A Time for Serious Reflection in American Churches
A minister of a small congregation in Manchester, Tennessee, was recently featured in a Fox News online interview that focused on the increasing number of "small-town" church closures throughout the country. The story highlighted the fact that many communities like Manchester are seeing a significant number of people no longer attending services, and nationwide trends continue to point to more church decline. The Tennessee pastor in this story mentioned that his membership had dwindled to just eight people, which prompted him to make the difficult decision to shut down after being in ministry for almost 20 years.
More established churches are continuing to permanently close their doors and fewer new houses of worship are opening. A May 2021 study published by Lifeway Research analyzed data provided by 34 Protestant denominations and found that 4,500 churches ceased operations in 2019 compared to 3,000 new churches being launched. The Lifeway Research findings came out roughly two months after a Gallup poll revealed that only 47% of Americans were affiliated with an organized religion. A Brookings Institute report this year found that church closings in predominately African American communities in New York City were due to "changes in the worship attendance, patterns by age and race, (and) possible internal issues," in addition to increasing gentrification.
Gentrification definitely provides a short-term answer for low church attendance in many Black neighborhoods as it relates to changing population dynamics, and age, meaning fewer Gen Zers and millennials on church rolls compared to older generations, is a common factor within Black and White congregations. The main question that American churches must presently consider, regardless of their demographics, is why smaller crowds are becoming the Sunday morning norm.
I believe that a truthful reflection begins with what is being preached in the pulpit and taught in Bible study. Is it the gospel of Christ or messages steeped in divisive political rhetoric? It is a well-known fact that White evangelical churches have been sharply criticized for their conservative political stances, and some people find the woke politics of some Black churches as a turnoff. I think that many churches have simply gotten away from what is commanded in Scripture, which is to lift Jesus up and offer salvation to those suffering within their souls. Now, I'm not maintaining that churches should avoid addressing political issues. Historically, when looking at how the Black church was the base of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the political and social fight for racial equality was always forged with unconditional love as the way to battle hatred. King famously said, "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love." Love was at the core of every march King led, every sermon he preached and every meeting he had with those in power to wisely negotiate for civil rights legislation. He always strived to be an excellent witness for Christ, saying, "When we see social relationships controlled everywhere by the principles which Jesus illustrated in life -- trust, love, mercy, and altruism -- then we shall know that the kingdom of God is here."
Imagine what the impact of the church would be today in our nation if more sermons were preached on love and the kingdom of God. Jesus taught on and preached about the kingdom of God and heaven in many parables. Take, for instance, the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. Jesus used an agrarian illustration of a farmer sowing seed, which symbolizes the Word of God, that fell by the wayside, in stony places and among thorns but then eventually good ground. The seed that was planted in good ground yielded fruit, which is representative of believers living victoriously and ministering to others by kingdom principles (Galatians 5:22-23). I honestly believe that many churches are lacking a true manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, and I think this is one of the primary reasons for the mass exodus of young people and an overall increase in distrust of preachers. Many people still believe in God, as a February Gallop poll showed 81% of Americans professing faith, but many have not been taught how to have a deeper relationship with Him. The latter is paramount for churches to regain the trust of those who have left.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate, Inc.