Someday, if the trend continues, the Christian church could be a memory and church buildings historic sites, as is true in parts of Europe today.
Editor Vicki Hyatt wrote a warning article in The Mountaineer on May 6. Gallup has surveyed Americans about their views on religion for 80 years, and for the first time, church membership has dropped to fewer than half of American families. The fall has been precipitous in the past two decades. It’s happened on our watch.
Those who say that God will not let this happen because God is always in charge are blind to reality and ignore that we are created with free will. Evangelism is our assignment and right now most of us are doing a lousy job of it. We are to bring the Kingdom to earth as in heaven. It’s up to us to not let the church become only a memory.
At his ascension in the last chapter of Matthew, Jesus gave a final commandment to do something eternally important. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
The reality is clear, however. Members fear the words witness and evangelism, especially in mainline churches.
Church growth is strongest among the people of Africa, South America, and Asia so people elsewhere obviously understand what Jesus said. When Rev. Billy Graham was asked who would be the next Billy Graham, he would look at the person who asked and say, “you will.”
Friction over Biblical interpretation leads to separation and exclusion and that leads to the deaths of congregations. The decline is a matter of apathy and heightened concern to not offend by bringing up religion in conversation.
The one-on-one invitation is the most effective way to bring others into community civic clubs, military veteran organizations, fraternal groups, and our churches. A sincere invitation is simply that. Offered in a spirit of love.
Those who lean one way or the other on the political spectrum point fingers at each other. “It’s their fault.” We can point at lots of reasons, but a renewed interest will not occur unless we who attend church make the personal invitation to join us in a life of faith.
“I’ll sit with you” are welcoming words. We must also show through our lives what the love of Christ looks like. We must be different from other Americans when it comes to forgiveness and love of those unlike ourselves.
People who drop out complain of internal gossip, preaching that makes people feel harassed, and too many requests for money. Younger generations view church people as judgmental hypocrites. That’s been the accusation for two thousand years, but the problem today cannot be handed off to the church’s pastor/priest or the person next to us in the pew. We must be better at joyfully articulating what we believe and welcome others to join us.
An Episcopal bishop in South Florida required all his priests to attend the spiritual retreat called Cursillo. It is an extended weekend of spiritual growth where the priests sit anonymously alongside church members and learn how to be more on fire with the Holy Spirit.
Another bishop, this one Methodist, said all of his pastors must have a face-to-face encounter with those in poverty each week and to report to him what they had chosen to do. This is the Christ-like behavior that leads to authentic witness. Both are necessary for the church to be vital. Both are required of those who believe Jesus is the Messiah, and I know I must be better.
The Rev. Richard Ploch is a retired Methodist minister. He lives in the Bethel community.