Why Is The Church Shrinking? Happiness!

By Joel Hess

Numbers are shrinking or so we are told. I just trust the experts who count these numbers. Of course, they rely on a lot of pastors who aren’t good with numbers. So, I don’t know.  Even though I have never seen it at the churches I have served, I suppose I believe them.

Oh the question as to why! Oh the many answers. It’s not me, it’s you. It’s not you, it’s me. Astonishingly there are some who are proud of low numbers in their parish because they believe it validates the faithfulness of their ministry. Then of course, there are those who are disturbed by dwindling numbers and blame the church, her message, and/or her method. It’s a merry-go-round of frantic “the sky is falling” chicken littles pointing fingers at everyone but themselves.

Why is membership declining? Well, since many churches have been doing “cool” worship for decades and attendance is still declining, I don’t think we can blame worship styles. Churches invented “youth ministry” a long time ago to reach the youth, yet their numbers are still declining; so that isn’t the answer. (One might even make the argument that youth ministry is the problem if you simply correlate the rise of youth ministry with the decrease in church membership.)

No new argument has been offered to finally defeat the Gospel. No new discovery has disproved the historical claims of Christianity or the accuracy of the Scriptures. Jesus bones have still not been found! The tomb is still empty! He is risen! You can say that with as much scientific and historical certainty as ever. He is risen! Say it with me brothers.

So what’s the deal? Why is church attendance shrinking?


People are happy without it. That is the goal of the Church right?

We mock the Middle Ages and especially the corruption of the Church. Yet that Zeitgeist had one thing right. Their mindset was on God and eternity. They had higher goals for themselves than we do today: living forever, even if it means living uncomfortably for a little while here. They lived in reality. Death was visibly all around. They were going to die and that was going to suck. So it really mattered what God thought of them. They were under no illusion that they would live forever by their own doings.

If they wanted to, they could have invented the iPhone and vaccinations. But that wasn’t their goal! So what if they extended their years on this miserable planet? Unfortunately, like the chief priests who threw the money back at Judas when he came to the “church” for help,  many in the church of the Middle Ages offered the same poor shepherding to those who sought peace.

So then, the Enlightenment was born. We can change the world. We make it better. We can eventually know everything. This is still the overarching mindset of most people. Post-modernism is a movement within this worldview.

Today we have created the illusion that suffering and even death has been or can be conquered. Seriously? The percentage of mortality has not changed a millimeter since they were drinking mercury and putting leaches on people’s backs. Think about that! NOTHING HAS CHANGED!

Yet because we can spend our death sentence a lot more leisurely today than yesterday, people literally forget that death and pain is a second away.

Most Americans’ goal is to live comfortable and happy lives. Surely, God wants that for us right? (In the back of their minds many people truly hold out hope that those who gave us the iPhone will give us the iLife.) I would suggest many Christians have more hope and faith in technology, which has proved absolutely nothing, than God.

Sadly, the church has bought into this fantasy. She has unwittingly supported it. Many pastors don’t talk about the virtue of suffering in our lives, let alone the virtue of submission even as slaves to masters. We, pastors, even expect to enjoy a bourgeois mediocre comfortable life like our parishioners. We even think this is our right. Our fat selves have gotten quite used to it. Though we should know better, we too are outraged when pain and suffering interferes with our happiness. God, do something! We tell people that God wants to heal them, that it’s great that so and so lived to 92, but it’s sad that little Jimmy got hit by a car. We tell people, “I’m sure it will get better. Hey there are new cures for cancer every day.”

We have created a culture that demands to be happy at church and in life. Happy with the worship service: whether it’s contemporary or traditional. Happy with the preaching. Happy with the pastor’s visits. You have a right to be happy. The church exists to make us all happy.

But people have come to realize that they can be happy without going to a church service or being a member of a church. And they can!

Pastors, part of our job is to smash dreams, pour boiling tar on illusions, and throw rocks in glass houses.

Part of our job is to make people unhappy! To stick their hands on hot stoves. To flush the toilet while they are taking a shower.

You see the Emperor has no clothes on! People are actually lying when they say they are happy. They are not. They aren’t happy as they live a life contrary to nature and God’s laws. They aren’t happy even though they call their funerals “celebrations of life.” They go to bed scared, insecure, and empty. They are like that recent young lady who moved to Oregon so she could commit suicide. Why? Because it would make her happy! But what would make her happier? A cure!

And the Church has it.

Jesus Christ.

He is risen.

He didn’t need any help from Pfizer or John Hopkins who have lost every single patient they have ever tried to help.


3 thoughts on “Why Is The Church Shrinking? Happiness!

  1. Excellent points. Why does the church decline during times of relative prosperity, and expand during periods of want and, even under persecution? The Old Testament gives us an understanding of how and why the Jews often departed from the faith, chased other gods, and worshipped the idols of nearby pagan nations. As you have pointed out, when people are fairly happy without church, without God, they tend to think all the material blessings they have are well earned rights that just keep coming. Why bother praying? Why go to church? This is a popular attitude. God warned Israel repeatedly through the prophets about spiritual lethargy. Like the children of Israel, many of today’s Christians behave similarly. But God eventually brings correction to individuals and nations. Despite the arrogance of many Americans we know, the same discipline and the almighty hand of the Lord may not spare us either. In my view, it is a matter of time before we experience war with Russia, as some of our leaders desire, and economic chaos as well as hard times. The church doors will begin to open wider, attendance will swell, and people who ordinarily do not pray very much, will fall to their knees.


  2. Right on, Pastor Joel Hess, right on. I once heard a girl describe in flowery detail a place where she felt at home, secure, loved, nurtured and cared for… she was talking about her dance studio. There are lots of places that will give us what we think we want/need, but only one place that will break us with the law then offer us God’s grace through forgiveness. Sadly, most pastors have abandoned their office. (So I guess I’m blaming the pastors for low numbers… sorry)


  3. Been thinking about this for years. No sense of immediate doom in our culture. Few people die at home, or are found dead by their kids. Death has become too clinical and sterile. One day, Grandpa just “left us for a better place and someday when you’re really old like him…”
    How does one instill a sense of immediacy and need in people who are amusing themselves to death?


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