Theology Corner

Addressing commonly asked questions about Christianity from the perspective of a non-theologian

9. Why is the Protestant Church Dying in the United States?

Available evidence suggests most denominations and individual protestant churches have either reached a plateau or are on the decline in the United States. This country may be only one or two generations behind Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other regions in experiencing the essential death of the church. Why is this happening? Is the church afflicted with some Satanic virus for which there is neither treatment nor cure? Is the reason for this spiral into the abyss some great theological mystery?

Chapters 2 and 3 of Ephesians explain that all believers are reconciled with one another and united in the Church of Jesus Christ; authorities in Heaven are observing the church hoping to see the "manifold wisdom of God" at work on earth. To the extent these rulers see a body of believers characterized by:

  • Confession of sin, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience
  • Spiritual unity in pursuit of the Great Commandment (Mat 22:36-40) and the Great Commission (Mat 28:18-20)

they see the hand of God working through His church. But what ugly characteristics are these authorities also observing in churches across the United States? The list includes but is certainly not limited to the following items. As you read these items, remember that much is expected from those to whom much has been given (Luke 12:48) and much has been given to America; for the United States, the bar has been raised.

  • Pastors lacking the courage of their convictions and no longer serving the One who called them but instead serving the ones who pay their salaries and control their careers. Each pastor who becomes an entertainment director, chief entertainer or master of ceremonies for some introverted, self-serving, country club and each pastor intent on steering his "cruise ship" through calm waters without any rough seas, anxious moments or requirement to reason or act beyond a fourth grade level will be judged by the One who called him/her to ministry.
  • Pastors who cultivate great country club churches having magnificent architecture, accomplished musicians and a plethora of activities for all ages. But the pervasive pall of spiritual death permeates every corner of the great edifice. The pastor seldom talks of heaven, hell or Satan and, except for rare occasions, never talks about the desperate need of each member to confess sin with heartfelt remorse, strive for repentance, embrace faith and seek obedience to God. The pastor doesn't talk about salvation as it comprises: redemption from the bondage of sin, God's forgiveness of sin, justification before a Holy God, adoption into the family of God, regeneration from the death of sin to a life of pursuing righteousness, travel along the path of sanctification, reconciliation with fellow Christians, unification in the Church of Jesus Christ and looking forward to glorification. Instead, he concentrates on getting everyone involved in some activity akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. By design, the congregation never knows exactly what they believe, why they believe it and what they should do about it. Church members are simply encouraged to believe that participation in country club activities will make them pleasing to God. Meanwhile, desperate turmoil lurks in the hidden corners of their lives just below the country club façade. Such churches can absorb sharp deviations from traditional Christian doctrine such as ordination of LGBT clergy, abortion on demand as a means of birth control and the belief that all religions lead to the same God because members are too ignorant to know the difference.
  • Pastors who are terrified by the thought that they may have to reveal and defend their own positions on contested Christian issues such as Calvinism, tongues, entire sanctification, the Holy Trinity, Biblical inspiration, the bodily resurrection, the virgin birth, sin, salvation, same sex unions and many others. Even though studies have linked the failure of evangelism to ignorance of apologetics, pastors fear their congregations might learn too much. Excessive knowledge invites division. An ignorant congregation is a manageable congregation. After all, isn't the prime objective to keep the local church cruise ship moving along through calm waters with everyone well fed and entertained and the pastor employed?
  • Pastors who fail to stand firm against the evil sweeping over civilization like a tsunami. Their knees shake and their legs turn to jelly as they contemplate the possible consequences, to their careers, of exposing the truth about Islamic Jihad, homosexuality, abortion for convenience, promiscuity, positive tolerance and many other personal choices. Instead, these pastors follow the appeasement example of some European clergy who embraced Third Reich doctrine and twisted the cross into a Swastika. If the Christian church, under the leadership of pastors, is not on the front lines where the battle rages in the Great War between good and evil, then the church has betrayed its Savior.
  • Pastors who fail to emphasize the teaching of Christian Apologetics. Consequently, their congregations don't know what they should believe, why they should believe it and what they should do about it!
  • Pastors who have little interest in evangelizing their own communities. They will invest enormous church resources to construct one room cinder block buildings in third world countries but completely ignore giant apartment complexes next door to their churches.
  • Pastors who teach that Christians will achieve health, healing, well being, safety, wealth and prosperity in this life if only they will "confess it and possess it" or "name it and claim it."
  • Pastors having neither leadership nor administrative skills but refusing to delegate or relinquish control to those who do.
  • Pastors who teach that Jesus not only loves you but He likes you just the way you are! There is no need for anyone to confess their sins, have remorse in their heart and repent. Jesus approves of those who advocate the use of abortion for convenience as a means of birth control. He does not condemn drug and alcohol addiction. He does not condemn spousal abuse and neglect of family. He does not condemn promiscuity. To gain your support, these phony pastors tell you exactly what you want to hear, but not what you need to hear.
