Americans Love Jesus But Struggle With The Church

News Image By PNW Staff May 29, 2017
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Decline in church attendance has been the focus of dire predictions for decades now, often attributed to a rise in secularism in American culture that corresponds to a decay in the nation's moral fabric.

A new study by Barna raises another interesting possibility however: "Americans who love Jesus but not the Church." Foregoing church attendance for more personal and individual expressions of faith, this group poses several interesting questions to researchers.

Is this shift a long-term trend or simply a generational change likely to revert? Does lack of attendance correlate with a lack of knowledge of or belief in the Bible? Does this indicate a fundamental shift in Christianity and what could be the cause?

The drop in church attendance is not seen uniformly across all age groups nor in all parts of the country. Barna found that the group of Christians that has "de-churched", that is to say previously been regular church-goers who continue to profess Christian beliefs but who have not attended church in the last six months, is composed of 60% women, 80% of whom are between the ages of 33 and 70.

This argues against an indictment of youth culture moving away from the faith and instead points to different motivations. Only 14% of those who have moved away from church attendance are part of the millennial generation.

Geographically speaking, the Christians who have stopped attending church tended to be White (63%) and are distributed almost evenly among the South, Midwest and West with only 13% hailing from the Northeast.

In an interesting data point, 25% of the de-churched survey respondents were Republican and 30% Democrats, a political affiliation which may not explain the shift entirely but suggests several theories.
Some speculate that adults attending conservative churches decide to stay home when the church's teaching comes into conflict with their increasingly liberal beliefs.

It is possible that the opposite is true as well with mainline churches that have been increasingly liberal in recent years, at times to the point of contradicting Biblical teachings.

This second theory is borne out by the fact that attendance in mainline churches continues to decline while attendance in smaller, Bible-teaching churches has actually seen an uptick in recent years. As mainline churches liberalize away from God's word in some cases, some Christians switch congregations while others make the personal decision to stay home and maintain their faith away from organized religion.

It is also true that the end of the church has been forecast numerous times due to a drop in attendance of college-age Christians, when in fact this is simply a natural cycle. Many Christians stop or reduce their church attendance in their college years only to resume their active commitment to the church when they marry and start families.

This demographic shift is different because it is taking place in precisely the group that in the past has increased church attendance, i.e. those starting new families.

Whether the causes are disagreements over politics, complaints over doctrine or changing life-priorities, the trend still poses the question: how will this affect Christianity?

Robby Gallaty of the Longhollow Baptist Church in Nashville recently addressed the issue in an op-ed in the Christian Post titled Spiritual Maturity Can't Be Measured by Church Attendance. In it, he argues that some Christians who attend church for hours every Sunday and again on Wednesdays are suffering from an information overload, or "bloated believer syndrome".
In the end, the result is that they end up going through the motions. Listening, absorbing, being seen in the pews but not internalizing or forming a deeper relationship with God. He argues that Church attendance alone is not the best indication of Christian faith or spirituality.

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle and it will take more time and data to sort out the movement of this trend towards personal faith and away from mainline Christianity. For now, we are left with thousands of Americans who love Jesus, but struggle with the Church.

Setting aside the statisticians, what does the Bible say?  Does it give us any clue to diagnose these symptoms?  Jesus, Himself, warns lest we should grow cold in our love for Him.

The cause of this failure in fidelity is also indicated to be the result of becoming absorbed with and negatively affected by the culture of these Last Days. "And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold." (Matthew 24.12) The word 'iniquity' translates the Greek word for 'lawlessness': contempt for and violation of God's laws, resulting in crime and violence.

If our love of the Savior is up to par, we will also love what He loves. Paul reminds us that "Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it".  Too often this feigned lack of love for church is nothing more than too much love of self, as Paul warns of these "perilous times" in II Timothy 3.4, "lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God". 
If I am absorbed with my own self-interest, then when Sunday comes around, I will be much more strongly influenced by pleasure and leisure than by love and worship of God.   
The Christian race is a forward movement, and whether you think of it as a walk or a marathon, it requires endurance.  O, yes, one more thing: Jesus warned the Ephesian church that the only remedy for this failure in love is repentance.  (Revelation 2.5) 

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