For over 30 years, the churches of America have been declining; their numbers, plummeting. Each year, a new set of numbers emerges from the various denominational headquarters, telling the tale. The liberal Protestant Mainlines are in the worst shape, as the figures for 2006 to 2007 indicate. According to the National Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., down to 2,247,819, reported a decrease of 1.59 percent over the last year. The Presbyterian Church (USA), down to 3,098,842 members, reported a decrease of 2.84 percent. The United Methodist Church, down to 8,075,010 members, reported a decrease of 1.36 percent. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, down to 4,850,776, reported a decrease of 1.62 percent. The American Baptist Churches in the USA, down to 1,396,700, reported a decrease of 1.97 percent. And the extremely liberal United Church of Christ, down to 1,224,297, reported a decrease of 3.28 percent.
Their conservative counterparts are not faring much better. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, at 16,270,315 members, reported a slight increase of 0.02 percent. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, down to 2,440,864, reported a decrease of 0.93 percent. Only the Catholic Church, at 69,135,254 members nationwide, managed to buck the trend, reporting an increase of 1.94 percent.
Year after year, the new numbers come in and the presses get rolling, cranking out new material designed to stimulate church growth. A few old cranks insist on discussing the problem in outdated terms: sin, secularism, “consciences seared with a hot iron.” But those outdated ideas do not sell books; they do not give us the quick fix that we need. For that, we must turn to the experts, the gurus of the Church Growth Movement. For they have achieved success, and, as with any good business model, that success can be duplicated.
The experts have assignments for everyone—clergy and laity. For laymen, the assignment is to get creative. “It really is true,” writes Bill Hybels, in his latest book, Just Walk Across the Room: Simple Steps Pointing People to Faith, “the spread of the gospel . . . boils down to whether you and I will continue to seek creative ways to engage our friends, inviting them to explore the abundance of the Christ-following life.”
Making use of these creative ways amounts to becoming a little Freud, getting inside the heads of your friends and neighbors to determine what their felt needs are, and assuring them that they, like you, can find answers to those needs—coping with suburban Anfechtung, help with parenting, escaping the “debt trap”—in the abundance of the “Christ-following life.”
“It is my deep conviction,” adds expert Rick Warren, author of the New York Times best-seller The Purpose-Driven Church, “that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart. . . . It may take some time to identify it. But the most likely place to start is with the person’s felt needs.”
Based on this notion of meeting “felt needs,” it behooves the leadership (those we used to call clergy, before ordination became a sign of ecclesiastical snobbery) to get creative, too. For, once the layman has creatively lured his friends to church, the last thing he needs is to be beaten over the head with churchianity, churchese, or any other derogatory term that the experts can coin to describe that traditional quality in churches that so repels today’s “unchurched” (formerly “unbelievers”).
Among the trappings of churchianity are stained-glass windows depicting Our Lord, His Virgin Mother, or the Saints (too expensive anyway); crosses and crucifixes (what do such symbols mean to the unchurched?); liturgy, creeds, and hymnody, and especially—gasp!—chanting; and sermons about irrelevant topics, such as the Annunciation or how God hates divorce. These things do not address the felt needs of today’s unchurched.
In his autobiographical work Rediscovering Church: The Story and Vision of Willow Creek Community Church, cowritten with his wife, Lynne, Hybels recalls the Dutch Calvinist church of his boyhood which, in his estimation, was designed to cater to the “already convinced.” Taking a defiant and mocking tone, he describes the traditional parts of Christian worship, including the recitation of the Creed, which was a “hit” for the “veterans,” because they “had it memorized.” He finds it completely irrelevant for believers and off-putting to the “unchurched” to bother with “ancient hymns” that contain such words as “seraphim and cherubim,” and he particularly despises the “stand-up-sit-down thing.” And woe be unto any pastor who would dare to preach from the Minor Prophets (“no, please, no”)!
