Abandoning Church? Response to Recent Gallup Poll
The news broke a few days ago about what may seem like a concerning Gallup poll. For the first time since polling began in 1937, Americans reported church attendance dipped below 50%. Declining attendance and Christian affiliation have accelerated since 2000 when 70% reported being associated with a church. As a pastor and a Christian, this news may seem troubling and disturbing. However, I think the news opens doors for revival and renewed interest in evangelism. Please let me explain.
The description of American Christianity has long been described as miles wide but an inch deep. In 1959, Richard Niebuhr described Liberalism as proclaiming, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” The problem has worsened by continuing to water down Christianity into nothing more than moralistic therapeutic deism. Churches have given up on the costly parts of Christianity in favor of commoditized Christianity; it is the McDonaldization of churches.
Over the last two decades, we have witnessed an explosion of the commodity of religion used to entertain customers instead of making and feeding disciples. Miranda Klaver has studied this matter on a global scale. She finds that the international megachurches work to offer “spectacular highly customized multisensory worship events by the employment of digital media. As a result, new styles of Pentecostalism are emerging with a confluence of popular culture, entertainment, and religious renewal.”. Furthermore, the creation of “iconic theatrical spaces cultivates a spiritual imagination of entertainment, excitement, fun, pleasure, leisure, and living the good life. The high quality of the production of the church services supports the narrative of success, the gospel of abundance, and reinforces the overall optimistic message of possibilities and empowerment.”
Put simply, many American churches peddle a message of Gospel-lite. They are attraction churches that offer the flavor of Christianity without the calories. In the long run, when life happens, these attraction complexes leave you anemic and unable to cope with the world at hand. As more people get burned out by these entertainment factories and realize they are no better off in the long run, they will leave them in droves. The feelings of burnout and emptiness are now colliding with a post-post-Christian America, and you arrive at the results we are seeing.
There are many examples of the boom-and-bust attraction churches. One only needs to look back at Willow Creek, Mars Hill, and many other franchises. Some are hit by gross scandal while others petter from fire to ashes. In Jared Wilson’s book, Gospel Driven Church, there is a background narrative concerning LifePointe church. The attraction church garnered an attendance of over 2000 people. However, once the lead pastor was convicted of the Gospel-lite error, the move to offer some substance in the service, attendance was cut to 25%. The services began to have songs containing a semblance of Christian meaning, and the messages started to point to Christ rather than focusing on creating warm butterfly feelings, and over 1000 people left. Entertainment is a good thing. Movies, theater, and many forms of art of good for the soul, but they are not a replacement for the soul’s need of Christ.
The entertainment and attraction-church burnout is also presently combined with societal shifts. In America, the social stigma of not attending church has evaporated. In its place is social scoffing at organized, public faith. As it has for the previous thousands of years, there is now a cost of publicly claiming to believe in something that the world does not. Mutter a word against or even a thoughtful hesitation to the dogmas of current movements, and you are attacked, canceled, and shunned. Jesus said this would happen in the world (John 12:42; 16:2), and Paul noted itching ears would not tolerate powerful truth claims from the King (2 Tim 4:3). Therefore, what I am seeing is not shocking. People are not really abandoning the church. Rather they are acknowledging that they never really were a part of it.
What Now? Is there Hope?
As a Christian, these movements are developments that do not shock me. The veneer is removed, and hearts are now exposed. However, I contend this is good for the local church and for evangelism that seeks to create and feed disciples of Christ. The Gallup poll indicates fewer people are standing on false ground. Fewer people are living in a dangerous position of false trust in a Christless Christianity. The poll also shows that many people in America, over 50%, need to hear the Gospel and in need of a church community. This message empowers the local church to renew its commitment to the Great Commission of loving God and loving neighbor.
Furthermore, the news also indicates that the burned over have tasted but never feasted on the beauty and gifts of Christ. This news means there are souls who are starving for truth, power, comfort, hope, and eternal satisfaction. The news indicates people need the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let Pastors and Christians be encouraged for the grounds are fallow, but we have plenty of seed to spread, water to nourish, and Gospel light to share.
Pastor Dr. Chris S. Stevens
John Knox in Ruston
Niebuhr, Richard, The Kingdom of God in America, New York: Harper & Row, 1959 , p. 193.
Klaver, Miranda, 1. In “Global Church Planting in the Media Age: Hillsong Church.” Paper presented at Transnationale Missionarische Bewegingen, Narrative und Akteure, Medien und Öffentlichkeitn. Münster, 2018. Published in 2018 in: Interculturelle Theologie. Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft 44(2/3): 234-246.
Wilson, Jared C. The Gospel Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with Metrics of Grace. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.