  • Pastors and church leaders unwilling or unable to make a paradigm shift in Great Commission strategy. For example, the United Methodist Church has been in a death spiral for 50 years. A short list of remedial measures has been thrust in the faces of members tens of thousands of times by two generations of church leaders. These measures may have produced nominal success in the first half of the 20th century but, for the past 50 years, their influence has been overwhelmed by major changes in American culture. Now they have lost their effectiveness altogether. One example is the act of witnessing to the unchurched at work or in places of business. This is now considered "religious workplace harassment" and may result in penalties against those engaged in proselytizing. Another example is inviting your neighbor to church. In a modern American subdivision, you don't know your neighbors well enough to invite them for a doughnut let alone invite them to church. Only superficial shifts in Great Commission strategy have been made, over the years, even though today's culture is much more jaded, sophisticated and anti-Christian than the culture of the 1960's. 35% of millennials don't trust religious leaders. Some UMC leaders want to appease the un-churched by introducing social positions, which mirror our culture, into the church as God approved behavior (same sex marriage, abortion for convenience, etc.). Nevertheless, the average age of a Methodist is about 60 years and 90% of all UMC churches over 100 years old will close in the next few years. We re-double our efforts to implement failed programs in spite of that old adage, "If you do what you've always done, you get what you always got!" Any retail business exhibiting a downward spiral like that of the UMC would, long ago, have made a fundamental paradigm shift and the blame for failure would have been assigned solely to management and not the consumer base.
  • Pastors and church leaders growing impatient with God and seeking to do His work by the power of the flesh rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit. The central problems of Christianity are always in the midst of the people of God and not in the circumstances of the world. Satan strives to cripple the church from within. Although Christians are useless to God without being empowered by the Holy Spirit, many pastors and church leaders ape the world's wisdom, trust its forms of publicity and imitate its ways of manipulating men. If we put the world's wisdom at the center of our activities, we may gain the power of the world, but we will forfeit the power of the Holy Spirit. The world, at every level, is aflame with war between the forces of good and evil. But we cannot win our portion of the engagement with earthly weapons (Eph 6:10-18).
  • Church leaders having neither leadership nor administrative skills. With regard to that old saying -- either lead, follow or get out of the way-- these leaders choose "none of the above."
  • Church leaders who wallow in the exercise of power and authority. They have forgotten that when a Christian is extruded by God into a position of leadership, that person becomes a greater servant to all.
  • Church leaders who don't know the meaning of corporate prayer.
  • Church leaders (usually Deacons) who view themselves as above the law.  They are not bound by Christian concepts of integrity, righteousness, morality, ethics or character.  Instead, they believe they have been appointed  by God to rule the local church by any means they deem appropriate.  If, for example, a vote occurs to fill a Deacon vacancy, these leaders may discard the ballots and select an old friend who has returned to the church after years of absence.  Or, if the congregation contributes thousands of dollars for designated ministries, these Deacons may appropriate those funds for other purposes and cook the books to conceal their subterfuge.  They tell each other they are leading the church according to God's ways and not ways understandable by men.
  • Church leaders and Bible scholars who teach non-Biblical concepts such as: (1) the reality of the trinity is false; God exists as one person with three faces or masks, (2) Jesus was not bodily resurrected from the dead, (3) Paul exhibited latent homosexual tendencies, (4) Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, (5) modern psychology and sociology supercede the Bible with regard to behavioral issues, (6) most people were predestined to Hell by God's decree before the universe was formed and (7) salvation is universal; all go to Heaven.
  • Churches bound together by means of episcopal polity (e.g. the United Methodist Church). A single governing body thereby establishes Biblical exegesis for every church in the denomination. Such denominations are prime targets for those clergy and laypersons driven by single issue social activism. A few hundred dedicated activists, if allowed to dominate a legislative body, can change fundamental doctrine governing 10 million members. For example, LGBT activists have been infiltrating the General Conference of the UMC for more than 40 years. They are poised to revise the Book of Discipline and change the historic doctrine of the United Methodist Church regarding homosexuality. In spite of clear Biblical teaching to the contrary (Rom 1:26; 1 Cor 6:9-10), these activists want to declare that homosexuality is not a sin, homosexual unions should be conducted in the church and homosexuals should be ordained into the ministry. When this happens, UMC members have two options, embrace homosexuality or leave the denomination. The departure of many will not be viewed as disruptive or destructive; the activists will view it as "purification." To accelerate a change in the Book of Discipline, the UMC upper echelon elite are not confined to contemporary rules and prohibitions. They will try to intimidate General Conference members by ordaining homosexual pastors and bishops and then daring the denominational leadership to take action. In this way, the UMC will comprise a lawless denomination as well as an apostate denomination. John Wesley and Francis Asbury may be "turning over in their graves."
  • Churches denying the will of God to heal in the present day even though Jesus sent forth his followers to both preach the Gospel and heal the sick (Luke 9:1-2, 10:8-9). Physical healing was commonplace in the early Christian community. But many Christians, in the 21st century, have become so sophisticated and jaded that they doubt the power of prayer and the will of God to heal. Three elements of healing are mentioned in the New Testament [united corporate prayer (James 5:14), anointing with oil (James 5:14; Mark 6:13) and laying on of hands (Mark 16:18)]. The early church combined these three elements into a single activity with the objective of healing. A church that denies healing is a sterile church where no one is healed!
  • Churches exercising non-Biblical concepts in the selection of church leaders. Most churches would be pleased to accept John Newton or the apostle Paul as a pastor, elder or deacon even though these men were frequently accessories to murder. These same churches might exclude a 60-year-old Christian, having tremendous leadership skills, because he/she was deserted by a spouse at age 19.
  • Churches substituting man made rituals (committees, boards, councils, by-laws, membership) and non-Biblical vision (massive building programs and extensive property ownership) for Biblical leadership and planning; these congregations become obsessed with property ownership and they sacrifice Great Commission work to achieve it.
