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Churches Are in Trouble. What Are We Going to Do about It?

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

The pandemic has brought some ugly trends to light. These trends may not apply to my church or to your church, but we need to be aware of them so that (1) we pray for the churches in trouble, and (2) we make sure they don't happen at our churches. So . . .

Let's be aware of what's going on in our country.

Let's pray for the churches and church leaders around us.

Let's be committed to our own church.

Church Conflict

One of many things that is such a blessing about FBC Thomson is our willingness to work together even when we disagree about the hows and the whats of our operation and ministry. That's not typical of churches right now. Indeed, the pandemic has caused (or reopened) a great deal of conflict in churches, even resulting in pastors being forced to leave their churches.

It starts with process. Churches were not uniform in how they shut down when the pandemic hit. And they have really not been uniform in how they've begun to reopen. That has resulted in many, many different opinions within churches how this should be going. Unfortunately, these disagreements have not been handled in a way that would reveal to the world our love for one another. Rather, we're handling it the same way our country is currently handling differences of opinion -- very badly.

Thinking about our pastor's recent sermon that covered John 17:21, my wife said that if we would love one another in our churches despite our political differences, what a testimony that would be! And she's right -- Jesus said that our love for one another would be witness to the world of the gospel of salvation.

Based on the statistics, too many churches are not giving a good witness. According to a July survey by Lifeway Research, when asked what they were most concerned about, 27% of pastors said maintaining unity in their churches. Pastors have been called on to make decisions about things well outside of our expertise while answering to church members who also lack expertise (but not opinions). It has been stressful in many churches.

It continues with product. Social distancing and quarantine have fundamentally changed the way many pastors have been able to provide pastoral care. Hospitals and nursing homes have not been uniform in their policies of who can visit. And pastors are terrified of accidentally infecting a vulnerable church member (wasn't the world a better place before "asymptomatic" entered our vernacular?).

What a hard place that is! Pastors, through previous ministry, know the spiritual and emotional needs of church members. And they are not able to meet them in the way they always have in the past. In that Lifeway survey mentioned above, 17% of pastors cited the stress of providing effective pastoral care from a distance. And, related to what I've already said about conflict, where church members are already dissatisfied with the decisions already made by leadership, this is being interpreted as ineffective pastoral care.

Some pastors and other church leaders have been absolutely chewed up by pandemic-related conflict. I'm not going to suggest that pastors have made all the right decisions or that they've handled all of this the right way. I am going to suggest that a church in which conflict has led to disunity is in big trouble.

  • Proverbs 10:12 -- Hatred stirs up conflicts, but love covers all offenses.

  • Proverbs 17:14 -- To start a conflict is to release a flood; stop the dispute before it breaks out.

Every church leader and church member plays a role in this. Will we stir up conflict or resolve it?

Church Finances

This is the one that really concerns me (and others). Giving is down in churches all across the country (although it's difficult to say by how much). According to a July survey by Barna, only 58% of pastors were confident that their churches would survive the economic fallout of the pandemic. Barna calculated that one in five churches would close within 18 months. (A separate Lifeway survey indicated that one in four churches have already made significant budget changes.)

Let those numbers soak in. For financial reasons alone, almost half of all pastors are worried that their church might not make it. That's a financial stressor that, if you've dealt with it in your household, you know can be debilitating. It can lead to knee-jerk reactions that are counterproductive to the extreme. In the Lifeway survey I link below, they report that more than 20,000 churches have cut their outreach ministry, their children's ministry, or their Sunday School ministry to save the budget. I'm not sure I can think of more self-defeating budget cuts!

What's happened? The anecdotal reporting has long been that, like most American families, most American churches do not have the savings to cover one month of operating expenses, let alone the three-to-six that is recommended. Reading the various denominational news services and the number of churches that have complained about already running out of their PPP money (and still made budget cuts), I would say that the anecdote is true. (Note: FBC Thomson works very hard to keep money in the bank; it's not easy.)

Obviously, churches are not the only ones affected by the downturn in giving; all non-profits are suffering the loss of income.

What's the solution? It's simple: remain committed to tithing. If your income has suffered during the pandemic, you can't tithe on what you don't make, so don't worry about that, but you can remain committed to the finances of your church as best you can.

If you don't think your church is doing a good job controlling spending, talk to somebody about that. (If churches are cutting out their children's ministry budget, they're clearly doing something wrong.) But, related to what I said above about conflict, bring this up in a healthy, constructive, and edifying way.

Church Attendance

This one is a little tougher to measure effectively because many of our church members who are not attending in person are keeping up with us on the radio or online. So, our in-person attendance may be down, but that doesn't mean that we've "lost" those members. Churches feel very differently about this. Capitol Hill Baptist Church, for example, has famously planted their flag on the hill of not live-streaming their services because they believe so strongly in in-person attendance.

(Note: at FBC Thomson, we are extremely sympathetic to that perspective. We encourage in-person attendance in every possible way. And more than a few of our members have worried that allowing people to watch the service online has enabled them to develop bad habits of not coming to church gatherings. I'll talk about that below. But in our case, we know we have members who are not coming to church specifically due to COVID concerns. They are at-risk. They work in the medical field and don't want to chance spreading an infection. They care for someone who is at-risk and don't want to take any chances. We believe those are perfectly legitimate reasons to stay home from congregational worship, and we want to stay connected with them as best we can.)

