Unbelief ushers in unattendance

Why is liberal church attendance in decline?

by

Published: 17 December 2019 (GMT+10)
“If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3).
church-attendance-decline

If the opening chapters of the Bible are not believed as true history, what action can the Christian take? According to reports from the Netherlands (Table 1), it would appear that some see this as a reason to abandon ship. However, there is a flipside. Compared with the older generations, churched young people who have received apologetics teaching tend to hold to the traditional biblical view of a six day creation, each of 24 hours long.1 Churches adhering to this view have slowed down the free fall of church attendance that has been occurring in the Netherlands.2 This can be clearly seen when comparing the 2019 statistics with those for the previous decade:

denominational-church-membership
Table 1: How denominational church membership is affected by the belief of its ministers regarding a six, 24-hour, day creation. Note: denomination names were deliberately not translated.3
*Rounded to the nearest thousand.

This research shows that, where the ministers mostly adhere to a creation of six days of 24 hours each (e.g. 100% and 92%, for Gereformeerde Gemeenten and Hersteld Hervormde Kerk respectively), the overall church membership is approximately keeping pace (-2% and 0%) with population growth of the country as a whole. However, church denominations whose ministers mostly reject this biblical creation viewpoint (the lowermost rows in the table) are in serious decline.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the preachers who believe a straightforward historical reading of Genesis 1 are the ones that preach on Genesis 1 the least! This seems somewhat paradoxical but Dr. Gijsbert van den Brink of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Free University) is not surprised, saying:

a historical approach to Genesis 1 is not good sermon material. What can you say about it, if the history happened precisely as it is written? You might as well just read out the text.4

That would be a very good start to a sermon, certainly! Even better would be to follow it up by an apologetic that outlines the biblical, theological reasons why the text should be taken—and believed—as written. And, of course, churches need to equip their congregations to defend against the humanistic challenges to Genesis from the ‘science’ of evolution. Sadly, in this day and age, due to the secular pressure to conform to evolutionary accounts of origins, it can no longer be taken for granted that Christians will simply believe this account. The evolutionary views of, for instance, Genesis 1 require significant brain-gymnastics since they try to make the text mean something else than what is plainly written. This is not only inappropriate for a passage that reads as historical prose (which is demonstrable in the original Hebrew too) but is, frankly, bad hermeneutics.

What is essential?

Sadly, the decline in church attendance is a trend that is prevalent in most western countries. Some churches have tried to stop this by packing calendars full with activities for people to take part in. One admission that this strategy had failed is from Willow Creek Community Church (Illinois, USA):

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become [sic] Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.5
man-praying
Christians mature by feeding on the Word of God with the help of the Spirit of God and prayer

Willow Creek Community Church’s ‘seeker sensitive’ approach wasn’t helping the congregation to mature in Christ, rather the church was counting attendance numbers at its events. Christians mature by feeding on the Word of God with the help of the Spirit of God and prayer. Research in Canada (see more below) found that a “higher frequency of both practices was reported by congregants of growing churches”.6 Since a basic knowledge of the tenets of Christianity logically precedes belief in its doctrines, this is hardly surprising. Of course, this is not to deny that many people take the step of faith to become Christians, before knowing much doctrine.

In the experiences of life, many things change, all the time: individuals, people groups, cultures. But there is one thing that does not change: The Word of God, both the written Word and its Author (John 1:1; Hebrews 13:8). Consequently, in giving the sermon, the preacher is admonished and obligated to be soundly exegetical, that is, to teach from Scripture what is clearly taught in it (exegesis) rather than to read into Scripture ideas external to it (eisegesis).

What do you get when the teaching (whether through a sermon, article, book or even the lyrics of a song) is not exegetical, not Scriptural? What if the Genesis account is explained in a way that is not apparent to the average reader, and supposedly needs to be reinterpreted in a novel way by some contemporary theologian—essentially saying the church got it wrong for most of its history? What happens when teachers stray from orthodoxy, abandon six-day creation, and accept millions and billions of years? Let’s look at some statistics from two more western countries.

