It’s official. Christians who say they are a member of a church are now a minority in America.
According to a recent Gallup poll, less than half of the U.S. population call themselves members of a church. This is the first time it has fallen below 50 percent in the eight decades they’ve been tracking it. And the numbers are dropping fast – down more than 20 points since the turn of the century.
There’s nothing magic about that threshold, of course. A nation is not dramatically less Christian at 49 percent church membership than it was at 51 percent. And it’s not irreversible.
But passing that line in the sand is as good a time as any to ponder the implications of the membership collapse.
My Life And Ministry In Christian-Minority Society
I’ve spent my entire life in a Christian-minority culture. The first 16 years as a preacher’s kid in Canada. Every year since then, including all my years in pastoral ministry, in California.
Both places have been post-Christian for a while.
When I heard that church membership had recently dipped under 50 percent my first thought wasn’t panic, it was “Really? It’s still that high?”
There’s never been an expectation that half the people in my local restaurant or grocery store would be church members. Where I live it’s closer to one in ten, if that much.
We don’t have a Sunday lunch rush.
The Clarity Of Post-Christianity
This is not to say that this is a good state of affairs. It’s not. But it’s no worse than living in a community where Christian expressions are so commonplace that you can never be sure if they’re sincere.
One small advantage of living in a Christian-minority society is the clarity that it brings.When you live and minister in a post-Christian culture, there’s no expectation that the people or institutions around you are going to share your Christian worldview. If they’re not Christians, why would they? Click To Tweet
When you live and minister in a post-Christian culture there’s no expectation that the people or institutions around you are going to share your Christian worldview. If they’re not Christians, why would they?
When people identify as a Christian within a society that is not predominantly Christian, it’s more likely to be based on a purposeful decision than on something we’ve inherited as a cultural identifier.
There’s No Need To Panic
I can tell you from a lifetime of experience that you can live a vibrant faith in Christ even when it is a minority expression.
There are strong, healthy, missional churches in the post-Christian pockets of the country and the world.
In fact, those churches are often stronger and more mission-minded because we have to be.
We Should Want To Live Missionally
Years ago, while speaking at a pastor’s conference in the deep south, a woman who heard I was from California asked me “how can you live in such an ungodly place?”
I stifled a smile, knowing that much of her concern about was based on exaggerated news stories about the craziness on the “left coast”. But I answered her with respect.
I reminded her of a quote that Christians love to cite from C. T. Studd. “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.”
I don’t believe that my beautiful home state of California is hell, or even a yard from it. But if I did believe it was, wouldn’t that be where we, as ministers of God’s grace would want to live?How can we say we're mission-driven Christians if we don't want to live in any place that resembles a mission field? Click To Tweet
How can we say we’re mission-driven Christians if we don’t want to live in any place that resembles a mission field?
There Are No Excuses
Some of the responses I’ve read about the decline in church membership are saying that this isn’t a diminishing in the actual number of believers as much as a weeding out of nominal Christians.
Since lack of church membership no longer carries the stigma it once did, nominal Christians are more comfortable being honest about their (lack of) church involvement.
No doubt there’s some of that happening. But I don’t think it’s helpful or accurate to dimiss a theoretical “weeding out” as a primary reason for the membership drop.
The Church Must Listen, Reflect And Repent
Why are people leaving the church?
Instead of theorizing and excusing, we need to do some asking and listening.
Many say they are leaving the church, not because they’ve lost their faith, but to salvage what’s left of it. As someone who is wholly committed to the local church, that’s not something I can relate to, but that doesn’t excuse me from taking their experience seriously.
As a Christian and a church leader, if I don’t understand the heart of someone who is deconstructing their faith, I have an obligation to try to understand them, not dismiss them.As a Christian and a church leader, if I don’t understand the heart of someone who is deconstructing their faith, I have an obligation to try to understand them, not dismiss them. Click To Tweet
When we as Christians have behaved in any way that undermines someone’s faith (and there are innumerable examples of that) we need to repent of our sins and change our behavior.
Toward A More Christ-like Church
In the long run, my biggest concern is not that fewer people are members of a church. It’s that we who remain in the church must become a more Christ-like people.
If we’re not Christ-like, why shouldn’t people leave?
If we are Christ-like, we can’t just sit in our pews and tsk-tsk those who don’t show up to sit with us.
We need to stop demanding that the lost sheep make their way back to the sheepfold. We must follow the heartbeat and the command of Jesus to love them enough to seek them out.
The church is never at our best when we sit in our buildings in a position of plurality and power.
We’re terrible when we’re blaming and victim-shaming.
We’re at our best when we’re in a place of repentance.
May God use this moment to take us there again.
(This article has been corrected from an earlier version in which I misstated that the survey was about church attendance. The survey was not about attendance, but membership.)
(Photo by Tomas Kirvėla | Unsplash)