Last week the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist, gathered for its annual meeting in Phoenix. The media pounced when stats were released indicating SBC membership had shrunk for the fourth consecutive year. In addition (or should I say subtraction), the number of baptisms declined by over 17,000 in 2010 compared to 2009. This is the eighth drop in 10 years.
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay, was honest about the statistics. “This is not a blip. This is a trend. And the trend is one of decline,” he said.
The news about the SBC’s decline swirling around both the secular and Christian media only adds to the dismay in recent years. It seems like every time I logon there is a new report about the decline, decay, or demise of the church. The American church, and the evangelical branch in particular, seems infatuated with news of its own death almost as much as myths of its persecution. Perhaps we like these reports because they keep us in a perpetual state of crisis which fuels the theatrics long associated with our brand of Christianity.
I’m not saying the reports about the impending doom of the American evangelical church should be ignored. I have confidence in the work of friends like Ed Stetzer at LifeWay and David Kinnaman at Barna. They hold a mirror up to the church and help us see who, and how many, we really are. And we are wise to heed their analysis. But we mustn’t receive their reports and others as people without faith. In other words, we mustn’t allow fear to rule our vision of the future.
A few years ago I interviewed Dallas Willard about the state of the church. The wide-ranging conversation touched on the lack of discipleship, the insecurity of ministry leaders, the church’s infatuation with business values, and the inadequacy of our seminaries. Finally I asked Dr. Willard, “Are you ever discouraged by all of this?”
“I am not discouraged,” he quickly replied, “because I believe that Christ is in charge of his church, with all of
its warts, and moles, and hairs. He knows what he is doing and he is marching on.”
His answer caught me by surprise. I’m embarrassed to admit that because it reveals my lack of faith. Of course Dr. Willard is absolutely right. Christ is in charge of his church and he knows what he is doing. I think we get ourselves into trouble when we fail to distinguish his Church from the numerous 501c3 organizations we call “churches.”
Recent numbers I saw indicate that about 50 churches are closing ever week, church attendance is not keeping pace with population growth, and the average age of church members is going up. These facts, like the ones reported by the SBC last week, are what make us think the church is dying. And the truth is some churches are dying and others reached room temperature years ago. But that doesn’t mean the Church is dying.
My time in Cape Town, South Africa, last October made that abundantly clear. I was attending the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization with about 4,000 other delegates from over 200 countries. The evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, show the global church is more than surviving…it’s thriving! Some of the growth may be attributed to strategic planning on the part of Western churches and missions agencies in the early 20th century. But what we heard again and again were the unexpected and even miraculous ways in which the church has been planted, germinated, fed, and nurtured.
What is my point? I’m not saying we should put our heads in the sand and ignore the grim realities that face many churches and denominations in the West. We have been called to do our work in the garden of the Lord (1 Corinthians 3:5-15), and we will be judged for the faithfulness of our labor. But we must remember that the outcomes, the growth and fruit, belong to Christ and not us.
And holding firmly to this truth, we should not succumb to the doom and despair that seem to be worn with pride by many young church leaders these days. The truth is that some, even many, local and regional expressions of the church may well decline and die. But Christ is ever at work cultivating life out of death. Ultimately his Church will be just fine. So, while many both inside and outside the family of God take some perverse pleasure in declaring “The church is dead,” we can with full faith and confidence shout in response, “Long live the Church!”