And in-person attendance is down. I'm not going to publish our own statistics, but I can say that at FBC Thomson, for the first two months of our return, in-person attendance was about 1/3 of what was normal for that time of year. For the past month, it has been a little more than half (which is progress!). (Note that in-person attendance is only a portion of our overall Sunday morning "engagement". We have people who "watch" on Facebook, on YouTube, and on our website. We can track those numbers, though we don't know how many individual people they represent. Facebook and YouTube are also really catty with their statistics; we've decided to use their "engagement" metric.)

How does that compare with other churches? Sadly, it's pretty good. According to a September survey by Lifeway research , barely one-third of American Protestant churches were at even 70% of their pre-COVID in-person attendance, and just under one-third were running less than half.

We're square in the middle of the pack. But here's the bigger takeaway from those numbers: the overwhelming majority of churches doing "better" than us are very small churches. Of all American Protestant churches, 72% currently average fewer than 100 people in person on a Sunday morning. Again, for emphasis, that's almost 3/4s of all American Protestant churches.

Reading those numbers in context explains just how big a deal this is. One in three practicing Christians have stopped attending church post-COVID. Period. And all that is is an acceleration of church membership and attendance trends that we've all observed. According to Gallup, from 1999-2019, the percentage of Americans who were church members dropped from 70% to 50%. And according to Pew Research, only 45% of American adults attend any kind of religious service monthly.

And then I want to piggyback on something I said a week ago: even though kids tend to hold their parent's religious beliefs, they don't hold them as tightly. If parents are not committed to church attendance and practice, their kids will be even less so.

In other words, trends like this tend to accelerate. This has been catastrophically observed in the mainline denominations. For example,

  • The United Methodist Church has lost more than 33% of its members since 1970. (I had to gather that from multiple denominational websites.)

  • The official voice of PC(USA) turned heads with its recent announcement, "For the first time in more than thirty years, the PC(USA) is not reporting membership losses," when the numbers it reported clearly showed continued membership losses.

  • The Episcopal Church just self-reported that it will not exist in 30 years. Really.

Of course, it's not just them. Southern Baptists just reported their largest ever year-over-year membership decline. (Yes, a good bit of that is Southern Baptists transferring to non-denominational churches that believe the same thing as Southern Baptists. And there's also been an annoying increase in SBC churches no longer turning in their Annual Church Report, so we have incomplete statistics. But I digress.)

The point is that Americans are less connected with churches than ever. That can only be addressed by individual church members like you making a commitment to being in church regularly with your family and living out your Christian faith with your family.

Church Influence

The disconnect between Americans and churches comes home to roost in this final category. Americans don't care about churches like they once did. Barna's latest "State of the Church" revealed that 10% of all Americans believe the church to be irrelevant. (Based on the way certain municipalities have treated churches around our country, it's pretty clear just how non-essential they believe churches to be.) More shockingly, according to Barna, 35% of American adults believe that Christian churches make no impact or a negative impact on society. That's truly harrowing.

I've had plenty of conversations with pastors who have made observations like this: "There was a time when the mayor/city council/commissioner asked me what I thought about big decisions. But no longer." And it doesn't seem like that long ago when candidates for local office would start showing up in church during campaign season. But it's nothing like it was.

Sadly, this plays off of everything I said above. Churches where there is significant internal conflict tend to be churches where members are happy to air it in public.

  • Proverbs 16:28 -- A contrary person spreads conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.

If that's what a church becomes known for, what kind of an impact is it going to have on its surrounding community? And if the people aren't giving financially, how is the church going to have the resources to make a positive impact when the opportunity arises? (Or not turn into a local eyesore?) And if the church members themselves aren't committed to their own churches (and don't think your neighbors don't know that), why would anybody else in the community want to be a part of it or listen to it or care about its opinions?

And that leads to a devastating long-term impact: pastors are ready to quit. Thom Rainer of Church Answers reported that more than half of the pastors they work with are considering quitting their churches. They're discouraged by the infighting and apathy in their churches. They're very concerned about attendance and finances. They're facing more criticism than ever before. And their workload has increased in unexpected and unprecedented ways. They might not leave the ministry, but they want to leave their church.

Look, I'm sure that not every pastor does a great job. Not every pastor is great at handling conflict. They're not all great preachers. Some of them are socially awkward. But is an America in which half of our pastors quit a better place? I can't imagine that to be true.

So, what do we do? This will lean on what I said in my post about social media:

Be supportive of your church and your pastor, especially in public. If you have a problem with something your pastor has said or done, handle that privately. If you don't like what's going on in your church, handle that privately. It is easy to destroy a church's reputation via social media; it is very difficult to restore it. We all have a role to play in that.

What are we going to do about this?

We are going to be the best Christians and church members we can be. We're going to represent our church (and more importantly Jesus) well in our community. We're going to raise our kids in an uplifting Christian environment. That's what we can do.

But we also need to be honest about the condition of our country and call on God for help. I love how the disciples responded to a much worse situation than ours: “Master, you are the one who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. You said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our father David your servant: Why do the Gentiles rage and the peoples plot futile things? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers assemble together against the Lord and against his Messiah. For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your will had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:24-30)

That's what we're going to do. Paul believed this, which is how he wrote with such confidence, "Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Phil 4:6).

This is a month for thanksgiving. In spite of everything that has happened in 2020, Jesus has not left us. Our salvation is not in jeopardy. The gospel has not lost its power.

Let's be thankful for those things. And let's be committed to shining the light of the gospel into our communities with our church family this year and for years to come.


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