  • Churches that are little more than introverted, self-serving country clubs for a few families. Service has been replaced by serve-us and "it's all about God" has been replaced by "it's all about me."
  • Churches having ritualistic, "wooden" worship services; the Holy Spirit is not invited and would not be welcomed if He showed up.
  • Churches where "loving your neighbor" is practiced but with subtle exclusivity regarding who constitutes a neighbor.
  • Churches with no burden for evangelism because of their belief that persons elected to salvation and persons condemned to hell were chosen by God before the universe was formed.
  • Churches where "enlarging the fellowship" means inviting persons just like those already present but, by treatment, excluding others from country club participation.
  • Churches where "discipleship" means re-reading the same baby-food Sunday School lessons covered for the past 30 years but never knowing exactly what Christians believe and why.
  • Christian institutions and denominations originally created to preserve theological purity, but over time, morphing into exclusive clubs enabling Christian "insiders" to set themselves apart from the world. The common name for this malady is legalism and the insiders consider themselves "Christian elite." After a while, mere separation from the world is not enough. These Christian elite invent standards of appearance and behavior to elevate themselves above the rank and file Christian. Their self proclaimed purity lifts them to a peerage above the just barely saved. To accentuate this separation, they include behavior before salvation in the overall measure of moral worth. Positions of leadership are restricted to those who have not violated specific, but arbitrary, rules prior to salvation. It seems that regeneration by the Grace of God can never quite lift the ordinary repentant sinner to the peerage occupied by those who claim pre-salvation lives of moral purity in some category of behavior. This is a slap in the face to God's plan of redemption and creates an obstacle for the unsaved. The corruption that is Christian elitism is invisible to the self proclaimed elite but clear as a bell to outsiders looking in. Christianity is a redemptive religion based on confession of sin, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience continually reaffirmed and renewed. It is a daily dying to sin and living to pursue righteousness. You have no grasp on holiness except that given to you by the grace of God. God sometimes uses persons who have demonstrated a lifetime of substantial moral purity but, most often, He uses men and women who have desperately responded to the grace of God by confession of sin, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience. The Church is a hospital for the healing of sinners, not an introverted, self-serving country club for saints. God used Paul the Apostle and John Newton the pastor, who were each accessories to multiple murders. God allowed Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba to be part of the genealogy of Jesus. Which of us, by our own merit, can be elevated above the sin of this world? Christian elitism renders an organization or institution highly susceptible to serial sin committed by leaders and to the deliberate concealment of that sin by leadership who see themselves as beyond the need for confession, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience.
  • Churches that "turn a blind eye" to the sin of malicious gossip, slander, false accusation and general unwarranted rebellion against church leadership. The victims are pastors, program directors and virtually anyone else occupying a position of leadership. The perpetrators view themselves as among the Godliest people associated with the church. They see themselves as empowered by the Holy Spirit, blessed with many spiritual gifts and serving as Christian role models for others. The perpetrators are not the only ones responsible for the ensuing damage; others, well aware of what is taking place, remain silent. They share in the guilt. The church is never quite the same after one of these incidents. It begins with a few individuals objecting to a proposed change in some activity of great importance to them. It could be a proposed change in format to the Sunday School program or even the temporary cancellation of a para-church meeting. The gossip mongers and false accusers discuss the situation among themselves and then launch a ninja-like attack. They accuse the leader of everything from trying to destroy the church to having an affair with the secretary. Nothing is off limits. They almost never discuss the issue with the leader involved. When the pastor resigns or the leader departs, the perpetrators believe their efforts have been vindicated by God. Scripture is clear on this type of sin (Lev 19:16; Prov 10:18; 1 Cor 5:11, 6:10; 2 Cor 12:20; Titus 3:2) and sin always has consequences even for great servants of God (i.e. Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, David, Solomon, Elijah and Peter).
  • Churches embracing Biblical objectives [i.e. Great Commandment (Mat 22:36-40) and Great Commission (Mat 28:18-20)] but trying to accomplish these objectives by some secular process. Rather than search Scripture for a Biblical process, church leaders bypass God and use human intelligence. For worship, congregations passively listen to clever messages mixed in with musical entertainment, announcements and ritual prayer. The messages are carefully contrived to avoid causing anyone to think excessively or become uneasy; scary words like "SATAN" and "HELL" are generally avoided. Members minister to their neighbors by paying them short visits during which members guard against too much involvement; this assuages the conscience while avoiding unpleasant entanglements in core problems. Members sometimes evangelize by preaching and quoting Scripture to people they barely know. They become self-appointed martyrs if their efforts are rebuffed; they tell God they were faithful even if they weren't fruitful. Church leaders enlarge the fellowship by every sort of "Madison Avenue" huckstering within the limits of our imagination, of course telling God that whatever they do is for the "greater good." Discipleship is accomplished in Sunday School by re-reading the same baby-food lessons for decade after decade but never teaching exactly what Christians believe and why. Leaders may also introduce social positions, which mirror our culture, into the Church as God approved behavior (i.e. abortion for convenience, homosexuality, promiscuity without consequence, etc.). Attempts to implement these secular processes never succeed and frequently put the church into a death spiral. Biblical processes [united corporate prayer, restoration (healing), truth, magnifying the influence of God in our lives] are occasionally discussed but never tried.

