A lot of ink has been spilled and church members lost because of the contracting of the American Christian church and the various blame games and strategies proposed to deal with it. The Church Growth Movement has alienated many Christians (and attracted some too, I’m sure) as attempts have been made to “reignite” the Church. Liberal theology is often embraced to woo those left-of-center who otherwise might not darken the door of a church. Leadership summits are hosted to encourage leaders to use better techniques to attract and lead churches.
But is it wrong to ask, without trying to sound or actually to be apathetic, if some things are just beyond our control? What if it is possible that the challenges the Church faces are so profound that no conferences or contemporary music will be a savior in their wake? I sometimes think that is the case. Which doesn’t mean we stop doing all we can. (I host a radio show and debates to try to make the case to as many people as possible, for example. I’m not quitting.) But are we aware of why the next generation is staying away from the church? And do we really think pop music will reverse the trends?
In thinking about the same issues that every other pastor has considered, I think the Church is up against two powerful forces that can be overcome, but not without great difficulty. The first is the single most obvious and easily abused vice that is more accessible now than at any other time known to man: pornography. The second is a way of life that has recently gotten a word: “adulting.”
The first problem is so obvious, it hardly needs commentary. Christianity and pornography are basically incompatible. I say “basically” because like all sins, the sin of pornography can be forgiven. But no confessing Christian can engage in pornography and feel good about it. Something will have to give: either the porn or the faith. Given the incredible numbers of people who are viewing porn, and given that they cannot keep up that habit and be adult members of a Christian congregation, it should be no surprise that the church is shrinking. The choice is before men: Jesus or porn. Jesus loses a whole lot of the time.
Now, Christians are going to struggle with porn like anyone else because Christians are human beings, too, with the same impulses and temptations. The difference is that, over time, a serious Christian can and will defeat the porn habit or addiction. It is possible. It isn’t easy, but men and women do it all the time. And it must be defeated, because so long as porn is a part of the Christian’s habits, the unease with all things faith-related will only grow. The guilt and the shame will become an every day barrier to faith and trust in Christ. And then, when the porn user is tired of the guilt and the shame, they will grow numb to the voice that is yelling “Stop!”
Our society has gone from accepting porn, to tolerating porn, to celebrating porn. It was once the case that engaging with porn was aberrant. Not to abstain from porn is aberrant. It seems obvious to me – blindingly so – that this single change in our society has effectively removed millions from the pews because the power of porn is so strong. And when something has to give in the lives of millions of Americans, it isn’t the porn. It is the commitment to Christ and the seeking of holiness that he demands.
To those who struggle with porn, you know the guilt and the shame that is weighing you down. There is a better way. Porn does not have to define you. Speak with a pastor or a professional. Take measures to remove it from your computer or TV or phone. Confess it to someone in confidence. Because in the long run and even in the short run, porn and Christianity cannot and do not co-exist.
The second reason the church is shrinking (and in a way that has nothing with all of our lame attempts to be relevant) is that an entire generation or two of young adults are still functionally children. But in case you think I’m being judgmental or patronizing, “Adulting” is a term that the Millennials came up with, not me. Just Google “Adulting memes” sometime. These did not exist 50 years ago or even 5. Apparently, paying bills, saving money, making hard choices, keeping a job, etc., are the hard things of life that a whole lot of people just want to avoid.
Well, nothing about church life is easy for those who wish to remain children. You will be held accountable in a good church or small group. You will have to meet and get to know new people. You will hear hard things about yourself. You will be asked to be financially generous on occasion and forsake some of the goodies of the world. You will be asked to sacrifice some of your time on the weekend and even during the week. You will be asked to place your ego at the door so Christ can reign supreme in your life.
If the memes reflect an actual and lasting reality in the younger generations, it should come as no surprise that those who do not want to be adults also do not want to be in church. After all, hardly anything is more description of an adult than voluntary dedication to a church. Perhaps these memes are just good for a laugh. But I think they have tapped into the perpetual adolescence of our younger generations.
So there you have it: the two reasons the church is shrinking. And if you are thinking of an awesome sermon series that addresses these problems, good luck. The ones who need to hear it already aren’t in the pew. The pulpit is a great place to start. But Christians must extend the message of repentance beyond church walls. And I believe we must name these two issues. And as always, in love, but firmly. A lot depends on the reversal of these two trends.
*This number is totally made up. And probably pretty accurate.