By Jack Wellman
People are leaving the churches in increasing numbers. Why is this happening? What do people say is their reason for leaving church? How can pastors and church leaders address the problems of dwindling church attendance?
Church – The Called Out Ones
The church is called the “called out ones” which is what the Greek word “ekklésia” means and is a compound word of “ek” meaning “out” and a derivation of “kaleo” meaning “to call” so it is not actually called the church but literally the “called out ones.” The church, as you know, is not a building but the living stones being built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets laid atop the Chief Cornerstone, Jesus Christ (Eph 2:20). Clearly the Bible teaches that no one comes to Christ on their own but is drawn by God (John 6:44) which says “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” The Greek word that is used for the word “draw” is “helkō” but it doesn’t mean draw at all so the word “draw” is a mistranslation and should actually be “to drag, to lead, to impel,” or “to draw by an inward power” and this power is the power of God so the question is, if God is dragging or impelling men, women, and children to Himself, why is the church declining? Why are people leaving the church?
The nation’s two largest Christian communities, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church continue to decline in numbers but so have many of the other Christian communities. Tragically, the fastest growing churches today are not actually Christian at all since they don’t have the right Jesus and they include the Mormon Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.(1) This is according to the latest studies which were compiled in 2009 and so the trend is likely even worse today. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that between 2001 and 2008, congregational church membership dropped from 1.3 million to 736,000 in one church alone (the Zion Congregational Church). First of all, we know it is not the fault of God so there must be a human cause and that is what we are going to examine in the hopes that pastors and church leadership can address them.
Reason 1: Starving Sheep
If you read or are able to hear sermons from the 19th and 20th centuries, you might notice that expository or verse by verse Bible preaching has shifted to topological preaching. That is, messages are more typically centered on the family, society, finances, and other areas that are may not be outside of biblical doctrine but are not the focus of doctrine. The Bible has Scriptures based upon these subjects yes, but the congregation often has to page-hop from one Bible verse to another. The danger here is that Scriptures can easily be taken out of context and you have probably heard that text taken out of context can easily create a pretext and a false one at that. Certainly preaching on particular subjects is helpful but when verse-by-verse preaching is left out of the sermon, the flow of the book, the chapter, and the paragraph of the Bible verses are left out. Context is everything in Bible preaching. It would be like lifting out one paragraph of a novel and then going to several chapters later and taking another paragraph out and then going back six chapters to take out another line or two. What are left out are critical components of the novel and this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find out what the book is about.
A good shepherd will move his sheep around from one pasture to another. The shepherd doesn’t just let them graze in a small area and then take them out quickly to another field just when they are starting to graze. The sheep become restless, they become hungry, and they are never fully or properly feed. They become undernourished and begin to lose weight, becoming more susceptible to disease, and if they continue to get weaker, they are more vulnerable to predators.
Reason 2: Dictator Shepherds
The pastor is actually an under-shepherd to the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ Who is the Head of the Church. This is His church, not the pastor’s church. I have all too often had a slip of the tongue and said “Well, at my church…” but it is not my church at all. It is Jesus Christ’s church. I am only an under-shepherd and am accountable to Him. Someday I will have to give an account of how I pastored the church that He put me into. I never really noticed until just this year that the 23rd Psalm talks about the Lord being David’s shepherd. Notice in verse 2 it says “He leads me beside still waters” or literally in the Hebrew, “He leads me beside waters of rest.” The Shepherd doesn’t force the sheep or make the sheep go to the waters of rest; He leads them. The church will never go where the pastor doesn’t lead. You cannot force the congregants against their will, particularly if the shepherd is not leading the way.
Inspire Them by Leading
When I was first called to the church I am presently at, they didn’t have an outreach or in-reach program, they didn’t have a children’s ministry and they didn’t have a visitation program. I unwisely passed out a sign-up sheet for these things but what I didn’t do was sign-up myself. I finally started a nursing home ministry and Bible study on my own and passed out a sign-up sheet but no one signed it. I had to do it by myself at first and then I would periodically report how it was going. It wasn’t until I was willing to take the lead in areas that others would eventually follow.
Reason 3: No Growing without Going
I truly believe that any church that doesn’t embrace evangelism will not grow. I heard another pastor once say that 75% of people that do not attend church have never been asked. That means that 3 out of every 4 people in your neighborhood, in your community, or in your town or city that does not attend a church have never been asked. That is a sin of omission in my opinion. You can’t even spell the word “gospel” without the “go.” If there is no going there will be no growing. Evangelism is difficult for most people. Less than 1 in 10 Christians are active in sharing the gospel so this means that 90% of most congregants read Jesus’ imperative command to go into all the world and make disciples of other nations (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) and think it’s for someone else to do. One lady told me that she doesn’t have the gift of evangelism like I do. I looked at the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 and couldn’t find the gift of evangelism. From what I could read I decided that evangelism is not a gift it is a choice. It’s not a gift of the Spirit but a command from the Lord. In a sense, every church member is commissioned to go into all the world, even if it’s next door. We are all ministers of the gospel.
