Turning the Church Crisis Into a Spiritual Revolution:
Is the American Church Really in Crisis?
While there are many signs of the church’s evident success, in reality the American church is losing ground as the population continues to surge.
By David T. Olson
At first glance, the crisis may not be apparent. Megachurches grow larger and more numerous. While there are many signs of the church’s evident success, in reality the American church is losing ground as the population continues to surge.
On any given Sunday in 2007, only 17 percent of Americans attended a Christian church. Even more troublesome, as the American population continues to grow, the church falls further behind. If trends continue, by 2050 the percentage of Americans attending church will be half the 1990 figure.
This crisis in the American church began in 2001, at the beginning of the new millennium. Since that date, church ministry has become much more challenging. Here are some facts. Mainline churches have declined by 10 percent in worship attendance from 2000-07. When we factor in population growth, that decline increases to 16 percent. Some of the declines this past year are staggering. The Episcopal Church declined in attendance by 4.9 percent from 2006 to 2007. The Evangelical Lutheran Church declined by 3.8 percent, the Presbyterian Church USA by 2.8 percent, the United Church of Christ by 3.1 percent, and the United Methodist Church by 2.3 percent. Assume those losses will continue for the next 10 years, and imagine the diminishment of those once-strong denominations.
The Catholic church has seen a similar drop. Fueled in the early part of this decade by the priest abuse scandal, mass attendance dropped by 11 percent from 2000–07. When we factor in population growth, that decline increases to 17 percent. The decline has been most dramatic in urban dioceses in the Midwest and the Northeast. For example, the archdioceses of Philadelphia and Chicago were not as affected by the abuse scandal as was Boston, yet mass attendance in Chicago declined from 571,000 in 2001 to 467,000 in 2007; while in Philadelphia, it dropped from 392,255 in 2001 to 295,802 in 2007.
The state of the evangelical church is substantially better than either the mainline or the Catholic church. Evangelical church attendance has continued to grow numerically in this decade. However, the growth rate has declined, particularly from 2005–07. When population growth is factored in, the percentage of the American population attending an evangelical church on any given weekend has declined by 2 percent between 2000 to 2007.
When we combine all Christian churches, numeric church attendance from 2000–07 has declined by 3 percent. When we factor in population growth, it has declined by 9 percent.
Decay, Building, and Restoration
In his poem “The Rock,” T.S. Eliot wrote eloquently about the church’s challenges and potential:
And the Church must be forever building,
And always decaying,
And always being restored.1
Eliot employed three phrases to capture the ebb and flow of the life of Christ’s church: “Always decaying” indicates that every organic entity diminishes and decays over time. In fact, in the biological world, decay is often the prelude for new growth to appear. “Forever building” depicts the pattern of creative initiatives that promote life and vitality. Building may be unplanned or strategic, and that choice will usually determine the level of its influence and longevity. “Always being restored” describes a spiritual and supernatural act of God. Restoration takes place when God acts through the power of the gospel and the movement of the Holy Spirit, breathing new life into His church. The combined process of building and restoration unites human and divine efforts to fashion the house of God. “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9).
Last year I attended a meeting of prayer and revival leaders gathered from throughout the country. We met at Northampton, Massachusetts, home of Jonathan Edwards and the birthplace of the First Great Awakening. As I listened to the speakers and talked to participants, I noticed an unspoken assumption that most of them seemed to hold: If we humble ourselves and pray, God will answer our prayers and will bring revival and restoration to our land.
As I have reflected on that assumption, I have begun to question if revival and restoration are that simple. While prayer is a critical component and the place to begin, might true restoration be a more complex process than just prayer? I would like to suggest that God often uses a more complex, sequential process to bring revival and restoration.
Revival and restoration begin with prayer and we undergird it by prayer, but it includes other components. Here is the list of eight steps I believe God will use to move the church from crisis to spiritual revolution:
- Praying for restoration.
- Telling the truth.
- Becoming cultural missionaries.
- Recovering the message and mission of Jesus.
- Communicating the firsthand Jesus.
- Creating healthy churches and leaders.
- Building fruitful pathways of ministry.
- Igniting a spiritual revolution.
We will look at each in sequence to understand the necessity of each step.