America’s Christian “veterans” have missed the insult. Far from being angry that this “expert” thinks the traditions of their forefathers are a barricade on the path to Heaven, they have made Hybels a best-selling author and have eagerly joined the Willow Creek Association, so that their congregations (9,500 and counting) can be remade in his image.
After all, Bill Hybels is “successful.” Over 24,000 people walk through the doors of Willow Creek every Sunday—past the food court and the racket-ball court and the basketball court and into the giant conference-center sanctuary, dotted with theater seats facing a stage on which professional rock musicians and actors reveal the great abundance of the Christ-following life.
Expert Rick Warren is no slouch, either. In a Pew Forum interview in 2005, he blushingly told the journalists gathered before him in Washington that his congregation
Saddleback [Community Church] is the largest church in America. We had our 25th anniversary on Easter this year. I did 12 services. We had 45,000 in attendance and I preached 12 services in a row. Two weeks later, we celebrated our anniversary and we had never had the church in one location, so we rented Angel Stadium and had 30,000 at Angel Stadium. I have 82,000 names on the church roll.
And, lest you think that, in Warren’s estimation, size alone matters, he insists that “[P]eople put up with the size in order to get the benefits—they say, ‘I like the teaching, I like the programs, I like the music, and I like the ministries,’ and things like that. So it’s a myth that people go because they want the size.”
One reason so many churches are running panting after these experts is summed up in the term transfer growth. The gurus of the Church Growth Movement do not like it, because it draws attention to the fact that they are stealing members from other, more boring churches instead of reaching the “unchurched.” No, insists Warren,
Saddleback is unique in that 78 percent of the members of our church had no religious background prior to joining the church. It is a church of conversion growth. We’ve baptized about 14,000 adults in the last eight years. So that means this is not a church that grew at the expense of other churches.
This statement is somewhat misleading, when you consider that “no religious background” or “unchurched” often means, for statistical purposes, that so-and-so has not regularly attended some other church over the last six months, and that “one baptism for the remission of sins” is, being interpreted, to say “one baptism by us, when you finally decide to renounce the baby-baptism of your distant, meaningless past.”
Researchers who support the Church Growth Movement contradict Warren’s enthusiasm, even indicating that there is a deliberate deception going on. Thom S. Rainer writes, “When I shared with many of the leaders of these congregations that most of the growth in American megachurches the past 20 years had come from transfer growth (Christians moving from one church to another), few were surprised.” Rainer, who is quite sympathetic to the aims of the Church Growth Movement, admits that
Every level of research I have seen on megachurches in the past 20 years, including my own, has pointed to a clear and growing trend: The percentage of American churchgoers attending churches with an attendance of 2,000 or more is increasing. More church attendees are worshipping at megachurches, and fewer attendees are heading to smaller churches.
This trend cuts across denominational lines. George Barna, the most celebrated Church Growth advocate/number cruncher, writes in Christianity Today,
Catholics are 22% of the adult population, but they constitute 47% of those who attend a megachurch. Even though megachurches are seen as a Protestant phenomenon, barely half (53%) of the adults attending megachurches go to a Protestant church. That represents about one out of every ten adults attending a Protestant church and projects to about 5 million of the 53 million adults attending a Protestant church in a typical week.
Two things are certain: More and more Americans are flocking to megachurches; and more and more Americans are not going to church at all. In other words, the sheep are wandering off to another pasture, then wandering off a cliff. Barna indicates that a staggering 20 million have gone from megachurches and their veteran impersonators to something they call homechurch. Overall, the percentage of Americans attending Christian churches each Sunday has dropped from 20.4 percent in 1990 to 18.7 percent in 2000—and down to 17.7 percent in 2004. During that same period, the U.S. population has grown by 18.1 percent—more than 48 million people. So the churches are nowhere near keeping up with the overall population. Thus, Thom Rainer notes that “94% of our churches are losing ground in the communities they serve.”
