There are plenty of articles on why the church is in decline. These can be interesting and even informative. They range from churches being out of touch in their messaging, to being too political, to being too worldly, to being too cloistered, to taking a stand for something, to not taking any stand at all, and more.
Why is the church in decline? I think it’s important to remember that this is complicated. And it’s important to define things. When the word “the church” gets thrown around, we make a mistake when we assume everyone is talking about the same thing. They aren’t. “The church” can mean a number of things – the institution of the church, the body of the church, a specific church.
The other thing to remember is that most of those articles talking about the church being in decline are oriented towards America and Western Europe. The reality is that the church is growing leaps and bounds in Asia, Africa, and South America.
So with that said, here’s my theory on the decline of the church in America. When I talk about the church in America, I’m talking about the institution of the church – primarily Protestant churches – an organization with a building, staff, and institutional identity.
The simple answer – Western society has moved past trust in institutions. Institutions don’t carry a special place in Western society any longer. There’s a variety of reasons for that – the biggest one (at least I think it is) being that institutions have shown themselves to lack trust. In recent time, scandals and abuses have been reported on. Sacred trust gets destroyed each time a new scandal and abuse is reported. Why should people trust these institutions – they have proven themselves to be untrustworthy as a whole.
So the obvious question in response to such a statement is – Why are you a pastor in an institutional church? I was called into it by God is my answer. I think God is up to something incredible with the institutional church and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. I’m excited about how God is transforming the church. The decline of the institutional church is not a negative for me. It speaks to opportunity and transformation.
See, the image and ideas that had been painted by popular strains of Protestantism are showing themselves to be empty and a waste of time. Jesus was presented as your BFF. I don’t need a BFF. I need a savior. And I’m willing to bet there’s a whole lot of people who believe that too.
If Jesus only cares about your personal private relationship with him and your personal private beliefs and actions and doesn’t care about the world outside of me, then what’s the point? If that’s all Jesus is – then you don’t need Jesus. You need a self-help book and a motivational speaker.
However, if the institutional church reclaims Jesus as transformational for individuals, communities, nations, and the world – well, look out, people have a reason to pay attention and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Because transformation means actual change, rather than coping mechanisms for injustice and evil to be maintained. Transformation means that injustice and evil end. And that impacts lives and systems. It improves our lives and our communities and our world. That’s actually worth while and worth identifying with. That’s worth attaching oneself too. That’s worth all the sweat and blood. That’s worth taking a stand for and even risking your life. That’s worth dying for.
Let’s be real – no one’s going to devote their life, risk their life, or take a stand for a self-help Jesus who doesn’t actually change anything. Why would you? That Jesus won’t lay down his life for you either. You only lay down your life willingly if there is some kind of significance to doing that.
Why is the institutional church in decline? Because it traded in savior Jesus for self-help Jesus and people saw what a waste of time it was. Can we dump self-help Jesus now. People are desperate for transformation in their lives, for meaning and purpose, for service that builds real community and impacts lives (their own and others). People are desperate to be released from all the bondages that hold them down. People are desperate for community that isn’t a social club, but rather a community that actually cares about each other. People are desperate to experience transformation – to let go of the facade they put up – and to be changed. If the institution doesn’t embrace this, then Jesus will move on past the institution and yet the church (the Body of Christ) will be as healthy as ever. It will take on a new form that meets the needs. Because in the end the church serves the mission of Jesus. The church doesn’t exist for its own survival. It exists to participate in the transformation of people, communities, and the world. And if can’t or won’t participate in that, it will die off and be replaced with something that will.