough support through whatever means necessary to remove the new pastor and replace him/her with someone who will do the things they believe are important.
A final scenario involves some of these same kinds of folks, but instead of leaving for another church or pressuring the pastor to leave, they form their own church, with their own, specific values.
This is what is wrong with the Church. Disagreement, conversation, accountability, growth are all non-existent because churchgoers can simply walk away from anything that makes them uncomfortable and jump on-board with anything suits their tastes. Conversations are practically extinct inside the congregation, yet they are thriving on the web and in the unofficial gathering places of church members (i.e. the barber shop, the grocery store, etc.). We have created a church culture that tells churchgoers that "I'm not being fed" is a reasonable excuse to leave a congregation even if they've never so much as tried to "chew the spiritual food" they've been served.
This "cafeteria" approach to congregational life has created a lot of little churches with insulated individuals who all see the church as their sanctuary from different opinions. It has also led to mega churches with such generic forms of Christianity-lite or ultra-cultural politics that no one's position is ever really challenged to the point of actual growth.
Over time, this has led to a decline in church attendance because people who are coming to our churches looking for something challenging, something real, something divine, are instead finding buildings filled with people who don't know how to struggle with answers to hard questions, or worse yet, they find people who aren't willing to ask hard questions.
So what do we do? Can we really do anything in a culture created by cafeteria Christianity? As a pastor, I hope we can, but I know it is not easy. Churchgoers do not like hard questions; they don't like their equilibrium disturbed. Churchgoers tend to fear questions like "Why?" That's why I think we who are called as clergy need to begin asking those questions.
We need to be open to controversy and conversation, and perhaps more than anything, we need to stop being afraid of numbers. Asking hard questions will inevitably cause those who value their spiritual comfort over their spiritual growth to leave. We have to be able to deal with that. As congregations, we need to allow hard questions to be asked. We need to look at ourselves and understand that we might be guilty of being insulated echo chambers, with a little too much of a social club atmosphere. As members of congregations, we need to be willing to wrestle with discomfort and not simply take our money and our membership down the road to the next church that'll be just like we want.
If we can all do that, if we can all make room for actual, spiritual, world-changing growth, then maybe we change the trend. Maybe then we will begin to see real change in the world.