The American Church in every denomination is losing membership and the percentage of people who identify as Christians has declined from a high of 73% in 1937 to 70% through 1997 to less than 50% today. Membership in every denomination has declined precipitously. Now we can no longer call ourselves a Christian nation when less than half of our citizenry identifies as Christian.
I am sure that there are many reasons for the decline but two of them seem to me to be most important. First, The American church in general has tied their membership to this church, this denomination, so that the congregation’s loyalty will be linked to this church and its beliefs, but not directly to Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. I have no problem with people choosing to worship in different ways, even with different ways of believing in God and the Trinity: in no way were we human beings designed by God to make all the same choices. We are highly individualized. But what the church has ignored is what Paul wrote of the one church of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17): “we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” And yet our churches have competed with each other over beliefs: who has the right beliefs—”we do and you don’t!” Who worships in the right way—”we’re going to heaven and you’re not!” This competition has fostered a defensiveness within the church that has been unhealthy when we all worship Jesus Christ. How much more effective could we Christians have been in our country and its values, if we had identified with the One Church of Jesus Christ, instead of fighting with each other.
Within that framework of competition, the churches for the most part have kept beliefs in Jesus Christ the highest priority, rather than following Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, I have counted twelve versus in which Jesus asks us to believe in Him and nineteen versus with Jesus asking us to follow Him. To me, belief in Jesus Christ is the first step on the journey of following Jesus, but a worshipper who believes in Jesus and does not follow Him, can pretty much live His life any way he or she wants to, because they have not pledged their lives to follow Jesus and to be obedient to Him. They probably do belong to a church and participate in that church’s life, but they really don’t have to allow Jesus to change their attitudes, their behavior, their sins, or anything.
What many have missed out on in not following Jesus Christ has been the fulfilling changes in ourselves as we follow Jesus out of the overwhelming influence of our culture into a purposeful life that the Lord designed for each of us at our creation. Who knows how many people could have fulfilled their lives and lived in love and peace and joy and all the other fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) had we followed Jesus.
The second reason for the decline in membership, I believe, is the issue of abortion. Since the 1980’s when this issue first came up in our American politics, I have noticed that once
the issue of abortion is raised in an election, no other issue is really addressed. Many people, many of them Christians, have committed to having no abortions in this country. Finally, some fifty years later, many states are enacting laws that deny abortions, no matter the cause. As I think about what Jesus would do if He were presented with this issue, I am sure that He would be against abortions as He is totally for life, except perhaps when the fetus is endangering the life of the mother. But I am convinced that He would not abandon the woman who wants an abortion because of some “awful sin.” He would help her address the issues that have brought her to this decision and help her work out in her life what has gone wrong. Maybe she needs a job to support the child and how will she both work and care for the baby? Or He would bring the father of the child into the discussion and see what they both could do for the baby. Or, knowing Jesus, He would help her in any way that He could. She would still be loved and a child of God, loved and forgiven for whatever had caused this decision.
The abortion issue has meant that we do not address any other issue that Jesus might have with our country and how it is run for the corporations and the rich and everyone else is pretty much on their own. We are the richest nation in the world and yet 9% of our population, 37.9 million Americans live in poverty. 11 million of our children live in poverty which affects their “ability and capacity to learn, build skills, and succeed academically.” What other issues did Jesus care about so much are we not addressing? How about discrimination against other people, power hungry politicians and religious leaders, homelessness, and more. Why can’t the richest nation provide housing and medical services for everyone? Why don’t we treat everyone equally. After all Jesus hung out with the outcasts, the ignored of His day. Here is the passage in Luke 4:18-19 (quoting Isaiah 61:1-2) where He declared His purpose here on Earth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
I am musing on the possibility that this decline will bring about a second reformation in the church, one that is clearly needed today, if we Christians are to follow Jesus wherever He would lead us in our lives and in our churches.