Has the American Church Expired?

I recently sat and listened as my pastor told the sad tale of several churches in our area. In a down economy, bad news is ubiquitous; just as many businesses are forced to make some tough choices, several churches are as well. My pastor spoke of churches freezing salaries, dismissing staff, and in some cases having to take a line of credit just to maintain operation. He spoke of drastically decreased offerings, lean attendance, and overall dismal prospects for flocks of the faithful.

My brain began twisting and turning, and I thought of a phrase my boss often uses as a filter for decisions: “Is it past its sell-by date?” So naturally, I began to wonder if the American church had expired.

I thought of the numerous studies and statistics that I’ve heard over the past five or so years lamenting the downward spiral in church membership rolls.

I thought about the endless articles I’ve read concerning the decline in conversions and baptisms.

I thought about the several hundred emails I’ve received related to the decrease in tithing and overall charitable giving by Christians.

I thought about the endless campaigns meant to attract people into, and in many cases back to, church.

In short, I thought about a lot of things connected to the vitality and importance of the church in American life. And I still ended up with the question: Is the church past its sell-by date?

As someone who keeps tabs on the cultural pulse of religion (it’s part of my job), I have to say that the statistics, articles, emails and campaigns point to a grim reality: the church does seem to be in decline, even as more and more people identify themselves as “spiritual”. I’ve read books from numerous authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others who suggest that not only is the church past its sell-by date, it is an active force for evil in the world and should be done away with. And while I don’t agree with much of what they write, I have to concede that there are some points on which these authors offer penetrating insight.

But I think the thing that has startled me like nothing else has been the apathy I’ve seen and experienced within the American church at large and my church in particular. Now, I love my church and can’t think of a better place to worship or belong, not as a member, but as part of a true community of believers. But even in the best communities there are times when the people wane in their affection, fervor or faith, and right now seems to be a nadir for many. There’s a funk that defies all manner of motivational and promotional efforts to the contrary, and it’s starting to seep deeper and deeper into the pews of churches of all stripes. The traditionally small pool of volunteers and tithers shrinks with every passing year, and there doesn’t seem to be a reversal in sight.

Now this is not to say that the Christian faith is in danger – on the contrary, I think that Christianity is flourishing in many areas across the globe and will continue to do so until the end of time. Being the Truth has a way of making it recession-proof.

But the American Church as an institution seems to be in real trouble, mostly as it has shifted from a community of like-minded believers who serve together for the common good to a society of like-minded consumers who assemble together for the best experience. The church is less about people living together than it is about people getting together. Ask someone why they go to church, and the answer will quite often be centered on what the person gets out of the experience. Ask someone why they don’t go to church and the answer will have to do with what they weren’t getting out of the experience.

We’ve turned worship into Walmart, and that’s not a knock against Walmart. It used to be that the church helped the poor and needy, clothed the widows and orphans, and assisted the down and out because of a communal sense of obedience to God. Now, those things are often abdicated to the government so the church can build a better children’s facility or have a nicer sound system. Churches willingly abandoned their primary mission (to show God’s love to people) so they could pursue secondary motives (to become the size of small cities, literally). I’m not suggesting all churches are this way, but there are plenty that fit the bill, and now the American church as a whole is going to foot the bill for deviating from the call of Christ.

Has the American Church expired? I don’t know. I believe that the current models are in real trouble and that nothing short of a return to classical forms of the institution (education, worship, benevolence) will reverse the trend. I heard someone say last night that in a world of irrationality, people are looking for something rational. I would suggest that in a world of spiritual hunger, people are looking for spiritual meat; the American church is offering powdered sugar. That has to change.

Otherwise, the expiration date will be long past.