I’ve seen a lot of hand-wringing and sad faces about recent reports that 6,000 to 10,000 churches are dying every year in the US. When Christians get downhearted upon seeing the magnitude of our decline, it’s important to remember two things: First, in some ways, this is actually good news. Second, even where its bad news, its merely an opportunity for us to repent and do better.
First the Good News
A lot of the congregations that are failing deserve to fail, and the Church is better off without them.
As I’ve written before the denominations that are dying fastest are the mainline denominations steeped in Theological Liberalism. And good riddance to them. Theologically Liberal congregations are Hell’s honeypots. They deceive people into thinking they’re being involved in the Christian Church, all while providing them with baptized politics and false spiritualities instead of God’s Word. Their death is a boon for believers and unbelievers alike (so long as we’re careful about the spores they release) If a congregation is more concerned with worldly goals like diversity, egalitarianism, or inclusion than it is with clearly preaching God’s offensive Word, then Christians have no reason to mourn when it shuts down.
The other types of congregations that deserve to die are the ones full of cultural Christians–they don’t attend because they believe but because it’s somehow become a social expectation for them. That social expectation is getting rarer all the time in America. And while its disappearance is problematic from a left-hand kingdom perspective (because its symptomatic of the kind of cultural diversity that makes nations weak,) its really better from a right-hand kingdom perspective. When church membership becomes a matter of anything other than faith, its ultimately a form of religious hypocrisy. While going through the motions might lead to real faith for some individuals, congregations where this describes the bulk of their membership are extremely unhealthy and generally aren’t rightly preaching God’s Word. Trimming away the dead wood might be an apt metaphor here.
Now for the Bad News
While many of the failures are less about closed churches than they are about dissipated illusions, that’s not the case for all of them. Some of these congregations are made up of foolish Christians who truly believe but have failed to reproduce–who have not not brought people to the preaching of God’s Word and the proper administration of the Sacraments by which the Holy Spirit creates new believers.
Now you might think I’m referring to evangelism in the traditional sense of the word, but I am not. Yes, evangelism is both a blessing & obligation for Christians, and we can always do a better job at it. But a failure to evangelize is not why our congregations are dying. God calls some to be evangelists, but not everyone. The bigger problem is a broader failure to reproduce that takes two key forms.
The first form is a literal failure to reproduce. If you speak to the average Christians throughout history and ask them who they brought to God’s house to be baptized, the vast majority of them will be pointing to their own children. Unfortunately, we in the West have stopped having children. We have fallen victim to false philosophy that children are distractions from “real” life. We have fallen victim to the despair that says our children would be better off if they are never born. Then we wonder why there’s so much gray hair in our congregations.
There have been great revivals and missionary work throughout history, but the slow steady growth that characterizes the bulk of Christians throughout the ages has been a matter of God’s gift of fertility. Should the scope of Christian evangelism be wider than our own children? Of course. But if its too narrow to include that, as has been the case in Western churches, then the rest really doesn’t matter in terms of keeping congregations alive.
The second failure to reproduce is really a failure to properly catechize the next generation. Most of us fail to take the devil and sin seriously and therefore don’t quite grasp the fact that the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh are constantly trying to tear our children away from Christ. Many of us think that as long as they’ve gone to church periodically, then the message is received and there are no worries. This is ridiculously naive, and anybody who has actually read and believed the Bible should know better.
Conservative Christians constantly complain about how Godless our education system has become, and hear all the stories about kids losing their faith in college… and then we blithely send them all to school anyway without doing anything to prepare them for battle (or to discern whether they’re even fit for battle. College students need to know how to argue with their professors, but you can’t realistically expect that from a six-year-old whose teacher is telling them that a boy in their class is really a girl.)
The bulk of spiritual warfare isn’t about casting out demons–it’s about prayer, refuting error, and helping each other understand the truth of God’s Word. Our children not only need to know the basics of the faith, they need to know how to defend them against the cavalcade of falsehoods and temptations they’re going to encounter in life. If Christian education in our churches and especially in our homes doesn’t involve a hefty dose of apologetics, then we have utterly failed to reproduce by passing the faith on to the next generation.
So when we start hearing about how all these churches are dying, the last thing we should do is give into despair and ponder the end of Christianity. Instead, we ought to rejoice where these deaths are good news and repent where they are not. It is never too late for us to start passing on the faith that we’ve been given. Even those who have lost the chance for/with their own children still have the chance to support and encourage those who have or might yet have children of their own.