Each of these items contributes to gradual aging of the church congregation and failure to embrace a new generation. In at least one mainline denomination, the average age for a church member is 60 and nearly 90% of all churches over 100 years old will close in the next few years. Each of these items can be characterized by one word: disobedience. God usually turns his back on the disobedient until He observes repentance. Could this be the solution to the mysterious malady afflicting the church in America? Is it possible that the downward spiral of the church is not so much a mystery after all?

Can a typical "cruise ship" church make a course correction without the captain and his entertainment staff being fired by the passengers or without the pampered passengers abandoning ship? Opportunities and risks abound. Consider, for example, the typical "cruise ship" church worship service consisting of the following time breakdown in minutes:

  • 2-10 -- ritual prayer for which few expect a response from God
  • 20-30 -- musical entertainment (solo, praise team, choir and congregational)
  • 2-5 -- announcements from the entertainment staff to the passengers
  • 20-30 -- sermon crafted to avoid causing anyone to think or become uneasy

This wooden worship service may be supplemented by a 45 minute Sunday school lesson where the same baby-food Bible stories are covered for years on end. The Holy Spirit does not usually have a role in these events; in fact His presence would cause feelings of embarrassment and consternation.

But what if the ritual prayer, musical entertainment and announcements were replaced by congregational corporate prayer from men and women yearning to be led by the Holy Spirit down a path of confession, remorse, repentance, faith, obedience, humility, forgiveness, sincerity, purity, persistence, restoration, truth and worship? What if the sermon was intended to make everyone better able to give a reason for the hope that is in us? What if each cruise ship church turned into a real church?

Or what if a young pastor, uncorrupted by the professional Christian establishment, decided to make a paradigm shift and insist that all church activities be filtered through the recurrence mnemonic PRTM from the Hebrew "Mem Tav Reysh Pe" meaning most noble prince? PRTM represents a mnemonic for

Prayer (Praise, Repentance, Thanksgiving, Mercy)
Restoration (Purification, Regeneration, Transformation, Maintenance)
Truth (Precedent, Reason, Testament, Manifold)
M
agnification (Promise, Revelation, Trust, Manifestation)

This could serve as a filter for removal of frivolous activities.

