REVEREND CREECH: Is the Church Dying Out?

(Reverend Mark Creech is director of the Christian Action League of NC. He was a pastor for 20 years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.)

This week the Washington Post reported on a Gallup poll that says church membership has fallen below the majority in America for the first time. In 2020, less than 50% of American adults attend a church, synagogue, or mosque. That’s down by 20 points since the turn of the century.

The article quoted Tara Isabella Burton, author of “Strange rites: New Religions for a Godless world.” Burton “attributes the national decline in religious affiliation to two major trends among younger Americans. First, she points to the broader shifts suggesting a larger distrust of institutions, including police and pharmaceutical companies. Some Americans are disillusioned by the behavior of religious leaders, including the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal and the strong White evangelical alignment with former President Donald Trump.”

Such claims are to be taken with a grain of salt. Quite frankly, I think the matter has more to do with the way so many mainline churches have watered down the Christian message. Over the decades denominations have compromised on the authority of the Scriptures, and various core Christian doctrines. Much of the church in America has so badly become a reflection of worldly values; it has now been downgraded from a world-transforming force to little more than an apostate religious country-club.

It’s interesting to note Gallup reported “declines in church membership are proportionately smaller among political conservatives, Republicans, married adults and college graduates. These groups tend to have among the highest rates of church membership, along with Southern residents and non-Hispanic Black adults.” Perhaps this is because these groups still generally hold to traditional Christian teaching.

Although these figures are concerning, what most troubles me is the way misguided individuals will use such reports to argue the church is dying out. Therefore, people should dismiss it.

Back in April of 2012, Diane Butler Bass wrote for HuffPost: “Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of the church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church. The United States is fast becoming a society where Christianity is being reorganized after religion.” No doubt, this latest report from Gallup will be used to buttress such assertions.

Nevertheless, claims like this are nothing less than “pea-turkey,” as I used to hear an old fiery preacher of yesteryear say. And the proof is in what we celebrate this Easter weekend.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only the assurance of the final triumph of Christianity, but of Christ’s church. When our Lord rose from the dead, he imparted his resurrection life to all who believe the Gospel. The resurrection speaks to us not only of the life hereafter, but of power to live an overcoming life in the present. This capacity is evident in the history of the church and so shall remain until the end of time.

Consider this remarkable quote about the church from a sermon by Thomas Alfred Gurney written around the turn of the 20th Century:

“The Christian society in the midst of the world has leavened that world with the influences of its own victorious life. From the depths of degradation, the full measure of which we can never now know, against forces which were tremendous and unparalleled in the power of their common cohesion and common interest, it has uplifted earthly society to the level at which we behold it today. It has achieved this in spite of the fact that it has often been grossly untrue to its own ideals and for whole periods has neglected or ignored its true mission…Though its members have too often been the victims of false hierarchical theories, or dupes of worldly policy and worldly ambition, or the prey, as Christ foretold, of hirelings who cared not for the sheep…though human in all its terrible defects, has been witness to a Divine Life within. Never has the light been wholly extinguished, though often the windows have been darkened. Never has the Life been wholly lost, though its energies have been paralyzed by sin. Never has the Holy Spirit been grieved beyond measure with man’s willfulness and waywardness, withdrawn from the Body which He had filled and returned to the Heaven whence He came down. The record of human unfaithfulness is wonderful when we consider the fact from which we start, but the story of Divine Patience is still more wonderful. The salt has never lost its savour completely; the leaven, however, checked in its effects, has carried still some germ of life within. The history of the church of Christ has been one of progress, though the progress has had many drawbacks. The history of human society as affected by it has been one of gradual but permanent advance. The Risen Christ has confirmed to His Church, by a charter which even Hell cannot annul, the gift of His own victorious life…The power of His resurrection is given to His Church. The indwelling Spirit of the Risen Christ becomes…her true keynote.”

People often talk about the need to be on the right side of history. If one would truly be on the right side of history, then he or she should surrender fully to the one who defeated death on that first Easter morn. Despite its apparent weaknesses and evident failures, the Church of Jesus Christ is imbued with His resurrection power and destined to overcome – to rule and reign with Him forever.

(Reverend Mark Creech is director of the Christian Action League of NC. He was a pastor for 20 years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.)

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