The United States of America is headed in the same spiritual direction as Europe: toward a post-Christian society. Absent another Great Awakening, that will be our new reality within this century, and no amount of denial will change that fact.
David T. Olson provides a devastating statistical assessment of this in The American Church in Crisis. Almost every denomination is in decline, and even those that are growing are doing so at rates that lag overall population growth.
In other words, while the Church is growing numerically, Her overall representation of the population is actually in decline.
Some denominations–such as the mainline Protestant sectors (United Methodists, United Church of Christ, Christian Church DOC, Episcopalian Church USA, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America)–have been in freefall for several decades. Much of that is attributable to secularization via liberal theology and far-left politics.
Even so, the Southern Baptist Convention–for decades a solid, growing denomination–is experiencing tepid growth, with overall membership in 2006 less than a quarter percent greater than 2005, and with baptisms–EVIDENCE OF NEW BELIEVERS–declining from 2005 to 2006.
In other words:
- Of the little growth experienced by the SBC, the number of Christians transferring from other denominations exceeds that of people actually receiving Jesus Christ.
- The marginal contribution to the Body of Christ by the Southern Baptist Convention HAS GONE DOWN! Adding members from other denominations IS NOT adding to the Church but rather transferring believers from one denomination to another. The number of NEW BELIEVERS is in decline!
Ergo, one cannot blame the decline of the Church exclusively on liberal theology. That may carry some weight as we assess mainline denominations, but the Southern Baptists are experiencing decline in spite of otherwise conservative theology.
For many pastors and laypersons on the front lines, this is not news. As a former youth minister and minister of education–and a layperson who has served in various teaching roles spanning children through adults–I’ve seen this coming for most of the last 20 years. Neither the causes nor the remedies can be summed up in the bumper stickers that dominate our theological landscape, nor is it all the fault of the Church.
That said, Olson’s book should be a required text in every Bible school and seminary, and laypersons ought to read it, too.
Olson does a good job with the analysis, and does a better job avoiding getting bogged down in a theological morass. This is not about the definitions of Biblical inerrancy, or the culture wars, or the five points of Calvinism, or Reform Theology versus Arminianism, or contemporary versus liturgical worship styles. Churches of all the aforementioned stripes have pockets of growth while being in overall decline.
Olson, whose passion is church planting, even provides some constructive ideas for how the Church can emerge from this decline, and even thrive in a post-Christian world.
As for a more in-depth examination of what the post-Baby Boom generation thinks of the Church, unChristian--by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons–will make your skin crawl.
Where Olson provided a statistical assessment that showed a Church in decline, Kinnaman and Lyons provide a statistical assessment that shows a large part of the reason why.
Fairly or unfairly, the Church has an image problem, especially among younger people inside and outside the Church.
Some of that image problem is unavoidable: much coverage of the church by the secular media has been neither fair nor representative of the Church as a whole.
Some of that image problem is indeed the fault of the Church, and has been fomented by religious political movements, in particular those on the right.
As a lifelong supporter of the pro-life cause, I can attest to those criticisms, many of which are valid.
For my first three years out of college, I wore three hats outside my regular job: I was a counselor at a crisis pregnancy center. I was also President of the county Right to Life chapter. I was also a speaking director for a maternity home.
My Sunday nights often involved going to a different church, giving a presentation on behalf of the maternity home, ostensibly raising the money we needed to keep our operations afloat. During the week–after work–I would work three-hour shift at the crisis pregnancy center. On weekends, I would help the Right to Life group plan the baby photo contests for the county and state fairs, as well as work on the newsletter.
During my work in that arena, I got to know a lot of people who were supportive of the pro-life cause. Sadly, this is what I observed happening: the cause became more important to them than the Faith from which a passion for the cause emanated.
On the matter of homosexuality, the situation was even worse. A very prominent evangelical pastor in the area was very ostensible in his opposition to gay adoptions. In his discourse, he referenced homosexuals via epithets.
For every conservative pastor who says, “We hate the sin but love the sinner”, there are almost as many like the aforementioned who would burn homosexuals at the stake given the legal wherewithal.
Compounding matters, as Kinnaman notes, the religious right blundered horribly when the Christian Coalition refused to hire a leader who desired a global AIDS outreach. (That the past President of the Christian Coalition was tacitly supportive of child slavery and child trafficking, and mounted some of the dirtiest political campaigns in recent history, does not help either.)
While the Biblical position–that homosexual behavior is not compatible with Christian faith–is indeed the proper Christian perspective, it is a completely different matter when Christians expend effort in promoting every political cause that is predisposed against gays.
Moreover, while it is correct to point out that the gay community should bear a large amount of responsibility for the spread of AIDS, it is equally correct to point out that Christian indifference to the AIDS suffer is anything but Christian.
Even on abortion, the Church has shown considerable insensitivity toward women who have had prior abortions. During my crisis pregnancy center days, I had no small number of clients who had one or more prior abortions. Most were not proud of that fact. Kinnaman provides an account of a women–having had a prior abortion–who experienced condemnation by others in a Bible study.
Fact: about 1 in 4 women of childbearing age have had at least one abortion. That is a great tragedy for both the child aborted as well as the women who must now deal with the aftermath. While I know a few who are comfy with their prior choice, I know many more who are not.
It’s a golden ministry opportunity on which the Church has punted.
While it is necessary to confront feminism–and other vestiges of theological liberalism–in the Church, the Church must not forget the scoldings that Jesus handed the Pharisees for punting on loving their neighbor, in spite of their otherwise sound doctrine.
Kinnaman also confronts the “get saved” culture fomented by the shallow cultural fundamentalism of Southern Baptists and other evangelical groups that overemphasize “conversions” and “professions of faith” to the exclusion of real discipleship.
Many conservatives will read Kinnaman with a degree of skepticism, as he includes perspectives from some far-left ministers (such as Jim Wallis of the Sojourners). On the other hand, Kinnaman also provides commentary from conservative leaders such as Charles Colson. Overall, the balance is there, and the truths are inconvenient.
The only thing I think Kinnaman did not address was the shoddy state of the youth ministry and their transition to young adults. That, perhaps, is the subject for another book.
Overall, Olson and Kinnaman have provided a stunning assessment of the Church in the United States. Anyone who cares for the future of the Church ought to take this assessment seriously.