Is the church dying? Do we need to be worried?

Crosses on the top of churches

Many atheists make strong statements about how the church is in terminal decline, and it’s only a matter of time til it is reduced to an insignificant minority in most western countries, and eventually worldwide. Some christians may be influenced by these claims.

I did some research for my other blog to check out the facts and the conclusions of sociologists of religion, so I thought I’d share them here.

A summary of what I discovered

  1. The view that the modern world would inevitably become secular was held by sociologists of religion 40-50 years ago, but is generally not supported today, because it hasn’t turned out that way.
  2. It seems likely that christianity will continue to lose ground in some of the more affluent western countries, including the US, but continue to gain converts in Asia, Africa and South America. Islam will continue to grow (including in Europe) because it has a higher birthrate.
  3. Non-belief will probably continue to grow slowly in the west, but the bulk of those leaving the major religions will probably not end up atheist, but have some less defined religious belief or simply have no belief at all. In some countries, secular belief systems are in decline – for example, christianity is making great progress in China, with many former atheists and non-believers converting.
  4. All of this is based simply on statistics and sociology. Most christians believe that God will continue to build his church, and the data offers us at least as much comfort as it does to unbelievers. But christianity clearly faces challenges.

What should we learn from this?

Australia has been a predominantly secular country for as long as I can remember, and the drop in church attendance and belief to about 10% reflects (I think) the level of personal belief that was there all along. I think the same may be true of Great Britain. The question is, what are churches doing to make new disciples?

There is a much higher percentage of christians in the US, but the current decline in belief and attendance is faster. What are churches doing to make new disciples, and to retain the young followers they have?

What should churches be doing?

End arrogance, complacency and self interest

Fairly or unfairly, many see the church as self-focused and selfish (praising God and building big properties while people suffer and die), arrogantly sure of its commitments and unwilling to allow alternative viewpoints in society (e.g. on gay marriage). Most churches seem to be stuck in the way they’ve always done things.

Whatever doctrines and ethics we hold to be true, we must learn to express them humbly, and be open to the Holy Spirit leading us in new directions.

Humility and service

We need to learn how to express what we believe to be true in a humble manner. We need leaders who are servant leaders, not leaders who enjoy the limelight and adulation. And like Jesus, we need to start serving the community around us if we are not already. Actions speak louder than words. Leaders must start equipping saints for the work of ministry.

I will be looking at this in more detail in subsequent posts.

Read all about it!

Read the full details of what the data and the experts say, in Is religion dying out? Is this inevitable in the modern world?

Photo: morgueFile.

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  1. Can you give an example of how someone could accuse the church of being “arrogantly sure of its commitments”? And are all viewpoints (alternative or otherwise) valid? I understand what you are trying to say but allowing alternative viewpoints could be problematic if those viewpoints are not valid. It was, after all, an alternate viewpoint that got Adam and Eve into sin.

  2. Hi Chaz,
    I think a good example is the life of Jesus. The religious leaders of his day had God’s rules and requirements fairly much worked out, but Jesus was bringing a new perspective – which many of them were unwilling to accept. And he promised the Holy Spirit would lead his followers into all truth, and Paul said the Spirit would give prophecy and words of knowledge – but we can easily close ourselves off from all that. We need to be sailing boats ready to hoist sail to be blown by the wind of the Spirit, not steadfastly at anchor.
    Of course not all viewpoints are valid. But sometimes an alternative viewpoint is indeed valid.

  3. True alternatives can be valid, but on what biblical or revelatory basis can “gay marriage” be considered an alternative? Also, your approach seems to be saying “throw away all anchors”, am I correct?

  4. G’day Chaz, I wondered if I should have used gay marriage as my example, because i thought you might pick up on it, but it seemed like the best one. If you read my post again, you’ll see that I used gay marriage as an example of negative ways people see the church, not as an ‘alternative’ to anything.
    An analogy is never perfect. So I think we should throw away all ‘anchors’ that prevent us from following the Holy Spirit, but we should not throw away all ‘anchors’ that help us in other ways.

  5. One issue I have with the results of secularisation is that often the nastiest churches seem to thrive, as they give their followers the greatest self-esteem but scare outsiders off Christianity in general. This, in turn, give the in-crowd the idea they’re on the right track.

  6. That seems to me, as an outsider, to be most typical of churches in the US, perhaps some in Africa also. Would you say it is true of many churches in Europe?

  7. Not of many of the large mainstream churches, though there are examples like officials of the Serbian Orthodox Church inciting people not to spare Bosnians, an eye for an eye rather than turning the other cheek. (Maybe picking a Serbian example will net me accusations of bias, but it is the only from the conflict that I readily recall. But I don’t doubt that similar examples can be drawn from the forces who opposed them.)
    But there may be a reason these not nasty mainstream churches are in decline. They are associated with the bile, but don’t offer the boost in self-esteem that results from the bile. But that is speculation.

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