Fifty Years from Now, Part 2

signexitledrdI 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:

7 thoughts on “Fifty Years from Now, Part 2

  1. Jim,
    I have tried 3 times to come up with comments for this subject – even started a document on my PC, so that after several pages, I could attempt to shrink it into a “Reader’s Digest” version and enter on your blog. Not gonna happen. I suppose, that is why Julia Duin has written her book, “Quitting Church”. There is just TOO much to discuss. I may suggest to Ralph Starling, that we read this book for our “Soul Salsa” group discussion. Do you think this would be a good idea?

  2. I’m disappointed that you think the only 3 options 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).
    What about those of us who actually like the way we do church and hope that those of us are not forgotten? I know we need to reach out to those who are not going to church, but I’m barely 40 and I really like how we do church.

  3. Hi Jim!

    I was reading your blog and I found this one and your first one on this topic interesting! It really got me thinking about how the church will be. Have you finished the book? Did you like it?

    Great to reconnect with you and Christy! And I enjoy your blogs!! They are interesting and gives me food for thought!


  4. Couldn’t attendance be waning because it is simply becoming more socially acceptable to not attend? Perhaps the size of the congregation is trending down to accurately represent the number of believers.

    Maybe there is nothing wrong with the model. Every complaint I’ve ever heard about “church” from people I know was either related to the content of the message or the character of the congregation… I’ve never heard one person say they don’t attend church because of the format of the service.

    Maybe the “product” needs to be reviewed before its “packaging.”

  5. Before coming to Richmond in 2004 and joining FBC I was a lifetime member of Temple Baptist Church in Norfolk,VA. It was and is an intercity church and losing members. In 1994 and 1995 we hired Dr. Phil Rodgerson to come and help us prepare new by-laws and a new constitution. One thing he said really hit the mark. He said, “Do not expect people to come knocking at the doors. They do not know what is behind those big doors. You have to go out to the community and do church where the people are. The day of the traditional church is coming to a close. You have to give the people the gospel in a different manner. Jesus went into the community and you all must go into the community. The structure of the programs must change and the Sunday Services must change. You all are in a perfect place to spread the gospel. The community is waiting for you to come tell them the good news.” Finally Temple got a new pastor who is keeping the church going in the direction Dr. Rodgerson suggested. Where do I see the Church going to be in 50 years. Still telling the good news but in a different way and meeting the needs of the community. I taught Sunday School for over 65 years at Temple and Phil Rodgerson was my source of information whenever I had a scriptural question. He gave me a good background of what needs to be done in today’s world to reach those who are lost.

  6. For 1500 years the church was the center of society in Europe and then in America. All learning and culture revolved around it. Once the Industrial Revolution got into full swing, say late 1800s and early 1900s, people had more education and money. That permitted them to do things outside of the big three (home, work, church). In the early 20th century people had time, money and knowledge as never before and used those resources beyond the church. Unfortunately, the church even today acts as if it is still the center of society. When will the church realize the world has changed and church/worship must also re-evolve?

  7. Jim, the church has always seen times of flux, often near extinction–but it has survived due to the grace and mercy of God. The church today is facing greater problems of survival from within. We are trying to reinvent the church — we are throwing out scripture that does not conform to present day culture. We are not hearing the whole gospel from pulpits in America. The Divinity of Christ is not just questioned, it is being disavowed by ministers and lay persons alike. We are trying to entertain our congregations not enlighten them. We are watering down our faith to the point that it is nearly extinct. Thankfully, there are some pastors and lay persons who see what is happening and they are beginning to speak out. Being a Methodist, I am appalled that our church leaders, (all the way to the top) are ignoring God’s word and bending our doctrine to make changes that go against God’s word. Our ministers are afraid to preach the whole Gospel for fear of the “blow back” that will come from the congregation and the hierarchy of the church. I know that God is watching and waiting to see just how and when His children will resolve these issues before He steps in. My husband and I are in our “twilight years” and feel the pain of all of this turmoil. We pray fervently that God will take hold soon and not let us flounder in “the wilderness” much longer. We have tried to work to bring stability back to our church and lead others back to God’s Word; but we feel we have not made a difference. When circumstances prevent us from attending our church on Sunday morning, we are fed by the services at First Baptist. When I read about the fiscal response of your congregation in Oct., I was astounded! What a blessing this congregation is to God’s work. FBC has been in my prayers for a long time as you work to do God’s will and workand I pray for our church and that God will show me what else I/we can do to further His kingdome here on earth. May I ask for your prayers as well? Blessings to all His children at FBC and expecially to you, their Shepard.

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