Few questions concern people of faith more than this one: why is the church dying? This article explores the question in some detail, exploring the nature of the church's decline and what we might choose to do in response.
Originally published in the magazine of St. Columba's Church of Scotland (London, UK). Click "read more".
It should come as no surprise to readers of this magazine that the Christian church in the global west – at least in terms of membership – is bleeding to death.
The Church of Scotland, in a 2015 report, noted that in the ten-year period between 2004 and 2014 the church lost almost 156,000 members. The numbers of baptisms and professions of faith fell, as did the numbers of active congregations, clergy, and elders.
This trend; however, is not unique to the Kirk. Throughout Europe those who profess a Christian faith are sharply declining in number. In 1910 Europeans accounted for over 66% of the world’s Christians. Today, that number is closer to 25%. Naturally, that number can be – in part - attributed to the growth of Christianity within the global south, but we fool ourselves if we don’t also attributed it to sharp declines in Christian affiliation across European populations. The numbers of people who are not longer self-identifying as Christian have grown dramatically.
I write to you from The United States – a country which is, no doubt, still a strongly religious place (and I say this in terms of church affiliation). Yet, America is also seeing some of these same trends play out. By almost any measure, religious affiliation and practice is on the decline. My own denominational tradition – the Presbyterian Church USA – is facing statistics which are not dissimilar to the Church of Scotland: we are loosing congregations and members at alarmingly high rates.
At almost every gathering I go to I hear the question asked, “why is the church in such decline and what can be done about it?”
Customarily, the answers that get tossed around in response to this question relate to one or more of the following: 1) the church’s position on social issues, 2) the irreconcilability between religious claims and scientific knowledge, 3) the sense that churches are overly judgmental, 4) scandals within the church, 5) an increasingly individualistic culture, 6) people becoming busier, or 7) an increase in information availability (i.e., the Bible no longer occupying a central role in our imagination and ethical discernment).
I would never deny that there is profound and real truth in all of these responses. They are all valid rationales for people’s changing relationship with the church. I would argue; however, that we’re missing something even more relevant: we have turned Jesus into a commodity.
Let me explain.
Make no mistake, ours is a world which is defined my consumer markets. The Boston Consulting Group, a world leader in business strategy advising, recently noted that over 50% of young people agreed with the statement that the brands that they consumed (for everything from clothing to technology products) “say something about who I am, my values, and where I fit in.” In other words, young people increasingly relate their personal worth and values to those things which they acquire.
But the issue isn’t just with young people. All of us have been pushed towards defining ourselves and our worth based on the things that we consume. We are bombarded with messaging that tells us that we aren’t beautiful enough, healthy enough, smart enough, stylish enough, athletic enough, or happy enough. We are reminded of this each and every time we walk past a storefront, open the newspaper, listen to the radio, or turn on the television. With every bus that drives by, we are confronted with a message about our inadequacy.
As people, we have been programmed to believe that our true worth and joy rests somewhere in the future and that if we just buy the right things, eat the right things, travel to the right place, get the right education, or behave in the right way that we’ll find true joy.
Said another way, our consumer-driven world tells us that we aren’t good enough right now.
I think that one key reason for the church’s decline is that the church has bought into this mentality, and has re-packaged the teachings of Christ and the purpose of the church to fit in with this “new world” thinking that it is what “consumers” want.
We have allowed the church to try to “sell” itself to “consumers” by billing it as a way to improve life or overcome obstacles. We have allowed churches to bill themselves – and, by extension, Christ - as service providers. Oftentimes, this has even been achieved through complex marketing strategies which are not all that dissimilar to how a company might peddle a new brand of shoes.
But the problem is this: when you commodify Christ and the church you end up with two problems: 1) you place Christ and the church in competition with all the other “products” which are vying for people’s time, attention and resources, and 2) you make Christ and the church replaceable when a “better product” comes along.
In doing so, the church has forgotten what people truly need is not some vain ambition of a better future self, but the reality that people are loved for who they are, right now, in spite of their flaws and brokenness.
This is such a powerful and counter-cultural message and it’s the message that breathes life into the Christian faith. Yet, it’s the message that we often jettison in the name of trying to compete with the world around us.
The reality that we are good enough right now – indeed, that we loved beyond measure right now – is something that is so profound that it should shake us to our core. We don’t need to be someone that we aren’t. God’s love has been given to us unconditionally. Yes, the church can and does improve lives. But it does all that through the foundational reality of God’s real and present love for His people.
So, why is the church dying? Maybe it is because the church has forgotten to fill people with the knowledge that they are good enough. That they are loved. That they are God’s masterpiece (Eph 2:10).
When good companies begin to decline they often, smartly, ask themselves “what is it that the consumers want?” and then modify their product line to meet that changing desire. All too often churches have responded to decline in the same way, repackaging Christ, modifying their message, twisting the Gospel into something that feels “hip” or “relevant” or “attractive”. But I would suggest that churches are asking the wrong question. It’s not “what do people want?” that matters, it’s what they need. And what they need is to know that they are loved.