The response of pastors and other leaders to church decline is generally to continue doing everything the same way but with a doubling of effort. Unfortunately, if you do what you've always done, you get what you always got! Pastors seem to think Jesus will say to them, "Well done my good and faithful servants; the church died but you were all faithful in your efforts. Come to the front of the line." Instead, He might say, "My church died in America on your watch. I am holding you responsible. You have failed to be fruitful."

Pastors and church leaders have great difficulty accepting the idea that ritual faithfulness is not a substitute for Great Commission fruitfulness. If Christians huddle together in worship, study and fellowship, if they lift their voices to create magnificent music, if they recite Scripture from memory and faithfully attend all church activities but never take risks that might motivate the unsaved to accept the great gift of salvation, then they will engender the wrath of God (Mat 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27). In Luke 16:1-12 we read about the incompetent manager of a rich man's estate who "cooked the books" to make the rich man think he was doing a good job. In an attempt to diminish his punishment, the manager quickly discounted the debt of some who owed money. This is the same tactic used by collection agencies who reason that 50 cents repayment on a dollar of debt is better than no repayment at all. The manager's actions generated income for the rich man's estate. In other words, the incompetent manager's actions bore fruit and he was commended by the rich man. We, who have received the great gift of salvation, must not hide that gift in the ground. Although our efforts will expose our own incompetence and inability, we must move forward with Great Commission efforts even when it puts our reputation, wealth and safety at risk. Ritual faithfulness is not a substitute for Great Commission fruitfulness.

The progressive death of a church is effectively described by the "Condition versus Time Curve" familiar to practitioners of asset management, risk abatement, reliability optimization and quality control. This curve defines the health or condition of the church at any given time. At the onset of decline, one or more of the components, resources or activities of the church begins to malfunction. It is hardly noticeable at the time and the overall enterprise continues its activities essentially undisturbed. A pastor retires, for example, leaving a leadership vacuum. His successor has few leadership skills. So a loose collection of obscure committees assumes the mantle of leadership. Unfortunately, these committees are not structured for leadership. They become obstacles to progress and slide into a mind-set portrayed by the slogan, "We will not lead, we will not follow and we will not get out of the way." The "Condition versus Time Curve" eventually reaches the "P" point. The church continues to function but "Potential Failure" is revealed to the discerning observer by the appearance of the following types of issues:

  • Church discord becomes more frequent.
  • Great Commandment and Great Commission activities begin to fade. Worship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship growth and discipleship are given little more than lip service.
  • Prayers start to become ritual with little expectation that God will respond.
  • The church begins to lose its collective sense of humility and move beyond a need for confession of sin, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience.
  • The church begins to morph into an introverted, self-serving country club.
  • The church begins to place great value on a pastor with a "master of ceremonies" or "entertainment director" skill set.
  • Staff conflicts begin to appear followed by resignations and departure of church members.
  • Financial concerns begin to appear.

A church at the "P" point can be salvaged but serious remediation is required. A church at the "P" point would benefit greatly from a Root Cause Analysis (RCA) conducted by an Asset Management or Risk Abatement consultant. But committee members cannot tolerate that degree of scrutiny; it would be far too painful and humiliating. So the Condition versus Time Curve continues its downward progression. The curve eventually reaches the "F" point. "Functional Failure" finally occurs but is typically preceded by many red flag events such as:

  • The church experiences a "split" accompanied by the loss of 20 - 40% of the congregation. The members who are the actual Root Cause of the decline almost never leave. As others depart, their power is strengthened.
  • Virtually all parents under age 45 depart with their children and other family members.
  • The church has nothing to offer a young Christian family and nothing to offer "seekers" of any age.
  • Departed members are viewed as misguided and confused or perhaps just "Bible Thumping" troublemakers.
  • Well meaning "eccentrics" in the church body assume an increasingly visible role.
  • Staff turnover accelerates. The congregation seeks a "maintenance pastor" who will keep them well fed and entertained and not burden them with talk of confession, repentance and obedience.
  • Articles of Faith become fuzzy and unimportant.
  • The church Mission Statement is window dressing fluff.
  • Increasingly serious financial issues creep into the church.
  • Members view themselves as the long suffering, faithful remnant. Jesus will presumably reward their faithfulness and ignore their lack of fruit.

Once a church reaches the "F" point, failure is probably inevitable even though actual death may not occur for several years depending on the financial situation. Up to 5000 churches in America close their doors each year. Church foreclosures are on the rise. God does not intervene to save a disobedient church.