"Many Church Rolls Decline" declared the recent article distributed by the Religious News Service.
Not exactly breaking news. According to new figures released by the National Council of Churches, most mainline Protestant denominations report continuing decline.
While the top two religious groups, the Southern Baptists and Catholics, reported membership losses in the 2009 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, in the 2010 edition released February 12th, only the Catholics reported a rebound with a 1.5% growth rate to more than 68 million members.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) experienced the greatest loss among the top 10 denominations - down 3.3% to 2.8 million members.
Okay, enough with the data. I certainly have no problems with the accuracy of the statistics. In fact, the NCC's annual Yearbook is regarded as one of the most reliable recorders of church membership in North America.
It's the post-game analysis, highlighted in the report, that I found interesting.
The Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, editor of the Yearbook since 1998, said many experts cite "an increasing secularization of American postmodern society, and its disproportional impact on liberal religious groups" as the cause of decline in some American churches.
Jack Haberer, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook magazine, said the trend has been prompted by baby boomers who "have been drawn more to churches that are more informal, less institutional and more rock ‘n' rollish."
But do you really think that's what's causing those churches to decline? It seems to me all such analysis offers is an acknowledgment of the cultural challenge (secularization), and then a begrudging, caricaturing nod to the churches that are somehow growing (becoming more "rock ‘n' rollish").
Let's keep going with this.
To blame secularization for the decline only reveals that said churches are demonstrating an inability to effectively meet the cultural challenge. Secularization alone does not keep a church from growing. It just means you are standing on Mars Hill (Acts 17) instead of among the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem (Acts 2). But Paul bore fruit on Mars Hill, though it took a different strategy than Peter's.
Consider the most robust church on the planet which, arguably, is the underground church in China - a church in perhaps the most secular (and hostile) environment on the planet.
And to say that this secularization is particularly impactful on liberal churches, again, does not mean secularization is to blame as much as liberal theology has failed to gain a hearing in our secular environment. Or more to the point, that liberal theology has not proven to be a compelling alternative to secularism.
As for blaming informal, non-institutional, "rock ‘n' rollish" (sorry, third time I've quoted that line, but ya gotta love it) churches for the decline, well, again, that speaks less to the reason for the decline than to what increasing numbers of people who are spiritually seeking and spiritually open are wanting in a church.
Because no one "steals" people away from churches. They leave of their own free will, in the apparent discovery that another church makes the Bible more relevant, offers a mission more dynamic, and embodies a community that is more authentic.
So let's put to rest the idea that informal dress, Starbucks coffee, and rock music is what is attracting people, as if such churches are abandoning orthodoxy to get warm bodies, or that such strategies in and of themselves attract the unchurched. The unchurched do not have to go to church to dress informally; if they want Starbucks, they can just go to Starbucks; and whatever music they want is easily downloaded and available any time they want on their ipod.
Bottom line: Growing churches are obviously offering something more than what people already have in abundance, and that something more is clearly spiritual in nature. Most of these churches, as has long been demonstrated as far back as Dean Kelley's breakthrough sociological study, are highly conservative in nature. Their breakthrough is offering the gospel, raw and unfiltered and uncompromised, through contemporary modes of communication.
Give credit to Pope Benedict who recently told priests, "For God's sake, blog!" The Pope admonished priests that they must use new forms of communication to spread the gospel message. In his message for the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Communications, the Pope, who is 82 and not known for his technological acumen, acknowledged priests must make the most of the "rich menu of options" offered by new technology.
"Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources - images, videos, animated features, blogs, Web sites - which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis."
Priests, he said, had to respond to the challenge of "today's cultural shifts" if they wanted to reach young people.
Props from this Protestant.
The Pope seems to get the two big things many of my Protestant brothers and sisters seemingly don't: don't just decry culture, connect with it; and realize that when you connect with it, it's for the purpose of the gospel.
No wonder the Catholic Church turned things around this year.
"Many Church Rolls Decline," Kimberlee Hauss, Religious News Service, as carried by the Charlotte Observer, Saturday, March 6, 2010, p. 4E.
Dean M. Kelley, Why Conservative Churches are Growing (1972). Note: A newer edition of this book, with a new preface, was released in 1996.
"Pope to Priests: For God's Sake, blog!", Reuters, updated 10:27 a.m. ET, Sat., Jan. 23, 2010, hosted at msnbc.com.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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