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.

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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!

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18 thoughts on “Why the American Church Is Declining

  1. When the Church is out and about, scattering the seed (we are Christ’s Body and we are the hands and feet that go out and sow), we, the Church, grow. You cannot measure that in numbers but you can measure this in faith. We grow in faith as the Word is brought more into our lives and sharing brings it in more frequently than a Sunday sermon.

    In Christ, there is shade and protection, strength to resist temptation. To that end, we also transplant seeds from poor soil and rocky ground to the good soil of the Church where they are watered and fed. From the parable, we know that this is not a numbers game. If the goal were profit and the tool was marketing, we’d close up shop and go into another business. But we do not sell out and sit idly in the pews looking at aging, shrinking parishes, worrying about the bills, grabbing God’s gifts for ourselves and going home to bemoan a fallen world, proud of our faith.

    The seeds are sown, the harvest is out there, and the Church has never had so rich a field to work, so much to tend and nurture, so many to transplant and save. In other words, the Church has to get out and work on the other side of the sanctuary doors! “Go” and make disciples is not sit and stew nor is it resting on the laurels of victory.

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    1. Much of what is been said is true. However… Not all falls in the Church, I hear same thing from my friends of the Catholic, Methodist and other churches affiliations.. Looking at it from my immigrant point of view a lot falls in the culture we live in. I grew up as a child and a young woman in culture that was in harmony with God, because words like respect for your fellowmen, as well for respect for human life from conception to death, honesty, honor and integrity, morality were the principles by which the society lived by. You may not think that this has anything to do with the subject at hand, But it does, if the culture outside church and outside the home is not congruent with the believer’s most basic core beliefs then every day materialism overshadows the practice of our faith, For the average American Christian is difficult not to become asleep and not recognize that certain movies, certain music, television and social mores are incongruent from what we profess to believe and the do have an effect on our practice of the Word. We fall asleep, What could be a solution to this.? Maybe courses that will teach us to become more aware, conscious of what we are seeing, and hearing outside the church. We need to acknowledge and teach in practical terms the teachings of the Lord in a way that addresses life of today in this present. Just saying..

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      1. “For the church does not live by morals, by the knowledge and observance of God’s law nor does it live by religion, by lofty experiences of the divine and an awareness of the mysteries of God. It lives solely by the forgiveness of sins.”
        – Hermann Sasse

        None of us and no culture is in harmony with God based on Law, moral behavior. We never look to outward signs or accept goodness coram mundi (before the world) as righteousness coram Deo (before God). That the world is against our faith is simply a given. there was some delusion that a moral nation was somehow “Christian” but that old illusion is now, properly shattered. But we cannot cede that temptation is ever greater that what can be overcome with God’s help (1 Cor 10:13). The darker the world, the brighter our faith shines. When you are in a lighted church, the altar candles have little effect. But that same amount of light is glaring in a dark room.

        Satisfied people who behave well (think Pharisees) are not saved because they do not see the sin they need to be rescued from. A nation, culture, people consumed by Law and seeking the good in fulfillment of the Law will not turn to the cross. Worse, merely behaving well to avoid criminal penalties or the shame of cutting against culture do not prevent sin. If anything, this hides the existence of sin under a veneer of conformity.

        What can we do? ” But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” (Jude 20-24) “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits[a] of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Col 2:6-8) “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thess 5:11)

        Only in the church are any seedlings safe. If you are out gathering and harvesting, praying and working, you have no time to be persuaded by the world. Our refuge is in Christ and the life we have been given.

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      2. I may have use the wrong word, I use the word morals as in 10 Commandments. Those were the morals IO was speaking and what my culture understand But do I appreciate what you say.

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      3. I will keep you in my prayers. Each day, I pray for an end to suffering and fear. Each morning I wake up, I have my answer – not yet. So, it’s back to the fields where the workers pray, commiserate, encourage and the seedlings are tended with Christ’s love. We listen, we empathize, we share our lives and stories, we pray, we commiserate, we encourage. But all the while, we look forward to the day when this is no more, not backward. Two examples some to mind: Lot’s wife and in Ephesians 6. We know about the pillar of salt but, when we put on the armor of God, it has been pointed out to me that none of those pieces cover our backside. We face the world, head on and facing forward.

        Christ’s peace!

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  2. It’s very easy for us to fall into this mentality. “If only the church did everything right, we would be growing and not declining. It must be our fault that the church is not growing.” How subtle this shift is! It is Christ who builds his church.

    Certainly, we are called to faithfulness, and we ought to strive toward that goal. But as you’ve pointed out, even perfect faithfulness would not guarantee numeric growth. When we fall into the trap of believing that the growth of Christ’s church growth is dependent upon our ingenuity, we quickly fall away from Biblical fidelity. May God keep us from this error.

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  3. What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 1st Corinthians 3:5-7
    I think a lot of us are, and will be, in perpetual recovery from Finney’s revival techniques thinking we can somehow orchestrate and control the results we desire.

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  4. Our Lord prophesied that in the last days men’s love would grow cold.
    What we are witnessing in the Church in this culture is more than the 75% attrition the parable of the sower gives. We are seeing the last days. Satan’s attack upon the family and the roll of the father is devastating. The foundation of the churches is found in the hearts and homes of God’s people. The Church with her clergy and liturgy, her music and her programs is building upon sand. God’s people are no longer reading God’s word in their homes as families. 500 years ago men gave their lives so that the Word of God would be made available in the common languages of the people. The people feasted upon God’s word and the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith was confirmed. The Reformation was God’s doing through God’s word. Today, Believers have slipped into the old Roman Catholic sin of sloth, letting their pastors be their source of their knowledge of God rather than knowing Him for themselves. God intended his word to permeate and saturate the daily lives of families, Deut. 6;4ff, The clergy has wrongly accepted the role of the father, catechisis will forever belong to the father not to the pastor. Pastors are to teach fathers, fathers are to teach their children. Pastors are failing to preach fatherly God given duty, Eph. 6; 4. Pastors are not leading, they are acquiescing and accommodating our cultural slide into dysfunctional Christianity.

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    1. Absolutely! Living the life we’re given nurtures the seed that was planted in us, as well. A parish that reaches out in love to live the life won by Christ is fertile soil.

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