The numbers do not look good for the Christian Church in American today.
Dubbed the “Nones,” the religiously unaffiliated are growing quickly as a segment of the American population. “One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.” (Pew Research Center, Nones On the Rise) Some in this group would consider themselves nothing in particular, some are agnostic, and some are atheist.
Meanings of these statistics are debated, but somewhere around 20% of Americans attend a Christian church service on any given Sunday morning, down from 40% a generation or two ago. More people claim to be spiritual but opposed to organized religion than ever before. Another factor affecting church attendance is the pull of busy schedules that no longer limit activities to weekdays. Sunday morning worship is just one of many options available to families. Even families who “regularly” attend worship may only attend half the time, which is a change from previous decades. (See this article for more information about the research.)
Given these numbers, why should we have hope for the Christian church in America today?
I’m not one to pine wistfully for the good ol’ days of yesteryear, and quite frankly I’m getting a little tired of hearing it. The good ol’ days weren’t all good, and our memories have a tendency to remember certain parts and conveniently forget others. There were many wonderful aspects to previous generations, and a commitment to regular church attendance was laudable. But there were many negatives as well and those cannot be forgotten. Attending for appearances was common. Abuse in family life was hidden as a normal practice and a lot just plain wasn’t talked about — ever, like emotions and feelings. Children with disabilities were sent to institutions; they certainly were not in the typical church pew.
This week Mike and I had the opportunity to attend the Best Practices Ministry conference in Phoenix, Arizona. This conference brings together some of the best and most forward-thinking church workers of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and what a fantastic experience! Over 1,500 people gathered at Christ Church to worship, pray, reflect, and have fun together to God’s glory.
The above listed concerning church attendance statistics were discussed. Professors from the Seminaries were there as well as Seminary students. Our young men are facing a different world than the one of a generation ago, and certain completely different from several generations ago. We need to get real about the changes, and we are.
During the close of the conference, Pastor Bill Tucker shared a beautiful illustration that profoundly impacted my thinking. Remember the weddings you have attended and the moment when the bride is about to walk down the aisle. There is a hush, and the whole congregation turns to see the bride in her most beautiful moment, and in fact stands up in honor of her during her shining moment.
The Bible clearly illustrates the Church as the bride of Christ. We are given that honor. Consider these verses:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
As I’ve continued to reflect on this, I remembered reading about a wedding photographer who said she likes to get pictures of the bride coming down the aisle, but even more so, she loves to capture pictures of the groom looking at his bride. Everyone else is watching the bride and is captivated by her beauty, but this photographer watches the look of pure love and awe on the face of the groom. Check out these photos of grooms seeing their brides for the first time. (See if you can get through them without crying — I can’t!)
Friends, the looks of love those grooms had for their brides? Those are amazing and special, but they are a pale reflection of the love shining on the face of Jesus Christ when he looks at us, his church. God loves us — both individually and as a church collectively — with a perfect love that is far above what is humanly possible to comprehend. We can rest secure knowing God will not abandon His church.
Society is changing and the church is changing. Some of these changes are positive and some are negative, and with changes come unknowns.
Yet this I know. Just as a bride and groom have eyes only for each other, when we fix our eyes on Jesus, we are safe.
…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
What changes have you seen in your church and in church attendance over the last decade? Do you have hope or concern for the future?
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