1. Praying for restoration
This first step is the beginning point for every movement of God. Surprisingly, this type of prayer usually happens when the church of Jesus Christ is in dire straits. When Christians and churches find themselves in a dry and desolate wilderness, a holy discontent begins to rise. The prayer of restoration looks forward to the day when God pours out His Spirit, producing miracles of conversion and transformation. “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”
2. Telling the truth
In most instances, we find the roots of revival and restoration in decay. In both the biological and spiritual world, decay is often necessary for new growth to appear. Challenging circumstances, lethargic Christians, and a changing environment seem to be the prerequisite for a restoration movement.
Why do organic entities decline? We thank God we are organic beings rather than inorganic entities, yet all inorganic matter resists decay, while every organic creation diminishes and dies. Our bodies are the clearest reminder of organic decay. Having passed the 50-year milestone, I now receive unsolicited mail from the American Association of Retired Persons, which I refuse to open. Yet I am beginning to notice I am not as young as I once was. Maintaining good muscle tone is more difficult. I need more sleep, and I cannot work as long or as hard as before. Not wanting to accept this new reality, I prefer delusion.
What are the signs of decay in the American church? Here are six signs of decay:
- The percentage of the population attending church on any given weekend has declined from 20.4 percent in 1990 to 17.0 percent in 2007;
- Protestant churches between 100 and 300 in attendance are declining by 2 percent per year — and these churches make up one-half of all Protestant church attendance;
- Churches over 40 years old are declining by over 2 percent per year;
- To keep up with population growth, 2,900 more churches need to be started every year;
- The growth rate of evangelical, mainline, and Catholic churches has been declining throughout this decade;
- In only one state did church attendance grow faster than population growth — Hawaii. The other 49 declined in attendance percentage.
The painful truth is that for most churches in America, ministry is more difficult today than it was 10 years ago.
3. Becoming cultural missionaries
At its best, Christianity has the adaptive ability to connect with an enormous diversity of cultures around the world. At its worst, Christianity has the lamentable propensity to become completely intertwined with its host culture. When this happens, we find it difficult to distinguish where the culture stops and the church begins. While it is imperative that Christians communicate and live out the gospel so people within the culture will connect with the message, at the same time the church is to be, by its nature, countercultural.
The message of Jesus challenges all social, religious, and political powers. The church must dance between these two polarities. If the church’s message is too aggressively countercultural, few people will hear its words. If the church over-identifies with the culture, the gospel becomes tame and loses its power to transform lives.
Unfortunately, most observers would say that the church of today has been lulled to sleep and is ill-prepared for this new world. For restoration to occur, the American church must engage with these three critical transitions occurring in the United States. Our world used to be:
- Christian, but it is now becoming post-Christian;
- modern, but it is now becoming postmodern;
- monoethnic, but it is now becoming multiethnic.
In each of these transitions, the tipping point happened at the turn of the millennium. In many states and metropolitan areas, these transitions are occurring rapidly. This is especially true in the northern half of the East Coast, the West Coast, in major cities, and in virtually all university towns. In other places, this transition is occurring more slowly and may even take one or two more generations before it arrives at the tipping point, but the transition will eventually happen.
The decaying state of the American church is telling us that the methods and pathways from 20 years ago are ceasing to be as fruitful as they once were. If we are to restore the American church, Christian leaders need to operate as missionaries. Christians in the United States need to see themselves as missionaries to the people of this changing culture. They need to understand its culture, love its culture, immerse themselves in its culture, and recover the message and mission of Jesus, so the revolutionary gospel and revolutionary Christian communities can transform people, communities, and culture.
4. Recovering the message and mission of Jesus
Younger Christians look at contemporary Christianity and make these observations of our current religious practices:
- Your Christianity is too plastic. Christians pretend to live faultless lives; we need more authenticity.
- Your Christianity is too focused on the practical; we need deeper spirituality.
- Your Christianity is too individualistic; we need to learn to live in community.
- Your Christianity is too self-serving, focusing all your time and money on fulfilling your own needs. We need Christians who will live, love, and give for the last, the least, and the lost.
These critiques reflect the younger generation’s intuition that we need a holistic return to the fullness of the gospel. The recovery of the spiritual power of the Christian church will only come when we take their critique seriously. Every generation needs to recover the message and mission of Jesus, scraping off our cultural distortions and reframing it in a fresh way to let the gospel speak with power to the new generation.
