I noticed a sudden spike in the traffic on my blog site yesterday, and it wasn’t because of the funny Advent story about Donald, or the sobering reminder of the AIDS pandemic, it was because people were reading the post called “Fifty Years from Now, Will We Still Be Doing This?” (or maybe they just wanted to push the button on the nifty polling device).
I’ve been surprised by the results of that poll. When I last checked, 41 percent of respondents thought we would still be doing church the same way fifty years from now; 39 percent thought the church would be bigger and stronger than ever; while only 20 percent thought the church would have evolved into something else by then, perhaps a collection of house churches. The results suggest that the people reading my blog are either a) stubbornly optimistic or, b) woefully uninformed (smile). There is a third option, of course, and that is that my readers are believers who know that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
That’s true. But let’s take a look at the facts:
According to a survey sponsored by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago religious attendance in America fell from 41 percent in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002. In 2005, instead of asking people “Do you attend church regularly?” sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler asked them, “Did you attend church last Sunday?” and got numbers closer to 22 percent of the total population. You don’t even have to know the facts to know that churchgoing in America has changed significantly in the last fifty years. How will it change in the next fifty?
While the movement Jesus started will never die, the institutional church seems to be in trouble. I remember hearing Biship William H. Willimon report, years ago, that the United Methodist Church was losing 2,000 members each day. Even strong, evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, once thought to be immune to such decline, have shown a recent downturn in membership. Those churches that are thriving, mostly megachurches, tend to achieve their success through agressive church growth strategies that often minimize the demands of the gospel.
First Baptist, Richmond, has been able to maintain its vitality largely through its television ministry, which reaches an estimated 20,000 people each week. While other downtown churches are struggling, our sanctuary remains comfortably full on Sunday, and the visitors and new members who come to us often say they first saw us “on TV.” Still, the people who actually come into our building each week represent less than a third of our total membership. And of those estimated 20,000 people who watch our services now we need to ask how many will be watching ten years from now? Or thirty? Or fifty?
I’m still reading Julia Duin’s book (Quitting Church), and I’m still asking people what they think the future holds. I’m finding that many of them, instead of being depressed by the statistics, are excited about how the church might change. One of those people is my friend and colleague Amy Butler, pastor of Washington, DC’s, Calvary Baptist Church. If you’d like to read her thoughts, click here. If you’d like to join the conversation, click on the word “comments” below and let me know what you’re thinking. And if you’d rather just click the button on one of those nifty polling devices, try this one: