The #1 Reason the Church is Declining and 4 Things Pastors Can Do About It

I talk with pastors who still long to go back to what was. I’m not one of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m saddened by how many have left the church in the past two years. It breaks my heart for them. And I love a filled building as much as anyone else.

But, have you looked at the trends of what had been happening in the church in America before the pandemic? If so, I’d be shocked to hear anyone say that we should want to go back to the way things were. The church has been a broken-down, shadow-at-best version of representing Christ that has been losing its influence in droves for the past two decades.

We’ve heard a million times that what has happened during this pandemic has only accelerated a trend that we’d already been experiencing. But, I think we can lose sight of the fact that the movement before the pandemic was already declining at breakneck speed. For example, a survey by FACT shows that average worship attendance had dropped in churches from 137 in 2000 to just 65 in 2020.

I understand that worship attendance is not the only determining factor in the health of a church, but you have to admit that it is a determining factor.

Furthermore, generationally, the numbers are lower and lower with those who identify with a church. In 2021, Gallup shared that church membership dropped below 50% nationally for the first time. Among Millennials, only 36% identify with a church.

So, we have to go back to asking a difficult question, “What is the reasoning behind the decline of those no longer attending or wanting to identify with a church?”

One of the works that have inspired my writings more than any other is UnChristian, written by Barna’s current President, David Kinnamon. This groundbreaking work came out while I was in Seminary and has helped so many church leaders see the problem: The unchurched, especially the younger generation, do not perceive present-day Christianity well. If you are a church leader, you’ve seen the words before. Present-day Christians are perceived as judgmental, boring, hypocritical, out-of-touch, anti-gay, old-fashioned, and too political. A pathetic set of words that fall so very far short of who Jesus is. We must change that.

But, I noticed something new in the book that I’d never seen before. Not only did Barna offer some unfavorable images to describe present-day Christianity, but they presented some favorable images as well. And, do you know what the lowest-rated favorable image was? Here it is: present-day Christianity is not seen as relevant to their lives. Only 10% said it was “very relevant,” and another 30% said it was “somewhat to very relevant.” So, as the unchurched look into the lives of those who follow Jesus, they simply aren’t seeing how Jesus is relevant to our lives.

Churches, filled with Christians, are doing a poor job, individually and collectively, helping others see how Jesus is relevant in our lives today. Unfortunately, the church that we offer is perceived to be irrelevant. Its irrelevance has only been growing in its numbers the past couple of decades. This is the number one reason we have been on the decline. Until we fix this, we will continue to lose numbers, influence, and significance in this world. People won’t do, join, buy, or commit to something unless it is relevant to their lives.

We are fighting against irrelevance.

So, what can we do as pastors? Here are four things to help.

 

1) Do Something Different

Einstein once said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So why would we continue down that path if what we were doing wasn’t working?

The collective church has been behind the curve with innovation and creation for far too long. God created us to be creators in this world. As the world is rapidly changing, we must adapt as well. While things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so on will never go out of style, the methods we extend this fruit into the world can and should change.

If we continue to operate like Blockbuster in a Netflix world, our decline to death will be sooner than you think. Gross negligence of being online really caught up with the church. It was truly inspirational to see so many churches pivot and get out of their comfort zone to jump online at the pandemic’s start. But, the question remains, “Why were so many churches not already online?” How many more clues did the church need that being online in a visible way was important?

I’m not saying the church will die. Far be it. It is God’s church, and it will prevail.

But a pastor that continues to stay married to old methods that weren’t working could very soon be divorced from having a church.

Right now, virtual and augmented reality, Web3, and the metaverse are all knocking on our doorstep. Sometime in the next 5-20 years, these realities will be another significant disruption to our lives. I hope we’ve learned that it’s a foolish strategy not to be where the people are. What does all of this mean? We are still figuring it out. But, entering into these conversations on the front end rather than 20 years later seems like a wise strategy.

Let’s be proactive, not reactive.

What could churches do differently this year? Share in the comments below. Point 3 may offer a few solutions as well.

Challenge: Implement one new different idea or ministry in 2022.

 

2) Understand the Times

One of the things I have to fight most in this life is to get out of my Christian bubble. A Christian bubble will automatically start surrounding me without intention and a plan. And I know I’m not alone. To understand the times, we have to personally get involved in genuine relationships with those in our communities who don’t go to church.

There’s a sneaky verse in 1 Chronicles 12:32. As they were listing men who were fighting with King David, it says that they chose men “from Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do…”

When we understand the times, we know what to do.

No matter your opinion, and I certainly disagree that the church isn’t relevant, we must understand the culture. Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not of the world. Even Jesus Himself came down in the human form. He did this so that we could understand Him.

But also, He did everything He could to understand the times as well. During His ministry, Jesus asked way more questions than He did give answers. I recently wrote a blog on the 305 questions Jesus asked. One of the takeaways from looking at all that Jesus asked was the number of curiosity questions He asked. A significant number of those questions started with “How” or “Why.”

Not all churches have declined in this time. One that has grown tremendously is Saddleback Church, under the leadership of Pastor Rick Warren. As the church began to meet for worship, he sent out a community-wide survey about what music people listened to. He wanted to ensure that their style of music was relevant to the community. It may seem like a little thing, but the more we understand the community, the greater chances we have to be relevant.

Challenge: Commit to making a new relationship with someone who doesn’t go to your church this year.

 

3) Solve Real Problems

The more you understand the times, the more you see what problems people face. While Jesus is the ultimate answer to any problem, how we present the Gospel could vary based on the people’s needs. How much time do you spend thinking, talking, or strategizing about effectively solving real problems that people in your church and community are facing?

One of the things I truly appreciated about the early days of the pandemic is it truly felt like pastors were answering real questions that people in their community had. Services and sermons were changed to be relevant to the times we were facing.

While every community is different, here is a non-exhaustive list of significant problems that I see getting out of control today: 

  • Identity Confusion
  • Unhappiness
  • Insignificance
  • Unresolved Grief
  • Unforgiveness
  • Stress and Fear

 

I find it hard to believe we could be irrelevant because Jesus is the answer to all of those things. There is no one more relevant to humanity than Jesus.

We receive our identity in His family by grace, through faith. He invites us into an abundant life of significance to follow Him as disciples. And as we are in a relationship with Him, we are filled with joy that never ceases. So how is He not relevant?

Challenge: Look at your upcoming preaching calendar and assess if your messages or series address real problems that people face today.

 

4) Market Better

Did you know that the average person sees up to 10000 ads every single day?

We live in a world with excellent marketing. The best marketers understand their audience. They know what problems their audience is facing and can articulate how their particular product will solve that problem.

If we genuinely believe that Jesus is the answer to life’s biggest problems, let’s tell a better story. After all, the Apostle Paul does tell us that we are Christ’s ambassadors in this world. We are His marketing plan. Let’s acknowledge that we have failed if we have become irrelevant in the past. But by doing something different, understanding our times, and solving real problems, we will be better marketers of the Gospel.

How do we stand out with the Gospel of Jesus when 10000 ads are seen every day?

It’s simple. Jesus gives and does things for us that no product, food, travel destination, or anything in this world can. Talk about those things.

If someone were to ask you, “Why is Jesus relevant to you?” how would you respond? Similarly, if you were to ask people in your church that same question, how would they respond? Teaching and giving people a chance to share their testimony is a great opportunity to share how Jesus is relevant to our lives.

As much as we should do our best to change the narrative on words like judgmental, hypocritical, boring, etc., I also believe we can and should be marketing the positive, relevant things that Jesus brings into our lives. The more we live with and tell others about the happiness, fulfillment, significance, and purpose that Jesus gives, the more the world will see Him as relevant again. 

Challenge: Look through your website, including your mission, vision, and values, and see how many positive characteristics like happiness, fulfillment, joy, meaning, purpose, and significance are present.

 

Jesus is the hope of the world. And Jesus is best seen through the church. So I hope and pray that this article didn’t discourage you but instead spur you on to be the greatest and fullest expression of Jesus that you can be.

What other ideas do you have to help the church be more relevant?

2 Responses

  1. Lots of good advice here. I would add that we must first get people out of their comfort zone, in order to have them listen. Most younger people, and many older ones as well, believe that evolution has been proven, the earth is millions of years old, extraterrestrial life is a certainty, the Bible has been proven to be full of myths, Jesus never existed. Pick one. What would you start with?

    Me. I start with something simple, like petrified wood. Most think millions of years, but a fellow in New Mexico has a patent with low temperature and low pressure that is indistinguishable from the naturally occurring rock. Just high permineralized water, like the Flood, and around three months. Then, one can segway to Mt. St. Helens and the Grand Canyon, the irredusability of the knee, etc. Knocking someone out of there comfort zone gives you a chance to give them other information, like there is more historical evidence of Jesus’ birth, life, miracles, death and resurrection than that Julius Caesar existed.

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