I was on my way to church last Sunday listening to the radio. On NPR they had a piece about “Mainline Denominations experiencing a significant drop-off in attendance in recent years” and what certain churches are doing about it to try to gain new members. They talked about a Lutheran church that meets in a pub on Sunday evenings in Fort Worth Texas and about a Disciples of Christ church in Portland, OR that has Sunday evenings “Beer and Hymns”.
The first church in Texas meets for worship, hears a sermon, and partakes in communion all while non-church members walk through the doors shocked at what they are seeing. They ask the bartender, “What’s going on, I thought it was trivia night?” Then the bartender says, “Oh, they’re having a church service, don’t worry, trivia night is still happening after the service.” The ELCA has decided to sanction this church as an official congregation.
The other church in Portland has a monthly gathering of about 100 people, mostly younger people, who gather for beer (2 beer limit) and to sing hymns. They have an open mic time during which anyone can stand up and say anything they want. The person they recorded speaking was a transgender person who stood up to talk about their frustration with church doctrine teaching that animals don’t have a soul. He emphasized his dog must have a soul because the dog acts with real emotions.
Then NPR interviewed an older gentleman about the changes in his church and what they are doing to attract new members. He basically said the church really struggled with this at first because of the traditional American church’s stance on alcohol, but he and many others are also struggling with the drop-off in attendance so if this works to attract people, then hey, whatever works, right?
The above raises the question of how the church is to reach the next generation, which seemingly is walking away from the church. But is the next gen walking away?
In the book “EVERYDAY Church” Timmis and Chester point out in America that the vast majority of Americans claim to have a connection with a church. And even more Americans claim to be Christian. In the Northwest we have the least amount of people claiming to belong to a church and the percentage is still around 46% (pp. 14-17). As the book says:
“Pointing to a survey that named India as the world’s most religious country and Sweden as the world’s most secular country, Berger quips that the United States is a nation of Indians ruled over by Swedes. In other words, it is a highly religious nation, but its elites are deeply secular, even antireligious.” (EVERYDAY Church, p. 14)
Let me put this in different terms and relate this to the NPR piece on Beer and Hymns – there are many Americans who are Christian and who love Jesus, but our news organizations like NPR and our media subtly say things that make it seem like Christianity is dying and that it is unpopular to be associated with Christ. For example, in the NPR piece, notice it said, “Mainline Denominations [are] experiencing a significant drop-off in attendance in recent years” – this, for the most part is true. But does this mean all denominations are experiencing a drop-off in attendance? Or just Mainline Denominations? (There is a difference) Does this mean non-denominational churches are experiencing a drop-off as well? Does this mean there are no new church plants in America? Does this mean there are a significant amount of young people that want nothing to do with the church? Does this mean churches should compromise doctrine in order to attract people?
The more I learn about non-traditional churches like Imago Dei in Portland, OR., or Mars Hill in Seattle, WA., or Soma in Tacoma, or the ACTS 29 Network of Church Planters I find that there is a tremendous amount of interest in three things: (1) Jesus; (2) being a part of a church community; and (3) holding to the orthodox teachings of the gospel without compromise.
So why is it these Mainline Denominations are experiencing a significant drop-off in membership and attendance?
I have two illustrations, which I think explain what is going on:
First, the church that George Washington attended had about 3,000 members in early 2012. They were a solidly evangelical and conservative Episcopalian church. The church decided in May of 2012 to break away from TEC (The Episcopal Church) because of liberal stances on certain issues such as gay marriage and ordaining openly homosexual priests. When the congregation broke away, the TEC gave them two weeks to move and find a new home (i.e., the Denomination owned the property and so the people were kicked out of their church building because they didn’t want to remain Episcopalian). So the church moved to a different facility on a temporary basis and the TEC confiscated the church building and had 29 worshippers the following Sunday. Since there was such a dramatic drop off, the TEC was talking about selling the building to Muslims to use as a mosque (ironic).
Second, a have a friend who just got back from California. She was visiting her father who is moving into an assisted living situation. He was talking about funeral arrangements and would like his previous pastor to do the service and for it to be in his home church (which is ELCA – a Mainline Denomination). There is only one problem; the former pastor was attending that church until the church hired an openly gay youth pastor who is living with his boyfriend. Now the former senior pastor will not step foot back in his old church and many congregants are leaving right and left.
What is the common theme, which the media will likely not address properly? The common theme is that many Mainline Denominations are going with the flow of culture and the people who used to be solidly vested in those churches are frustrated with the direction of the new leadership and new denominational policies, which compromise the values and morals of Scripture.
In short, from what I am gathering and reading about, there are likely not less Christians in America, but there are less churches Christians want to be associated with. In Scripture, as leadership goes so go the churches. It seems God is removing his blessing from churches that are compromising God’s truth. But my experience here at Grace is as that as we have stuck to the principles of Scripture, we have experienced about a 25% increase in membership in the last 3 ½ years. In 2013 alone we have baptized 25 new believers, 18 of which have been adults.