The renewal and restoration of the American church must begin with an awe-inspiring encounter with Jesus, the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Messiah and Lord. That central focus on Jesus is critical to the health and growth of missional churches. For that to happen, we need clarity regarding the message and mission of Jesus, and then let His words and actions shape the message and mission of the church. (The last five chapters in my book, The American Church in Crisis, are devoted to the importance of recovering the message and mission of Jesus.)
5. Communicating the firsthand Jesus
Much of the church’s public discourse about Jesus is secondhand conversation, instead of allowing Jesus’ own words and actions to speak. Imagine that someone has never met you but has heard about you from others. Can this person know the real you through secondhand information? Not well. He would need firsthand experience to truly know you. He would need to meet you in the flesh, hear your words, and watch your actions to obtain a sense of your personality, character, and personal presence.
We arrived at this state of affairs because Christendom made it possible for the church to thrive while speaking about Jesus in that secondhand manner. American culture and the church took for granted a common body of knowledge about Jesus. We assumed everyone understood religious phrases. Secondhand words about Jesus often became trite, assuming the hearer knew what certain theological code words meant, whereas the actual words of Jesus have the power to cut deep into a person’s heart.
Those assumptions of Christendom are no longer effective in the post-Christian, postmodern, and multiethnic world. In our 21st-century American culture, firsthand communication will carry the most weight. People are no longer interested in an abstract and indistinct picture of Jesus. They desire immediacy. In a culture that no longer trusts authority, people desire firsthand personal experience. They need to hear for themselves His words and see for themselves His actions.
The early Christians were constantly retelling firsthand experiences with Jesus, reflecting on what His words and actions meant. Consider how the Early Church relied on firsthand testimony about Jesus: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:1,2).
For the last few years I have listened carefully to the message churches communicate through their sermons, vision statements, and music to ascertain what they communicate about Jesus. I have discovered that many churches have somehow failed to communicate clearly this important message. Seldom are the words and actions of Jesus clearly presented to listeners, forcing them to wrestle with the call and challenge of Jesus.
Movements of God seldom arise from new strategy, which has been the primary focus of church leaders over the past 30 years. Instead, movements of God arise with the recovery of forgotten biblical truths. The six great movements of God in America have been the Great Awakenings, the Wesleyan Movement, the Holiness Movement, the Missionary Movement, the Pentecostal Movement, and the modern Evangelical Movement. In each case, a focus on Jesus brought about the restoration of the church through the recovery of crucial aspects of the gospel.
6. Creating healthy churches and leaders
Healthy churches and leaders know that the foundation of authentic communication of the Christian message is a church that has a healthy family system. The church becomes the visible picture of Jesus to the world. Unfortunately, large numbers of churches in America are unhealthy. These churches and their leaders are characterized by:
- Misuse of power and control. This occurs when powerful leaders or families dominate a church, disenfranchising most of the other members. Their intentions may be good, but the results rarely are. Most power struggles are over who should lead and who should leave. Jesus stressed that His followers should not lead by coercion but instead “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).
- Destructive communication patterns. This occurs when church members find it impossible to communicate clearly and directly with each other in a context of genuine love. Paul described healthy communication succinctly in Ephesians 4:15 as “speaking the truth in love.” Dysfunctional churches often have buried stories that never surface and members who keep long-standing grudges against other members.
On the other hand, healthy churches and leaders communicate with equal measures of unconditional love and bold truth. As Paul said, the kingdom of God is characterized by “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
7. Building fruitful pathways
“Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).
Pathways are ministries and structures that allow the gospel to flow into the lives of people and communities. In the past, some generations have clung too tightly to old habits and traditions; others (such as the boomer generation) have jettisoned the old in favor of everything new. Fruitful pathways use both old and new treasures to let God’s love and Spirit flow into transformational ministry. Here are four strategies for creating new pathways:
- Mine the foundations of early Christianity and the best of historic Christianity for vital models of fruitful ministry that have stood the test of time;
- Mine the foundations of your Movement’s history and innovations — what got you started is usually what will keep you going and growing;
- Create new pathways that will allow the gospel to engage today’s culture more effectively. Often younger Christians are most gifted at discovering these pathways;
- Build new pathways based on a combination of creativity (using instinct, wisdom, problem-solving, and the Holy Spirit) and sustainability (learning through church history, sociology, and theology).
