I was in a bookstore in Cincinnati the other day, and I saw a book title that caught my eye: Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore by Thom and Joani Schultz. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I would imagine it connects with Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons' book unChristian and Kinnaman's other book, You Lost Me. Both books give solid research on why younger generations are leaving the church.
Without question, the church in America is in decline. Consider the following: the number of megachurches in America has nearly doubled during every decade over the last half century. One would think that as a result of more megachurches, there would be fewer unchurched people in America. And yet, according to The Barna Group, during the past decade the number of adults who do not attend church has nearly doubled to over 125 million. So, with all of our marketing, big buildings, and budgets, we’re not even keeping up with population growth in America!
I recently had lunch with a man who has a grown child who has walked away from the church. When I got back to my office, I saw an email (not sent to me but another pastor) that said, "I have watched each of my grown children walk away from the church. They all pray and have some sort of belief, but do not have a use for the church. I now think I am beginning to understand why. It is irrelevant to them. I am a leader in a church and lead a small group each Sunday night. It, for the most part, is a church of older dying members who are the main financial support . . . I pray for God to use me and bring more families to serve Him, but it is not happening."
I've been a full-time pastor now for 21 years, and I've seen more churches than ever use culturally relevant music, facilities, dress style, and marketing, and yet the unchurched population continues to grow. Now, believe me, I'm not against relevant music, facilities, and so forth. In fact, as a former church planter, I understand quite well how important these tools can be. However, I find it interesting that when young adults who grew up in the church but have left are asked, "Why did you leave?" their answers have little to do with these issues. The most predominant answers given by young adults who have left the church are that the church is shallow, repressive, anti-intellectual, hypocritical, judgmental, and too political. Whether or not you agree with their assessment, notice that these are substantive issues that get at belief systems and Christian behaviors and attitudes.
Unfortunately, many churches keep focusing on the window dressing and not what's inside the room. While we tweak our music and dress styles, we're not addressing the core issue which is WE'RE THE PROBLEM! It doesn't matter how "cool" we are or how relevant we try to be if we're shallow, repressive, anti-intellectual, hypocritical, and judgmental people. These are behavior changes we need to address. We can't put on more make-up and think we'll be more pretty, if we're ugly on the inside.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Christianity has not been tested and failed. Genuine Christianity is rarely tested.” What is genuine Christianity? That which looks like Christ. Perhaps if we focused more on looking like Jesus, we would see more people focused on Jesus and attracted to a community of Jesus followers. In spite of great obstacles, persecution and being the minority in Jewish culture, the first-century church exceedingly grew. Today, in spite of nice buildings, great marketing tools and music, churches are in decline. Something is wrong with that picture. Let's get below the surface of just dealing with the facade, and let's deal with the deeper issues of our character, Christlikeness and commitment. I believe that when we do so, our church buildings won't be able to hold all the young … and older adults who will want to learn more about this Jesus we follow.