Why are most American churches “losing ground”? Can all of this be laid at the feet of Hybels and Warren, the leading Church Growth experts? Is it widespread apostasy? The triumph of the Spirit of the Age? When, 40 years ago, the more conservative churches were seeing tremendous transfer growth from the liberal Mainlines, who were slowly dying even then, Mainline apostasy was cited as the cause. In an article for the Associated Baptist Press, Greg Warner writes that,
While mainline churches could claim 60 percent of the total Protestant congregants in 1900, their share fell to 40 percent in 1960. Many religious observers and some sociologists attributed the drop—and simultaneous growth of conservative churches—to the lethargy of liberalism and the appeal of biblical certainty.
“But,” Warner adds, “simple demographics can account for almost three fourths of the mainline decline.” Could it really be that simple? Yes, say Michael Hout of the University of California-Berkeley, Andrew Greeley of the University of Arizona, and Melissa Wilde of Indiana University: “For most of the 20th century, conservative women had more children than mainline women did.” In fact, “Differences in fertility rates account for 70 percent of the decline of mainline Protestant church membership from 1900 to 1975 and the simultaneous rise in conservative church membership . . . ”
And now, conservative Protestants and Catholics have finally caught up. “Fertility rates are now virtually the same” for the liberal mainlines and conservative Christians, writes Warner. Thus, the liberals and conservatives are in the deathbed together, as the trio of sociologists write, for, “Unless conservative[s] increase their family size or mainline Protestants further reduce theirs, this factor in mainline decline will not be present in the future.”
Simply put, in order for there to be babies to baptize, they must first be born. They are not, and the churches are dying.
Take one example: In 1961, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod baptized 82,000 babies. In 2004, only 33,000—a staggering decline of 60 percent. And the numbers released in late August 2006 for 2005 are worse: Only 31,701 children were baptized (down 1,150).
Blithely, the church’s leaders pass over this defect, as a press release from the Missouri Synod indicates: “In the 1950s and ’60s, churches saw a ‘natural increase’ because families were larger, says LCMS Senior Research Analyst Dr. John O’Hara. Today’s families are much smaller, and societal norms regarding religious participation have changed, he said.”
Indeed, they have. “Society’s norms” changed, and the American churches have changed right along with them, following the Whore of Babylon to her sure destruction. In 1930, with the Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference, the Church of England caved in to the propaganda campaign waged by the neo-Malthusians and their Babylonian queen, Margaret Sanger, editor of the Woman Rebel and founder of what is now called Planned Parenthood. Eschewing the divine blessing of the Logos uttered on Day Six of Creation, “Be fruitful,” and the solemn command that followed, “and multiply,” the Episcopalians spoke their own destruction into existence by transgressing against 2,000 years of unbroken Christian teaching, East and West, Protestant and Catholic. For them, large families were bovine, the fruit of the unrestrained actions of an ignorant people lacking self-control.
Further, seeing that the primary purpose for which marriage exists is the procreation of children, [this conference] believes that this purpose as well as the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control should be the governing considerations in that intercourse.
Moral and physical suicide sounds so much better, if you talk about it in spiritual terms.
Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.
After this self-important celebration of unselfish selfishness, the American churches began to fall, one by one. The old Federal Council of Churches quickly followed Lambeth by not only endorsing but recommending contraception. Mainline acceptance of modern Onanism penetrated the Mainline congregations, and their numbers began to decline. And the conservatives followed, a few lengths back. In the 40’s, Walter A. Maier of the old Lutheran Hour radio broadcast called Sanger a “she-devil” and denounced the hedonism of liberal mainline Christianity. By the 50’s, Prof. Alfred Rehwinkel, a conservative defender of a literal interpretation of Genesis, was celebrating Sanger and encouraging the same “self-control” that the Anglicans demanded in 1930. Rehwinkel’s book, in which he lauded Sanger’s “brilliance” and “God-given talents,” was published under the thoroughly modern title Planned Parenthood, the name Sanger used to rechristen her Birth Control League.
T.S. Eliot, in his Thoughts After Lambeth, wrote:
The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.
At present rates, we won’t have to wait too much longer.