The Decline of the Church? (Part 2)

In my last post I showed pictures of “church buildings” that are no longer used for church meetings. While we could simplistically say that these empty buildings show the decline of the church in this area, this post will show one reason this is not a sound claim. I’ll share some photos of a few other buildings in the area that serve as meeting places for churches, but weren’t originally built for this purpose.

The first snapshot (below) shows a former movie theater, which, as you can see by the sign, is now home to a church.(Is this a sign of the decline of the movie industry? Probably not.)

This church has moved into a space formerly used for secular purposes and converted it to church use.

And as I went further, I found church using spaces for weekend services that haven’t stopped being used for their weekday functions. Like this Tacoma middle school that hosts not just one, but two churches for weekend services!

This is one indicator of the evangelical tendency (especially in recent years) to take public, “secular” space and use it as a place to meet for fellowship and worship. While some congregations do this as a temporary

arrangement – until they can get big enough to have their own building – others do it with an intentionality, wanting to be part of the structures, the space, the rhythm of life in their community.

While I’m at it, here’s a photo of a high school in Lakewood where a congregation meets that is very much connected to the lives of the needy in their community.

I could go on with more examples, but I think most of my readers probably agree with me, since anyone who’s been evangelical for awhile knows that the church is not the building, it’s the body of believers under the lordship of Christ.

What’s upsetting is how the claims of the looming demise of the church are used by leaders to scare Christians into acting on whatever issue a  leader is passionate about. In the past twelve months, I have actually heard one speaker claim that the reason we are losing young people and the church is declining in numbers is because we aren’t teaching young-earth, 7-day material creationism, while another speaker claimed that it’s because we aren’t encouraging our Christian young people to embrace scientific evolutionary theory. Two opposing “pet issues” are offered as the solution to the same perceived problem. At the college where I did my undergrad work, we were regularly warned that the church would decline and our nation would fall to pieces unless we did more evangelism and voted Republican (Which is another poor correlation for another day…).

A couple years ago, there was media buzz around a study showing a decline in the number of professing Christians in the U.S. and an increase in those who claimed to be atheist or have no religious affiliation. This story was critiqued well by more than one source, (including First Things ), and it was noted that evangelical and pentecostal Christianity gained popularity, while mainline denominations – that in large part had stopped preaching the gospel long before – lost numbers. So essentially, there was a decline in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. And since the mainline denominations tend to own the nicest church buildings, we now see beautiful church buildings being converted to other uses.

My conclusions from these ponderings are the following:

1. If  the best motivation we can muster for living out our mission as the church is the fear that Christianity is declining, then our theology is seriously stunted. A robust theology makes us more concerned for the glory of Christ than the survival of our own institutions.

2. I would love to see beautiful old buildings with aesthetic and/or historic value put into use by evangelical churches. I would prefer this to the non-descript box-like buildings we tend to set up in non-descript suburban areas. Why can’t we connect with the history and beauty that have been part of Christianity – but bring sound teaching and vibrant Christian community to life within those walls?

3. I also love to see churches using public/secular space in their communities. Churches ought to meet frequently outside of their buildings! Why can’t we be vitally connected to the rhythms of life in the communities where we live?

4. The genius of evangelicalism – in fact, the genius of Christianity – is the ability of its people, leaders and institutions to reinvent themselves while staying true to the core beliefs and practices of the faith. Changing the venues in which we meet is just another expression of that.

Thus, I applaud the creativity of those using secular space for church meetings. And if you are starting a church seeking to worship in an aesthetically and historically rich place, incorporating liturgy and beauty into worship while offering sound and clear teaching about the gospel, please invite me. I want to see what this looks like…because I think it would be beautiful.

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The Decline of the Church?

 I heard a speaker a few months ago who made the claim that, just as the church in Europe has declined dramatically in numbers in recent decades, the church in America is headed for the same kind of decline. He was not the first person I heard make this claim, but he used rather flimsy anecdotal evidence to support his claim: he flashed picture on the screen of church buildings in England that are no longer used for church meetings, but have become bookstores,  nightclubs, etc.

While the claims about the American church declining may well be true, the poor logic compelled me to put together some photos and words that would deconstruct the inadequate reasoning in his presentation. This post begins the analysis.

I thought that, perhaps, if I wandered the streets of my city – Tacoma, WA – looking for examples of what he was talking about, I could gain some material. The initial results could fill a few more slides in his presentation to support the idea of the church’s decline.

Just moments away from my home, I found this former church building.

The sign in front – “Abbey Ballroom” – shows that it is no longer being used as a church, but as a dance hall. Hmmm.

Just a few blocks away sits another structure that follows the classical design for an American church building – but the sign over the door belies its actual function. Is this yet another sign of the apostasy of American Christianity?

A short drive over to Tacoma’s 6th Ave neighborhood rewarded my search with yet another example – a beautiful stone building which formerly functioned as a Baptist church.

It is now adorned with the signs below:

Further signs of church decay? If I said so, I would be saying it with my tongue firmly in cheek.

More to come on where my journey led me next…on why these buildings are not the best indicator of church vitality, why scare tactics are not the best motivation for mission, and how amusing it can be when various people offer up their “pet issues” as solutions to the challenges the church faces.

The Arrogance of Church-Bashing

It’s quite frustrating for those of us who profess to be Christians, and therefore part of the Church, to see others who call themselves “Christians” and go to church fall short of the teachings of Jesus. When I see things done in the name of religion, supposedly in the name of Christ, that either misrepresent or grossly contradict the example of Jesus and the teachings of Scripture, I feel a poignant mixture of emotions. There is the sinking feeling of dismay over the way unbelievers are perceiving my faith and my savior. And there is the anger that makes me want to scream out that this is not the faith I follow, and does not reflect the savior I believe in.

Those who experience these feelings commonly engage in church-bashing. They criticize these failures and hypocrisies in a way that lets those who have been wounded by the church know that the speaker identifies with them. A distinction is often made between being “religious” or part of the church and being a follower of Jesus, focused on relationship with him.

This distinction recognizes that Christianity is a religion which is centered around personal relationship with Jesus, and the church is a community focused on worshipping and reflecting him. But I think there are two fatal flaws involved in these criticisms.

First, they can give the impression that the individual speaking is set apart, different from all those people who hurt others and misrepresent Jesus. The honest critics will recognize that they themselves are bound to fail in similar ways at some point in their lives.

Second, it surrenders the words “church” and “religion” to those who do the worst job of embodying what they are supposed to mean. Perhaps a better option is to share ways that the church is living out Christ-honoring community, and use those to show how church ought to be. Describing Christians who are practicing “religion that God accepts as pure and faultless” refocuses the word on what it should be. And no one has a problem with what the Christian religion is supposed to be. People are only turned off by the examples that claim to be, but don’t pass the smell test.