Go Tell Them
Like the Samaritan Woman at the Well, she went back and told her entire community that she had found the Messiah. She didn’t receive any training, she was not a Jew by blood, and she was not commissioned or gifted by God. She simply went and proclaimed Jesus Christ to a lost community. This may be the primary reason that the Mormon Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses churches are growing. For the most part, they are the only ones going into their community which is why they are the only ones growing.
Reason 4: There’s No Encouragement for Ministry Involvement
Many church members don’t believe that they have anything to contribute to the church. One of our ladies loves children. They love her too. They just gravitated to her naturally. I suggested that she use the Sunday school time to have a Children’s Church. I recommended that she give them Bible messages and teach them lessons at their level of understanding (ages 3-5) so that they could begin to understand more about Jesus Christ, His church, and what they can contribute to it. I asked her if she would do this and later she came up to me and asked if they could do short programs from time to time. I said, “By all means” and now they work together as a group and create programs, make banners, and take up the offerings, so that they are participating in church services. Naturally the parents love it but we know the children do.
Encourage members to get involved in areas that they already have a passion or desire for. The more the church is encouraged to be participating and not just participants, the more they want to be there to be of service to others.
Reason 5: No One Notices
We don’t post numbers of worshippers nor do we publish the attendance numbers for Sunday school attendees but we do monitor attendance so that we can see if certain members have stopped coming to Sunday school and/or church services. The larger a church is, the greater the risk of members just disappearing. I like the Outreach program we have at the church but I also want to include an “In-Reach” where I go and visit former or non-active members or those who have suddenly stopped coming to try and find out why. One church member at his former church was ill. His health continued to decline and when he was unable to come anymore due to health considerations, not one single member of that church, including the deacons or the pastor, ever called him or came by to check on him. He because disillusioned with the church. It was by accident that I ran into him and he informed me of why he didn’t go to church anymore.
I visited with that man that I mentioned above a couple of times after that and I also called him about 3 times and guess what? He knew that I cared enough about him and so he started attending the church where I am pastor at. My intent was not to get him to come to the church where I attend but to pray for him, listen to him, talk to him, and tell him the other church members would be praying for his health concerns. He is still not completely well, but now he comes to our church on a regular basis. If his previous church had noticed that he’d been gone, he’d probably still be going there or at least listen to the sermon online or on CD or DVD.
Reason 6: No Children’s Ministry? No Future
Children are the future of the church. In America’s aging process, churches are growing increasingly older while the younger generation is shrinking in size. If this happens in the church, then that church may, over time, die. Churches are like human beings. They are born, they hit their prime, they begin to age, and like humans, they die a natural death. Without a youth program there will be no next generation in the church. Here is where we can address a specific problem due to a specific cause; the aging of America. Young teens all the way down to small children likely have a disconnect with the older generation and if there is nothing that the youth have do to that is specifically designed for them, then they will see church as being irrelevant to their lives. There is nothing worse for a child than boredom. When boredom comes, trouble usually follows.
Remember the Children/Youth
Every church needs to be teaching their children the gospel and teaching the gospel to young children is done somewhat differently for them than for the adults. The essentials stay the same (Rom 10:9-13, Acts 4:12, etc.) but the approach is different. Invest in some lesson plans and Bible study materials that the youth can relate to while still clinging to the essential doctrines of the faith. Every one of us has different preferences in studying the Word of God. Take advantage of them. Why not just ask the youth about ways that they can better incorporate living the Christian life into their studies. Value their opinion.
Personally, I believe that the main reason that churches may be dwindling is that we aren’t evangelizing like we used too. Also, we are no longer preaching the essential truths of the gospel. What I mean is that these things must be in place that were in place in the early church; preaching the cross, the blood of the Lamb, repentance, confession of sin, and trust in Christ. The message must be Bible-centered and Christ-glorifying, not man-centered; man-oriented. If the glory of Jesus Christ is the central part of and the main focus of worship services, the church should grow because God is still calling out those to be saved from the world. The fellowship of the saints is essential to the growth of the church and the individual believer. Let’s allow the Bible to speak for itself to see why and how it grew as declared in Acts 2:42-47 “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Consider reading this: Leading Volunteers
Resources – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. (1) According to 2009 edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, February 25, 2009.