A Gallup poll was recently published showing that for the first time since Gallup began measuring, less than fifty percent of Americans claim membership in a Christian church.
According to Gallup, while 76 percent of Americans believe in “God,” only 47 percent of them attend a local church. This percentage is down from nearly 70 percent in the 1990s.
While that news may not be surprising to many of us, the questions this data raises should be of concern to all Christians. The first and most important question is why. Why are there so few people who affirm church membership today?
There are many reasons posited for the decline in church membership. Time pressures, family issues, competing influences, denominational divisions and the like.
But is it possible that the real reason is something more foundational? Could it be that churches are not doing what churches are supposed to be doing?
Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
So, why in our age is church membership declining so rapidly? Is it the culture or is it the church? Jesus is continuing to add people to his church as he said, but why are they failing to show up?
Perhaps sensing the decline, churches throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries followed the trend to make church as appealing to the masses as possible. Borrowing from business leaders, politicians and marketing experts, the church has tried to sell itself to the masses in hopes of attracting crowds.
Often, this involved compromising on biblical teaching, biblical worship, and biblical practice in favor of making the church relevant in today’s culture. The church forgot what she was created to do.
The church’s product is life transformation. The church is called to take unbelievers, connect them to Christ, help them grow to spiritual maturity in community, and equip them to serve in ministry and on mission.
Nearly all Christians would agree with that statement. But what goes into producing life transformation is where disagreement arises.
The prototype for the church of today is the church in Acts in the first century. It was a church that experienced consistent, phenomenal growth with measurable life transformation in its members.
Their model for doing so was simple. They employed biblical teaching, a shared fellowship with one another, prayer and the practice of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42).
That’s it. Four things. And they did these consistently and the Lord continued to add to their numbers daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).
Have we lost this central focus in the church today? Biblical teaching, when it can be found, is often offered only a supporting role in a larger theme of “counseling by sermon” where felt needs of the congregation supersede biblical instruction for life.
Authentic fellowship is rare in a culture that prides itself on radical individualism bordering on narcissism. Prayer is often seen only as a crutch for the weak.
And fellowship at the Lord’s table is often taken for granted as a meaningless ritual rather than for the truth it proclaims about Christ’s death and his return.
If we wish to reverse the decline of church membership, we must return to the biblical precepts for doing church.
Biblical teaching, preferably of the expository variety, is paramount. Life transformation will not occur without the preaching of the Word of God.
Genuine fellowship must once again become true of the church, in which the needs of others are placed above our own, creating an authentic Christian community.
Prayer is the lynchpin which holds the body of Christ together as we appeal together to Christ who is still building his church.
And a faithful practice of the Lord’s Supper declares, both to the membership and to the world, who Christ is, what he has done, and that he is coming back. That’s it. Four things. Let’s get to it.
The Rev. Mike McClellan is pastor of Cross Roads Church, Southern Baptist Convention, in Poncha Springs.