Canada

Recent research in Canada contrasted ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ views in the Protestant church, as explained below:

In keeping with the approach commonly used by researchers, we interpret beliefs as ‘‘conservative’’ if they align with views typically held by conservative Protestants: a high view of the authority and reliability of the Bible, a literal belief in traditional Christian doctrines like the deity and resurrection of Christ, and an emphasis on the exclusivity of Christianity. Conversely, some of the questions looked for disagreement with these conservative beliefs, or for alternative, characteristically ‘‘liberal’’ beliefs, such as openness to change in religious doctrines, a more flexible approach to the Bible, and belief in the equivalence of religions or non-exclusivity of Christianity.6

The views that were tested show a stark correlation between conservative Christian beliefs and a growing church; and vice versa, liberal beliefs correlate with church decline. Here are just some of many comparisons of the beliefs of the congregants (attendees) compared with those of the clergy:

Protestant-churches-in-southern-Ontario
Table 2: Statistics from mainline Protestant churches in southern Ontario, Canada. The percentages shown are the summation of tabulated data from Haskell, D. (2016),6 for the categories ‘moderately agree’ and ‘strongly agree’.

Since genuine church growth results, by definition, from new people becoming Christians, it is hardly surprising that churches whose clergy and congregations disagree with evangelism (top row of table) are in decline! And how can people who call themselves Christians (i.e. followers of Christ) think that other faiths are a valid way to God (middle row, Table 2), when Jesus calls Himself the way (John 14:6)?

In addition to the above tabled comparisons, here are some further statistics about clergy in declining churches (from the same Canadian research):

  • Almost 94% don’t believe in eternal punishment (i.e. hell).
  • Almost 19% disagree with the statement, “Jesus was crucified, died and was buried but then he was resurrected to eternal life.” (In contrast, 100% of the clergy in growing churches strongly agree with this statement.)
  • 37.5% disagree with the statement, “I have committed my life to Christ and consider myself to be a converted Christian.”
  • Sadly 12.5% agree with the statement, “Jesus was not the divine Son of God.” (In contrast, 100% of the clergy in growing churches strongly disagree with this statement.)

Is it any wonder church attendance is falling in Canada, when so many clergy and church attendees don’t believe the clear teaching of the doctrines they supposedly subscribe to? As a consequence, people are walking away from the Church. Why stay in a house that is divided against itself (Mark 3:25)? Associate Professor of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, David Haskell, who co-authored this study, summarised it as follows: “If you’re in a mainline church and that church is dying, and you’ve just heard that the theological position that you have is likely what’s killing it, you’re not going to be very happy about that”.7 The concern is, do these people try to find another church, or leave it altogether?

England

Backing up the findings from Canada and The Netherlands is research on the Anglican church in England—the Church of England (CofE). This denomination, as a whole, has been in significant decline for years. Happily, however, individual churches within the CofE are exceptions. “More than 300 churches [in England] contributed to the results that support research from Canada showing theologically conservative churches grow faster than those with a more liberal leaning”.8 An increase in attendance is reported by conservative churches, upholding for instance the authority of Scripture and marriage defined as being between one man and one woman.8 The conservative grouping Reform (part of the CofE)—which holds to the more orthodox teachings on the aforementioned topics—is growing, and consists in general of younger attendees.

Conclusion

If Genesis 1 does not mean what it so clearly states, at what point in the Bible can we start understanding the text for ourselves, without having to sit at the feet of some theological guru or other? Or do we need to heed the interpretations of those claiming to be wise at the risk of becoming fools, by exchanging the truth about God for a lie (Romans 1:22, 25)? And if so, why would we worship an inefficient god, whose pinnacle of creation would only be achieved after billions of years of slow progress full of death, suffering and disease. No! The God of the Bible did it precisely the way He said He did. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Christians need to have the highest regard for God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15–16; Revelation 22:18–19). This applies to the opening chapters of Genesis, as well as everything that follows.

References and notes:

