Statistical data all indicates that church participation is dropping across America, as it already has throughout Europe. Is it fair to ask if one of the main reasons is Christians? “We have met the enemy and they are us,” comments Pogo. As his parting message just before his ascension, Jesus gave us the mandate to baptize and teach all the world about his Good News. The mandate remains in effect. An honest look at why it is not currently producing results is certainly in order. Some factors outside of the Church impact this, a legitimate subject for another analysis. But the following are some reasons from inside the Church of why Christian participation is shrinking rather than growing.
First, many churchgoers and clergy essentially see the latter as being “the Church,” the professionals, and the former as being consumers. Churches frankly compete for market share in a community, trying to attract people with various consumer strategies. Many studies indicate that new people come to a church more often when invited by a church member than by any other means. Yet if non-clergy see themselves as consumers rather than active members of the Body of Christ, they are less likely to invite others. Even if they do, attending as a consumer is quite different than seeing yourself as an integral part of a community. Plus, parishioners often leave the education of their children to a Sunday School or similar, resulting in generational disconnect. The thought that parents should teach Christian belief to their children is alarming to people who see themselves as consumers of church. The demographic evidence of the result of this is very clear. The greatest decline in church participation is in younger generations. This has gone on long enough by now that many congregations simply no longer have children or younger adults at all.
It is not surprising that people who do not teach their own children do little evangelism with others. Even years ago, as a personal example, I grew up in a family completely without any church connection or religious interest. Despite living in a nation which often described itself as a Christian land and had a high percentage of people at the time who went to church, I never encountered anyone until I was in my later teens who shared the Christian message with me. I note today as well that many of the people counted as “converts” are people who grew up in Christian homes, dropped out for a few years and then came back. As fewer children grow up in Christian homes, this will apply to a much smaller number. Real conversions of people with no Christian background will be how Christianity will grow. If the present pattern continues, it is not an optimistic scenario.
Second, the behavior which has happened among Roman Catholic clergy means that the last place unchurched people would turn for moral guidance or saving grace would be such an environment. Unfortunately, awareness of pedophile priests and hierarchs who cover for them is widespread, whereas news of more positive happenings in the Roman Catholic Church is less common. Not only many news stories, but movies such as “Spotlight” and “Doubt,” among others, have reached an extensive audience. It is absolutely correct that this exposure happens. Those of us who have experience through family or counseling with children who have been molested are deeply concerned at the devastation wrought by the actions of pedophilia, in or out of church. When done by clergy, it has an added spiritual dimension which adds to the horror. The damage done to victims is lasting and grievous. The damage done to the Body of Christ is also very real. There was a time when the Roman Catholic Church had a moral authority which carried weight even among those who were not part of it. Those days are gone because of this scandal. And, lest Protestants be smug, note that many unchurched people do not differentiate much among churches and have lost respect for all Christians.
Third, the message of the unconditional saving love of God for all of us is not the message of a very large number of churches. So many people have been burned by legalistic and judgmental Christians. Yet Jesus had a radical message that God loves you regardless of your sin. He came “eating and drinking,” (Luke 7:34), celebrating the gift of love, eating with sinners (Luke 15:2), healing spiritual wounds more than physical ones, moving among the very people rejected by their legalistic religious leaders. Someone has pointed out that the message of Christ can be fully summarized by the children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Yet this love is so often made conditional, tentative, or secondary, if not effectively denied, by the message of many churches. The number of people alienated from Christ because of church people who denied or obfuscated the message of love is countless…and tragic.
Fourth, there are others who do not think Jesus really accomplished, was even capable of accomplishing, Incarnation or Resurrection. The message of such churches and clergy is to be good people, help the less fortunate and live a fulfilling life doing a socially useful ministry. These are indeed good goals. But when all the resolutions have been passed, all the committees have met, all the petitions signed, all the less fortunate helped with their material needs, what then? If Jesus was simply a good man who went around helping people and saying wise things, as both Muslims and liberal Protestants believe, how can the basic sin and warp of our world ever be cured? If there is no Resurrection, if Jesus did not come as fulfillment of God’s plan to restore his earth, us included, there is no hope. Mankind has conclusively proven over all the millennia of known history, as well as from today’s evening news, that we have a basic problem that we ourselves are never going to fix. It is a good thing to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked. Jesus himself puts a high value on these acts of love. But until we understand that we stand helpless to fix ourselves, let alone the world, we are lost. Without the Cross and Resurrection, without the power of God, we are drowning. We need churches to immerse ourselves in the Good News of God’s love, to eat and drink his Eucharist in sacrifice and thanksgiving, to unite with his community of sinners. We can do nice things in response to that love, not instead of it
Fifth, a common complaint about Christians is that we are hypocritical. But there is nothing hypocritical in saying “I am a hopeless sinner, begging for the grace of God even though I know I do not deserve it.” The complaint is based on meeting church people who deny that message and replace it with one proclaiming their own goodness. Anyone who has spent much time in church knows the problem. Christ’s message has been blocked, replaced with a message more suitable for respectable citizens. Such churches are places of polite conversation, pleasant smiles, and well-scrubbed adherents. Those who openly wrestle with sin and evil in their own hearts and in the world and cast themselves upon the God of sinners for help don’t fit in.
Perhaps the surprising fact is that millions of Americans still do show up in church, given the obstacles tossed in their path by church people. It is a witness to the powerful need for absolution and salvation that people hope to find in the loving arms of Jesus. But if the demographic pattern continues, fewer and fewer will even know that church is the place to go for that.
It may be the eleventh hour for America to discover the unconditional love of God, but it is not too late. The mandate of Jesus remains, unamended, but unfulfilled. Your calling is not to be an obstacle but rather a vehicle for the love and grace of God.