On most Sundays you can find people playing ball. They fill up the practice field or go to games. They also shop for groceries at Wal-Mart during the worship hour. They go to the lake. They mow their yards. They read their papers on their porches. They spend their mornings at home and don’t worry too much about the crowd at church (unless they want to beat them at lunch at the local Golden Corral).
With most denominations in North America reporting staggering losses in attendance and many churches struggling financially to even pay the bills what does the future of the church look like?
Some might be gloom and doom prophets who preach the demise of all things church like. Others might say that this is just a problem for this camp or that camp. Others might say that such issues are real but not near as bad as people would like to declare. There are those who believe that many of our churches will not be here in 10-20 years. There are others who point to the new church movement and state that while many existing churches are dying there are new ones being born. Churches in North America struggle while churches in South America and Africa grow. Some believe it is the battles over homosexuality that are killing many denominations. Others point to other issues. Culprits are said to be liberals or the religious right (depending on your perspective).
We have many things to do in this country and the church simply has much to compete with. The people in the pews work hard and want to play hard. Sunday is just another day and the soccer field or the lake may be the place to be rather than a wooden pew.
The truth is Americans are busy people. Spare time isn’t easily found and when you get it then you care where you spend it.
So what do we do? We can shout with piety that folks should choose and like in Joshua they must decide if their households are going to serve God. We can do that but if they still don’t come what do we do next? What is the heart of the problem.
Perhaps many churches have simply become irrelevant.
You heard me. Maybe the go to the lake, ball field, or stay home because those things make sense. They give a sense of community, fellowship, values, friendship, and they do them because they believe they are important and add quality to a stressed out life. Why play golf? Because people who play golf can release stress, spend time with friends, enjoy nature, and feel better when they are done. Why go to the ball field? They can be with their families doing something they enjoy. They can meet others in the town they live and develop a sense of community. Their kids learn team work, dedication, commitment, and hard work. So folks sign up, spend money, give huge amounts of time, go to practices, reenforce to their kids what the coach said, and make it a priority. That’s what folks used to do at church (sign up, give money, give lots of time, go to the events, teach their kids what the teachers/preachers said, and make it a priority). So why don’t they do that at church anymore? Many, many churches aren’t relevant.
Many people don’t seem to ‘get’ what church is about. If the sermon, Bible study, and other parts of the experience are unclear, confusing, not connected to life then why go? Why sit in a pew, give money, and spend that time doing something that they then leave and don’t even know what was said or why it was said?
I spoke to someone who visited a dying church recently. He was leaving and an elderly member said, “That was so sad. Wasn’t it?” “What do you mean?” “Our church is so sad.” “Why?” “No one comes anymore. We are so small now. Isn’t that sad?” The man said, “I guess it is.” Then she turned to him and said, “Say, did you understand what our preacher’s sermon was about?”
Maybe I sound hard on churches. I’m a pastor after all and I do love the church. Because I love the church I’m calling on all of us to be relevant. The times in history when the church in North America was relevant were times when they did grow. People wanted to go and they didn’t want to miss what was going on. They felt a sense of community, fellowship, learning, growth, and support for life. In these countries were the church is growing this is what is happening.
So North American Christians it is time we reclaim that relevancy. If you preach or teach or work in the church then stop and consider what you are doing. Is the sermon, music, study, activity being done just because we always do it or is there a purpose? Are we offering a living God to a world that need to know such a God? Are we bringing people closer to Christ? Are we being faithful to what God has entrusted us to be faithful too? What are we doing? Will people understand us? Will this help them? Will this speak to them? Is it clear? Is it true? Is it helpful? Does it connect Sunday to Monday?
And as a final comment I’m not against the ball field, shopping for groceries, reading the paper, and all that. I enjoy those activities too. I simply believe the church offers something they can’t offer. I realize many churches don’t know to articulate this well but the message is there somewhere. We have to do a better job showing others that message.