Often we get the feel that the average American church is in crisis, yet it’s hard to put a finger on how. When I show up on Sunday morning, everything seems smooth. That may have to do with the fact it’s a well-rehearsed performance, practiced all week by paid professionals. When I meet with people in the lobby after and they open up about church woes, I get a very different feel.
It made me think – how can some, including pastors, deny there’s a need for serious reform today?
Some problems are incredibly obvious. Lower numbers of attendance coupled with less commitment from those who do attend. Faith influencing people less Monday to Saturday while Sunday becomes a generic religious observance. The sheer number of churches that close every year compared to the small number of churches that open. Just Google search “church in crisis” and you get 164 million results.
Yet these problems don’t affect every church – just most churches. There isn’t a blueprint for what’s right and wrong in every church, so if you’ve landed in one of the few ones that seem healthy from a numbers standpoint, you might not feel the plight.
Part of the issue is that some problems aren’t easy to see on the surface – they aren’t obvious.
The decline of Christian faith in America cannot simply be measured from a bean counter point of view. The decline of churches is in quality as much as in quantity. A lack of depth in the faith of many, who give up at any sign of adversity. A lack of intelligent response to doubts and challenges. A waning commitment to moral living coupled with an arrogant pride in those who do pursue it, judging all others. The lack of true discipleship, which has so many causes it merits its own post.
With many obvious indications and many less obvious ones, there still persists many who don’t believe there’s really any problem at all. Church today is what it should be, right?
It’s possible we’ve grown so accustomed to the counterfeit that we no longer recognize the real thing.
The Secret Service was created in 1865, months after Lincoln’s assassination, as part of the Treasury Department. That’s right. Its initial founding was not to address the need to keep presidents alive, but rather to handle a growing financial crisis. It’s estimated that 50% of currency after the Civil War was counterfeit and we needed to restore domestic and foreign confidence in American money. The Secret Service were counterfeit detectors.
To train, they studied the real deal. They became so ridiculously familiar with the real dollar that no counterfeit could ever get past them. They knew what a dollar felt like, smelled like, looked like – they knew it’s weight, it’s thickness, it’s gloss. Because they knew the real, they could easily identify the fake.
Maybe we’ve been so caught up in what the world says a successful church looks like (the counterfeit) that we can’t remember what it takes for a church to be firmly in God’s will (the real deal), regardless of what it looks like.
False signs of success come from measuring success from a worldly perspective instead of from a godly perspective. Our world gives us competing standards to measure and compare ourselves, families, careers, and ministries to others – and it often leaves us feeling empty, worthless, broken – like failures. Yet Christ called us to greatness, a royal priesthood, to purpose and worth and wholeness.
So what false signs of success distract us from real needs and reform while giving us a false sense of worth and security and an unhealthy pride?
Elton Trueblood, a Quaker writing in 1961, offered a list that I found remarkably insightful and prophetic for our time.
- At the time, “Church membership in the United States is higher than it has ever been.” That’s no longer the case across the country today, but many individual churches experience numeric growth and assume it’s a sign of their success. A church with large membership isn’t necessarily a church on the narrow, with members following Christ’s footsteps.
- Churches “can point to large budgets.” The church is taking in an unprecedented amount of money – that’s a sure sign of blessing, right? And it’s spending an unprecedented amount. That’s a sure sign of holiness, right? But Trueblood calls us to recognize, “Some of our pride in this particular achievement is dimmed when we discover what a large proportion of the normal budget is devoted to the support of the local organization, particularly the payment of salaries and the upkeep of local buildings.” A rich church isn’t necessarily a generous church.
- “A third occasion for satisfaction is found in attendance records… Often the effectiveness of a clergyman is measured primarily by the crowds which he can attract.” Trueblood predicted that “The ease with which large crowds are gathered may not long continue” and rightly noted that too many churches derive their worth and define their success by this worldly metric – have we grown numerically and are people showing up regularly – without considering if they are serving, forgiving, growing, making disciples of others.
- “A fourth occasion of comfort is to be found in the construction of new ecclesiastical buildings.” When a church grows stagnant, the rallying cry to bring the dollars back is to start a building campaign. Seriously – tell me I’m wrong here. People often mistake a building campaign as a sign of God’s blessing and the church’s faithfulness – but often it’s just an indication of empire building and misappropriation of funds that God clearly called us to invest back into the “least of these” in our community.
- His final “false sign” really hit home for me: “A more generalized feature of our society which obscures the relative failures of the Church is its public acceptance.” While we don’t seek to be countercultural just for the sake of rebellion ( The Counterculture Counterfeit ), it is true that when we follow God closely we often look very different from the world we live in – and often get rejected by it.
By Trueblood’s assessment, “The test of the vitality of a religion is to be seen in its effect upon culture.” What we see too often is churches glorying in their achievements as they take the path to success in the world’s eyes. They then take comfort in these false signs of success instead of focusing on pursuing God, sharing His heart, and living in His Spirit.
For more insightful quotes from Trueblood, check A Quaker’s View.