Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, refutes those who claim the church is dying.
Is the church dying? First let’s look at some definitions of the church.
Traditionally the church (sometimes called the Church Universal) has been considered as (i) the Church Militant and (ii) the Church Triumphant. The ‘Church Militant’ refers to all Christians who are alive on earth and the ‘Church Triumphant’ refers to all Christians who have died and are enjoying God’s presence in heaven. In this article when I use the word ‘church’ I am referring to the ‘Church Militant’ and in particular to its expression through the local church.
The Huffington Post (a sensationalist on-line newspaper) had an article titled Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore which boldly made the comment ‘Clearly, the church is dying.’ Neither hostility against the church nor statements regarding its imminent death are a recent phenomenon.
Voltaire, a prominent 18th century writer, who frequently spoke out strongly against intolerance, ironically expressed his strongest and most venomous intolerance of the church. On one occasion he wrote, ‘[Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world.’ (On a side note, it is interesting to note also that today those who most vigorously attack the church’s beliefs and principles and denounce its intolerance, are the most extreme in expressing their own intolerance against the church!).
Regardless of the extremely prejudiced agenda of its detractors throughout the centuries who have eagerly look forward to the day when the church would no longer exist, one must acknowledge this point – today there is a significant decline in church attendance in many Western countries. For example, some figures suggest that about 20% of Americans, 7.5% of Australians and 10% of UK citizens regularly attend church. Whether or not these figures are strictly accurate, what is true is that in recent years there has been a significant decline in the number of people who attend church.
Some reasons for the abandoning of the church
1. A breakdown in the church’s integrity
There are, of course, various reasons why some today not only are abandoning the church, but are also abandoning the Christian faith. For example, the integrity of the church has been challenged and put under the spotlight in recent years – and it has been found wanting! The appalling actions of some church leaders (in many denominations) have brought great discredit to the church and its message. Consequently many people have left the church in disgust.
2. Aggressive atheism
Furthermore we are living in a society in which aggressive atheism is increasingly on the rise and all things associated with religion – especially Christianity – are being belittled and derided. Sadly the media is often at the forefront of such attacks. Some churchgoers have been impacted by this ridicule and have cut their ties with the church.
3. Christianity is seen as a counterculture
Another characteristic of the postmodern philosophy that dominates western societies today is a debunking of Christian morals, values and principles. Christianity is now often viewed as a counterculture, that is, a subculture whose standards, beliefs and practices are not only significantly different from the mainstream, so-called progressive and ‘politically correct’ values and practices of society, but also stand in opposition to the conventional moral values and characteristics of that society.
While the bedrock of many western cultures for centuries has been the values taught by the Bible, today the politically correct position of those cultures is increasingly embracing values that are diametrically opposed to biblical teaching.
Paul has told us about the source of this opposition to the things of God: ‘The god of this age (Satan) has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Because of the incessant discrediting of Christianity in today’s society, some churchgoers are finding the pressure of contemporary political correctness too hard to resist.
The Christian faith is a counterculture!
There is a variety of social, ecclesiastical, religious and spiritual reasons why church attendance today is in decline, and while I will not address those reasons in this article, I would want to say that, yes, the church today actually is a ‘counter culture’ and the values it holds dear and the message of new life in Jesus need to be expressed more clearly today than ever.
If ever the world needed to discover the truth of the gospel, it is today. Jesus described himself as the Light of the World (John 8:12), and called his followers to be bearers of his light in a dark world. He said, ‘You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden… . In the same way, let your light shine before men …’ (Matthew 5:14,16).
The church is not dying, but in the West its numbers are in decline, and part of the reason for this is the relentless attack on it. In the face of this aggression, Christ is calling his people to perseverance, boldness, and faithfulness – and to have a backbone to live for him! Paul wrote: ‘Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong’ (1 Corinthians 16:13).
Christians who opt-out
Social pressures alone do not account for the numbers of people missing from church. Many reasons have been given for opting out of the local church. For example,
• It has in some way offended them and they have not returned
• It has chosen to reflect the values and customs of the world and has forsaken the biblical message entrusted to it
• It is so preoccupied with ministering to the youth that older people feel that they are at best irrelevant and at worst unwelcome
• It is being run like a commercial organisation and not as a fellowship of believers
• It is too obsessed with itself
• It is boring
• It has a lot of exaggerated frothiness and little substance.
And so on …
No perfect church
Without commenting specifically on any of the above, I want to say that no local church is perfect. Never has been and never will be! The church – both worldwide and local – was Christ’s idea to live and proclaim the message of the kingdom of God. He did not have a ‘Plan B.’
