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A Church State of Emergency

The church is declining in America. The signs have become more obvious in recent years.

Church closings. “Shrinking Congregations Sell Buildings.” “A Final Song, a Familiar End: Rural Tennessee congregation closes, reflecting trend seen nationwide.” “Church Closing Trend Began Before COVID-19.” These headlines are common. Some reports say around 200 congregations of churches of Christ closed between 2014 and 2021. The exact numbers are hard to determine, but if you talk to church members in different states you will hear the same story. This decline accelerated just after COVID-19 arrived on the scene.

Poor church attendance. A Gallup Poll in 2006 listed the churches in America whose members were more likely to attend church services at least once a week. Churches of Christ ranked number one with 68%. The Christian Chronicle, a liberal newspaper in churches of Christ, reported that survey. That same paper ran an article in May, 2022 entitled, “Where Did the People Go?” The article said nothing about the consequences of closing church services due to COVID. Almost every preacher or elder I have spoken to in the last few years has said the attendance has dropped in their congregations, especially on Sunday night and Wednesday night. Many congregations told members to stay at home and worship and that is what they did. The predictable cry has been made by church leaders ever since, “We can’t get them to come back.”

Lack of preachers. More men are leaving the pulpit than are entering the work. That is a decades-long trend. Some burn out emotionally and spiritually from the stress. Some decide to enter another line of work for financial reasons. Others retire, resign because of illness, or simply die. I have never seen a time when there are so few preachers and such a high demand for them. There has also been a decline in the number of college Bible majors who plan to be preachers and in the number of those attending preacher training schools. The preacher shortage is reaching a critical stage.

Shallow preaching. In the last five years I have heard these observations from seasoned gospel preachers with decades of experience: “Preaching today doesn’t have the intensity that I heard fifty years ago.” “We are facing a dearth of biblical content in sermons these days.” “Preachers today are inspirational storytellers, not gospel preachers.” Preachers in this age tend to shun controversy and avoid topics and verses of Scripture that might upset people. They tend to search the internet for lessons, illustrations, graphics, and advice on how to preach but spend little time studying and meditating on God’s Word. Their sermons often lack the zeal and conviction that once characterized pulpits across the land. Weak preaching has weakened the church.

Division. As the nation and its homes have become more divided, so has the church. Sometimes the problem is a dispute over doctrine. Sometimes it is personal conflict between members. Regardless of the cause, churches are having a lot of problems with internal strife. We might think this is strange because of the times we are facing. Trials and hardships should humble us and bring us together shouldn’t they?

But the Bible and experience teach us that hard times bring out the best and the worst in people even in the church. Great distress brings to the surface the good and the bad that were hidden from view. Affliction and persecution bring things to a head. Adversity shows our true colors. The division was there in spirit all along and trouble revealed it. That causes conflict and separation.

But God has purposes in all this. Paul wrote to the divided church at Corinth, “For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you” (I Cor. 11:19). God separates the wheat from the chaff among His people. We see this in the Old Testament many times. When separations occur, the faithful tend to be the smaller group. So we should not be shocked or lose heart when this happens. Division is always very painful, but if it is for the right reason it is for the better.

A crisis in the church does not mean the end of the church. That church is the kingdom that will stand forever (Dan. 2:44; Heb. 12:28; Matt. 16:18). So take heart. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The church will not just survive. It will thrive in the midst of all this adversity.

Kerry

West End church of Christ bulletin article for December 10, 2023

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