Why the American Church Is Declining

By Bob Hiller

What if your church had it all figured out? What if you had a perfectly dynamic pastor who preached challenging and inspirational sermons? What if those sermons were entirely orthodox and beautifully balanced Law and Gospel? What if your Bible studies were more engaging and thrilling? What if everyone in your small group ministry bought in perfectly to the model and you had record involvement? What if your music was liturgically sound and emotionally satisfying? What if you had tithing across the board? What if you had the perfect outreach plan and a superb assimilation program? What if your youth group perfectly equipped students for the world ahead with good theology and apologetics? What if the vast majority of churches across the country did this? What if…?

What do you think would happen? If we as the Church in America were getting all of this stuff right, would it actually stem the decline of which we are constantly warned? I ask these questions because it seems that the more I read blogs (even my own), journal articles, outreach manuals, and ministry program ads, the more I am told that the Church is largely responsible for American Christianity’s massive decline—poor catechesis, boring worship, unengaging Bible studies, weak outreach efforts, the list of reasons goes on. The implication is that, if we just got all of this stuff right, if we just corrected all of our efforts, then we would once again experience stronger congregations in the US. Since the Church is, in large part, responsible for the decline we are witnessing, the Church needs to fix it.

But what if we did? I mean, what if the Church did fix it and did everything the right way? Do we believe that it would change the cultural shift away from the Church?

Now, before I go on, let me be very clear (which is a line that means many of you are going to skip this part, judging from some reactions our Jagged blogs gets), I do believe that there is much wrong in our churches and that both the Church’s sins of omission and commission have harmed many people. A lot of people do leave the Church for legitimate reasons. There is much work to be done in the way of repentance and reconsidering how our congregations operate. I also believe there is much to be gained by seeking to improve our preaching, teaching, and activities in the Church.

empty pews

With that being said, I do find it curious that as we talk about decline in ecclesiastical numbers across the board We analyze the reasons so many people are leaving the church, and we rarely actually look to the Scriptures to see if we can find any insight there. And, upon further analysis, what we find is rather surprising!

Consider the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:4-15). You know the story: a farmer goes out and scatters seed everywhere. He is almost crazy in how liberally he spreads that seed. He’s throwing it like a wild man onto roadways, into bad soil of all kinds, and into good soil. He just skips along, flinging that seed around. Some of it gets taken away by birds, some if it gets choked out by weeds, some dies from the heat due to weak roots, and some produces fruit. As Jesus interprets the parable, He is the crazy farmer throwing the seeds of His Gospel wherever He will. And the results of his work? Well, Satan gets the word away from some like the birds and the seed, some die off because they are overwhelmed by trials such a word brings, and some are choked out because they love this world’s vain pleasures more than Jesus. But, of course, some produce fruit for the kingdom of God.

Now, if we run the numbers on this, 75% of the people in the parable who receive His Gospel reject the Word. What was Jesus doing wrong? What could He have done to be more effective? It is very much worth noting that the problem did not lie with the Sower nor with the seed. Satan, the world, and the flesh were the problem, according to Jesus. People weren’t rejecting Christ because of poor catechesis or bad programming. The numbers declined because of Jesus! He didn’t preach what people wanted to hear.

The point I’m driving at is this: Sometimes the Church declines, not because of the Church getting it wrong, but because the devil, the world, and the flesh draw people away. Jesus’ ministry experienced decline, and I’m pretty sure He did nothing wrong. Now, the Church is not Jesus, and she is full of mistakes and sins. And perhaps that’s what the Church needs to hear in all of this: We are not Jesus. Even if we corrected everything we are doing wrong and fixed all the leaks in our ship, we would still witness loss and decline like Jesus did. This is what we will see until Christ returns.

But we need not lose heart. There is great hope, but not in the Church’s activity. It is in the Church’s Christ. Maybe instead of trying to turn the tide of numerical decline, the Church simply need to get out of the way and let that crazy Sower scatter His seeds all over the place! Maybe we simply need to return to hearing Jesus’ Word of repentance and forgiveness. Maybe, instead of trying to find the silver bullet answer to grow our churches, we just need to hear Jesus in all His bloody, sin-killing, life-giving glory! Who knows? Maybe we will even rejoice as we watch His crop produce thirty, sixty, even a hundred fold!