The American church especially needs to develop new pathways for:
- Evangelism — what process is God going to use to bring about conversion in this new world?
- Biblical formation — how are children and adults going to learn Scripture and develop a Christian worldview?
- Spiritual formation — how will Christians have their hearts formed and changed by God?
- Community and group life — what are the new structures that will create small, medium, and large social groups that fit naturally into this culture?
- Attractional and incarnational — attractional says, “Come and see”; incarnational says, “Go and serve.” How are we to live out both in equal measure for the church to prosper?
- Identifying and raising up young leaders — how are we going to call young Christians into the ministry?
- What Spirit-filled ministry looks like — what will Christians who walk in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit look like in this new world?
8. Igniting a spiritual revolution
- When Christian leaders humble themselves and cry out to God for restoration;
- When we tell the truth about our current situation;
- When we embrace with joy the cultural changes happening in America;
- When the story of Jesus is told and lived out with passion and power;
- When Jesus is presented as a firsthand reality in our lives;
- When each church is willing to let love and truth cleanse its dysfunctions;
- And when the church creates new pathways for fruitful ministry;
- Then the stage is set for the movement of the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into His church.
I was in Berlin as an observer at a church-planting conference of the European Federation of Free Evangelical Churches. Located between our hotel and the Brandenburg Gate was the Murdered Jews of Europe Memorial. New York architect Peter Eisenman designed the memorial. He built it with 2,711 blocks of dark gray concrete, the surface of each was 3 by 8 feet, each appearing to be the same height, in rows resembling gravestones. The view from the edge of the memorial was unimpressive at first and evoked little feeling. As I walked into the sea of pillars, however, I unexpectedly discovered that the ground gradually descended deeper, while the blocks towered over me in a crisscross pattern. A feeling of deep sadness overcame me as I contemplated the murder of 6 million innocent Jews.
After darkness fell late Sunday night, I returned once more to walk through the Memorial. My earlier feelings intensified as the shadows enveloped me. I experienced a sense of oppressiveness and fear of what could lurk around the next corner. The monument drew me into the emotion of past events. As well as the Holocaust, I remembered the passion of Jesus on Good Friday, also a Jew, also condemned to an unjust death. As He died on the cross, something forever changed in our world, symbolized by the earthquake and the rending of the temple curtain. Jesus lived in both the beauty of the world He created and in the pain and suffering of our fallen and decaying world. He personally carried the pain and suffering of this world to the Cross and the grave.
Early the next morning before leaving for the airport, I walked one last time through the Memorial. The sun had just risen above the horizon to the east. Everything was the same as the night before, but the pale golden light cast upon the top of the blocks birthed in me a new feeling. The previous night’s response of sorrow and pain over the sin and brutality of humanity did not leave, but now a feeling of hope mingled with the sorrow. What occurred on the Cross and in the grave were not the final actions of Jesus. His resurrection and ascension were the visible expressions of the beauty of the new world that Jesus is creating in the midst of our fallen world, which will one day be fully consummated in the Revelation 21 vision of a new heaven and a new earth.
The Book of Acts tells the Early Church’s experience of a new hope, a new reality, a new world. Luke’s two-volume story of Jesus and the church (Luke-Acts) reaches its final crescendo in its last chapter, Acts 28. The gospel that announces this new hope has journeyed from the backwater of Nazareth, through Jerusalem to Rome, the power center of the known world. Although Paul has arrived in chains, his bonds cannot bind the unstoppable power of the gospel.
Luke concludes the Book of Acts by stating, “Boldly and without hindrance he [Paul] preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 31). Luke’s final words should be the call and cry of the American church. We are to herald God’s good news in the midst of the pain and suffering of this world. Our focal point is the story of Jesus, forever alive through the power of the Resurrection. Our prayer is that the kingdom of God will break in upon this world like the new day’s dawning of the sun, as the people of God courageously speak and live out the good news. God bestows on the church the awesome privilege of re-enacting the story of Jesus in our day, as we write with boldness and joy the 29th chapter of Acts.
1. T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1963 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963), 153.