And so the church, with all its imperfections (which would not have taken God by surprise) was entrusted with the amazing commission to proclaim the gospel by word and deed and thereby win men and women for God’s kingdom.
The need for the rediscovery of worship
The decline in church attendance is, I am sure, more than merely a response to contemporary sociological pressures. Many churches and their leaders have responded to the siren appeal of secular society by embracing that society and trying to reflect it in their methodology. In their practice they introduce a plethora of programs and an ever changing ‘corporate vision’ complete with ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ that are indispensable factors in secular corporations.
However I am convinced that the thing that churches should major in – worship – is the very thing in which they often fall short. When ‘worship’ is understood as that entertaining segment in a church service which is the responsibility of the music group, a biblical understanding of worship is sadly neglected.
One of the most significant theologians of the 20th century was the Congregationalist PT Forsyth who wrote: ‘The greatest product of the church is not brotherly love but divine worship. And we shall never worship right nor serve right till we are more engrossed with our God than even with our worship, with his reality than our piety, with his cross than our service. (The Church and the Sacraments page 25.)
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘The whole common life of the Christian fellowship oscillates between Word and Sacrament. It begins and ends in worship.’ (The Cost of Discipleship page 254).
The church is above all called to be a worshipping community. But when ‘going to church’ is nothing more than attending a meeting that follows a predictable pattern and which fails to lead the congregation into an encounter with the living God, many people feel that they will not miss out on anything if they do not attend! Any amount of hype that attempts to provide a substitution for this essential and fundamental need of meeting God, significantly short-changes those who attend church to worship God.
The purpose of worship is to glorify God and not to entertain the congregation or even to provide a platform for entertainers to impress with their musical or vocal skills! Worship is the celebration of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and the praising of our glorious God who has ‘who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:3).
We would do well to heed the words of Hebrews 12:28, ‘Let us be thankful and worship God in reverence and fear in a way that pleases him’ (ISV).
Where is the light?
Throughout history, because of human failure, the church has often failed in its role to be a light to the world. (Matthew 5:14-16, ‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden … In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’). It has also at times failed in appalling ways to live up to its high ideals and has brought dishonour to the name of Christ.
But there have also been times when the church has been glorious in its life, breathtaking in its mission and powerful in its message! There have been times when the influence of the church has far exceeded wildest expectations and not only transformed individuals but also nations. And those times are marked Christians who were focused on their God, whose lives were surrendered to Jesus, whose commitment was to his kingdom and who were not obsessed by their own wants and self-interest!
One of Robin Mark’s worship songs gives expression to that spirit of Christian submission that is the antidote to our prospective fickleness and self-focus.
Jesus, all for Jesus
All I am and have and ever hope to be. …
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into your hands.
The unconquerable church
Although many have written off the church as a dying cause over the last 2000 years, and although at times its influence may have diminished and its ministry may have been relatively ineffective, we have Christ’s sure promise, ‘I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16:18). In other words Jesus was categorically stating that because he is the builder of the church, it will never perish! It is unconquerable, it is indestructible and it is eternal.
There really is no irrefutable reason why the church should be abandoned by anyone who claims to be a Christian. Admittedly the church on earth is imperfect in various ways, but abandoning it because of those imperfections could be compared to abandoning the world and living as a hermit because the world is imperfect, or refusing to go a hospital because there are many sick people there!
A glorious house
In 1 Peter 2:4 we read, ‘You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’. Here Peter characterises the church as a house. In Hebrew the word beth is used to mean either ‘house’ or ‘family.’ What a wonderful understanding of the nature of the church this reveals.
As a building is erected on a foundation so too the church is built on Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11) and this house is composed of every individual who has acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Every single person is important! No ‘living stone’ is meant to lie in a pile outside the building for which Jesus called it.
Likewise no Christian can reasonably and biblically justify a position of independence from a community of believers to which visible expression is given by the local church.
I believe that we need to rediscover what a glorious ‘house’ the church is meant to be and what a glorious future awaits it. The day is coming when Christ will ‘present her (the church) to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless’ (Ephesians 5:27).
While many local churches have had to shut because of lack of attendance, the church will never cease to exist and its message of hope and salvation that the world so desperately needs to hear will not be silenced.
The church will never die!
Dr Jim McClure has authored several books and Bible study series. In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship. Normally $35 but obtainable from the author for $25 (plus postage). Link/orders/enquiries: email@example.com.
Great article, thoughtful, challenging, encouraging. I’m glad that when Jesus said he would build his church, his building was not walls and windows but, as the song writer said, ‘an army of ordinary people.’