Summary: Four word pictures about the church for people investigating the Christian faith.
Back when I was a college intern here at LBF Church, we sent some college students on a short-term missions trip to London. While they did street ministry in London they stayed in an abandoned church in downtown London. You see, London is littered with abandoned churches that were once packed with people living out their devotion to Jesus Christ.
That empty church has become a symbol to me over the years of the powerful influence of secularism in our culture today. You see secularism does not seek to destroy religion, but it tries to define religion as being private, having no place in public or social life. So in a secular culture, religion and faith are treated as the private possession of the individual. In America today the vast majority of people embrace a secularized, watered down version of the Christian faith. As George Gallup shows every year, the people of America are among the most religious people in the world, as the overwhelming majority say they believe in God, believe the Bible is the word of God, and believe that Jesus is God’s son. But this watered down veneer of Christianity is a secularized version of faith, as the vast majority of people view church as a kind of optional expression of faith reserved for the few who need that sort of thing.
In a secularized society like ours is the church a dying institution, a monument like that empty church rotting on the streets of London? Although interest in spirituality is on the rise, attendance of church is on the decline in our culture. Recently a University of Wisconsin professor of history named Thomas Reeves wrote a book called The Empty Church: Does Organized Religion Matter Anymore? Reeves demonstrates that since the 1960s virtually every traditional Christian denomination has lost between one-third and one-fifth of its membership (10-11). The average Christian church in America today is composed of less than 100 total people, it’s getting older and smaller with each year and it will reach one only new person with the good news of Jesus Christ each year. Many are calling the 21st century the dawn of a post-denominational era, when most traditional Christian denominations close their doors. Reeves believes that the reason why this has happened among mainline denominational churches is because many of their highest leaders have rejected the essential points of the Christian faith.
I happened to see a new book by the Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong this week, and as he looked at the apostle’s creed--which since the 2nd century has been a summary of the essentials of the Christian faith--and the only part Spong could in good conscience still confess were the words "I believe." By the time you go to bed tonight, eight Christian churches in America will have closed their doors for good. As you drift off to sleep, more than 7,600 professing Christians in North America and Europe will have left the Christian church for good.
University of Santa Barbara sociologist Wade Roof Clark did an exhaustive study of religion among baby boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964. He called his book A Generation of Seekers and he found that this generation considers itself the most spiritual generation in recent history. But he’s quick to point out that spiritual is not the same as church going, because 80% of the baby boomers he surveyed said that it was their conviction that a person could be a devout Christian without any involvement in a local church. Church involvement, at least to the majority of baby boomers, is an optional part of the Christian faith, nice if you have time and your alarm happens to go off in time to make it, but not an essential component of the spiriutal life. As one guy told me just this last week, "Hey, I read my Bible and I pray, I try to serve God, so what would I need a church for?" The majority of professing Christians in our communities today fit into that category.
In some ways this radically individual way of viewing the Christian faith is nothing new to our culture. According to sociologists Roger Fink and Rodney Stark, in 1776 only 17% of the American adult population were church going (The Churching of America 15). Now obviously there were also many devoted Christians involved in our nation back then--90 of the framer’s of our constitution were professing Christians--but the Christian faith of America has always been largely a private, individual thing, with little need for social expression through the church.
We’ve been in a series called WHAT DO CHRISTIANS THINK? In this series we’ve been looking at the eight basic beliefs of the Christian faith and exploring them in a way that both irreligious seekers and Christians can understand and apply to their lives. Today we’re looking at what Christians think about the church.