This week I spent time with a pastor whose church is in the process of shifting locations. If the transaction works out, his congregation may actually meet in a building dedicated to sacred space–a church–for the first time. No more renting space in secular venues, setting up chairs, dealing with unexpected curves in the schedule. That’s good news. What is unfortunate is that the previous body of believers that once met and worshipped in this space has diminished to about fifteen. Like many other mainline churches, this one is on the verge of death.
There’s nothing really new about this. All too many mainline protestant churches have closed their doors. Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others once represented the majority of all Christians in the US, but their more liberal approach to social issues (believing Christianity is fundamentally a social movement), their shift from honoring the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God (which in their minds teaches intolerant ideas like Jesus alone is the answer) to a more enlightened moralistic message (tolerance, pluralism, and individual authority and freedom), and the loss of gospel proclamation from their pulpits (or maybe the creation of a different definition of gospel) have all contributed to their demise.
But while mainline churches may be emptying out, some would say their causes have won. They convinced many in American society that it is not Christian to be traditionally Christian. This is the assessment of Matthew Rose in a recent First Things article, “Death of God Fifty Years On.” He takes note of the paradox that mainline Protestantism has experienced both institutional defeat and cultural victory. Describing this, he writes, “On virtually every issue that consumed its postwar energies–from civil rights to feminism to gay rights–the mainline churches have been vindicated by elite opinion. At the same time, their membership has evaporated.”
Ironically, today the five fastest growing denominations in America have these things in common–they are evangelical, committed to the authority of the Scripture, opposed to homosexual behavior, and believe women should share in the roles of leadership. But one cannot help but ask, “Is there also a paradox here? Do a wide spectrum of evangelicals represent just the opposite–institutional victory and cultural defeat?” We might point to numerous church plants and growing congregations, but are we really impacting culture? And if not, why not? As ubiquitous as Starbucks are, there are twenty-eight churches for every Starbucks. One would think there would be a greater spiritual transformation taking place in society.
Could it be we are preaching the gospel as defined in Scripture, but largely preaching to ourselves? Is the growth we talk about representative of people coming to faith or disgruntled believers shifting venues? Has church become an institution of convenience? Are we going deep in our faith, seeing the kind of maturation that will prevent us from eventually losing convictions and one day selling our churches to other groups?
The good news is that I sense more and more ministry leaders are asking these questions, acknowledging the challenges ahead, and praying for renewal and revival–praying to win more than the battle.
What do you think?