Good research tells us that on any given Sunday morning in America, 30% of the population is “in church.” Of course, what we know that to mean is that they are occupying a seat and taking up some space in a building that is either dedicated for the exclusive purpose of Christian worship, or that is being used for that purpose at that particular time. Being “in church” is not synonymous with being the church.

I’ve been involved in church for all of my life that I can remember. I did the “Baptist thing” by being baptized at an early age, an experience I’ll refer to as “defacto infant baptism”, and then didn’t come to know Christ personally until much later, at 21 years of age. All of that experience came within the walls of churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, including four years of college at a Baptist affiliated university, and a graduate degree from “one of the six” seminaries operated by the SBC. I may not be as expert at evaluating the American version of the Christian church as someone from Barna might be with their data, but my experience and training counts for something more than mere speculation.

The consumer culture in which we live, breath, move, and have our total being, has come to dominate the church as much as it dominates everything else we do. Christian publishing, and Christian entertainment, are multi-billion dollar annual business enterprises. A Christian musician who had a taste of the “industry” in a professional band once told me that Jesus is used as a marketing tool to sell music that probably wouldn’t make it commercially on the secular market. Megachurches have sprung up all over the country, not because they are winning new converts to the Christian faith in a rapid sort of evangelism, but because they are using the vast sums of money they collect to built internally focused ministries aimed at meeting the “felt needs” of people who hop from church to church to collect the benefits without ever giving anything back.

When large amounts of money are involved, and there isn’t a high level of accountability, things tend to happen in churches that cross the line of Biblical restraint and morality. The first time I encountered a church that didn’t disclose large sections of the budget devoted to “ministerial staff salaries,” I was shocked. Noting that more than half of the church’s contributions were directed into this particular category, I asked why. I was told that someone elses salary wasn’t anyone elses business, and that there were safeguards in place. In a church, that kind of thinking disregards scriptural principles of accountability and open honesty. The church isn’t a faceless institution, it is something of which all of the individual members are a part. To implement a practice like this, adopted from the secular business world, is counter to the core values of a congregation of believers.

Several years ago, I attended a conference at Willow Creek Church in Chicago called Reveal. The church’s leadership had noticed that certain ministry areas were showing signs of decline, and there was a general feeling that genuine spiritual growth wasn’t really taking place among the membership. In fact, their statistical analysis told them that they were basically swapping members with other churches with very few people actually becoming engaged in church related ministry. Perhaps more startling than the willingness of a megachurch to admit that its “mega-ness” might be counterproductive to real evangelism and Biblical core values were the solutions that were offered to remedy the problem. The manuals and materials looked and read more like a business course than a Biblical solution, and the packaging and selling of their “discovery” and their “solutions” were emphasized far more than any real solution to the problem. As the popularity of their Reveal conferences sagged a bit, it didn’t seem that their application of solutions was changing their measurements with regard to evangelism and spiritual growth very much.

I think there are several things that, from a Biblical perspective, can be used to measure whether or not a church, a Christian, Biblical community, is functioning according to scripture, or whether it is in decline, and it can be in spiritual decline without seeing a decline in attendance. A church that is functioning according to scripture is a community whose members are fruit-producing evangelists, where discipleship (education and training of members in all aspects of Christian community life) is happening, whose members work together like a family in providing ministry, who come together in community to worship and whose lives as believers and followers of Christ are interdependent and encourage each other(fellowship).

There are some things that can be used to measure whether a Christian community is in decline, and it’s not the level of activity or the attendance.

  • The pastor becomes oriented toward the idea that people “show up” each week to hear what he has to say, and that the church is built around his speaking, writing and communication. When he’s out of the pulpit, the congregation gets to watch a video sermon or a rerun.
  • The primary activity of the majority of members of the church is sitting and listening to what takes place on the big stage on Sunday morning.
  • The number of new believers brought into the church is far less than the number of new members who come into the church already saved and from the membership of another church in the same community.
  • More than half of the church’s annual budget is committed to pay staff members to “do” ministry.
  • When fewer than half of the membership in attendance at the “big” Sunday morning production are not involved in any small group Bible study or interaction in any given week.
  • The church’s theological and doctrinal perspective has been altered by a lack of Biblical scholarship, and an emphasis on general academic theory, as well as a shift in business philosophy reflecting mdern business principles.

Part 3 will reflect on how a church can recover from this kind of decline, and become a spiritually moved and centered church once again.


About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

4 responses

  1. K Gray says:

    Seems like the size and resources of a church may affect the temptations it faces. The more resources easily at hand (money, members, human talent, buildings and stuff), the more human control increases, dependence on God decreases, and openness to the Spirit may decrease too. Taking that further, grieving or quenching the Spirit occurs.

  2. K Gray says:

    So, for congretations to which God has granted multiple, rich resources, and which have managed to remain submitted to the Lord’s will and led by His Spirit, praise God! Christ makes it possible (not easy) to thread that needle!

  3. “Since its organization in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has grown to over 16 million members who worship in more than 42,000 churches in the United States.”

    Thus sayeth the SBC, on their Official Website. Perhaps the GCR would find traction, and reality, if they corrected that terminological inexactitude.

    If the SBC can’t get but about 30% of its members to church on Sunday, and 30% of the USA population is in church on Sunday, then I guess everybody in the nation is saved, right?


  4. Lee says:

    By their way of measuring things, it would seem so. Though Southern Baptists aren’t the only denomination with the problem of a large, non-resident membership, their way of keeping records (a nightmarish system involving an annual letter, reports from local churches filtering through state conventions, and a host of other quirky record-keeping methods) contributes to the large, non-resident number. Cumulative numbers and local churches which have lost track of many of the names of individuals who were baptized, or who moved their membership, mean that a lot of those 10 million non-resident members can’t even be identified. With the details that most SBC churches track their Sunday School enrollment and attendance, you would think they could identify the bulk of their resident members through attendance records each week over the course of a year, and then report that as their total membership.