  1. Mythe-aanhanger preekt graag over Genesis 1, Nederlands Dagblad, Amersfoort, 16 May 2009, pp. 12–13. Return to text.
  2. Heerema, S., Kerken onderneem actie! logos.nl, 25 July 2017. Return to text.
  3. Heerema, S., God gaat niet vreemd, logos.nl, 11 July 2019. Return to text.
  4. This is my translation from the Dutch text in reference 1 (my native language). Return to text.
  5. Bill Hybels speaking at the Leadership Summit. Christianity Today, Willow Creek Repents? Christianitytoday.com, 18 October 2007. (christianitytoday.com/pastors/2007/october-online-only/willow-creek-repents.html) Return to text.
  6. Haskell, D. et al., Theology Matters: Comparing the traits of growing and declining mainline protestant church attendees and clergy, Review of Religious Research 58(4):515-541, December 2016 | doi.org/10.1007/s13644-016-0255-4. Return to text.
  7. Sherwood, H., Literal interpretation of Bible ‘helps increase church attendance’, theguardian.com, 17 November 2016. Return to text.
  8. Farley, H., Conservative Anglican churches buck trend of decline, christiantoday.com, 18 November 2016. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Ricardo M.
There's not such a thing as liberal "churches", they should rather be called liberal rat nests.
Philip Bell
Some might disagree with your description. However, there is no doubt that evolutionary compromise in liberal churches is damaging, not only for the souls of those attending, but also for science itself, see Why evolution hurts the church.
David G.
I can think of few things more mistaken than "a historical approach to Genesis 1 is not good sermon material. What can you say about it, if the history happened precisely as it is written? You might as well just read out the text". Genesis 1 and 2 tell us many things about God, his creation and our relationship. For instance, that God creates in terms of the time he has made for us shows him active in the space-time that constrains us. He is not a god remote from the reality we know, he is not an imaginary god, our world is not imaginary or an illusion - it is a place where our ethical decisions are grounded in God's being, and our wilful intention is amendable to rational reflection. And that's just the start of the theological riches in Genesis 1 and 2 as history. It tells us that the 'first move of reality' is the God who is love and is in eternal relationship; his making us in his image joins us to the 'relation-in-love' mode of existence; we are thus not existentially adrift, but existentially secure in the love of God.
Tim L.
As someone who grew up in a very conservative church and have seen several of my friends leave the faith, I think the argument here (i.e. that conservative churches hold onto their members better than liberal ones) is broadly true because the number of people lost in the conservative church is offset by the number of people gained. However, it doesn't explain why those people who did leave left. I think that can be understood by taking a bigger picture view of the reason most people leave the church: the people in authority over them are not living consistently with what they say they believe. This may result in them saying that God "used evolution" or that the earth is billions of years old, but it may also result in them saying anger is sinful but getting angry on a regular basis and denying that they did anything wrong. In fact, from the sin of gluttony to the sin of lying to adultery, people in authority over children in conservative churches can be living lives that are inconsistent with what they say they believe. All that to say certainly, the minimum requirement is to be consistent with what you say you believe by holding to the fundamental doctrines of the faith, but if your consistency ends there, you will be seeing similar results in the people who see how you live as you do. The point is not that we must all be perfect. The point is that we must be willing to admit when we're wrong and deal with our sin biblically.
Brent A.
I’m retired from the Canadian Forces and after a long career in the military, I have been to many Church services. I agree with your findings in your study as I have seen the military [religious] services decline in numbers over the years to the point where during some services, there were only three or four of us in the pews.

During one of my deployments to the Middle East I attended the Protestant church services regularly and became quite close with the Chaplains. During one of our discussions I had mentioned that I was very passionate about the Lord and had considered changing my career and becoming a Canadian Forces Chaplain, however; decided against it as I was not comfortable with how the Chaplains were forced to water down the word of God, which in my opinion was affecting souls. I could see my Chaplain friend took a bit of offence to my comment but to explain my point, I brought up the OT and what was written about gays and lesbians and how it was an abomination. I asked how this was not allowed to be taught as a sin but instead is openly accepted as a Christian way of life. I knew I had struck a chord as the Chaplain instantly became angry and rebutted with “Do you believe there are different levels of sin?”. I stated I did not but countered with if I were to confess to pornography, stealing or abusing my family, I would be counselled to confess my sins and “repent”, however, Canadian Forces Chaplains are ordered to tell (or truly believe) that Christian professing members of the LGBT community were made that way by God and there is no sin. As such there is no reason to confess or repent. This is one reason I believe Canada is failing when it comes to retaining and bringing people to Christ and eternity with our Heavenly Father.
David G.
Following on from Tim L. I grew up in a very conservative church too and note that while I didn't meet the challenges he mentions, what I did meet was a distressing anti-intellectualism. This was not restricted to the exploratory questions any teenager might have about life and the wider culture and its obsessions, but even about theology. Until I met Christians from a more intellectual denomination, I didn't even know basic theological terms and found most of the Bible 'spooky' and strange. Yet Christianity contains such artistic, intellectual and historical treasures as well as a deep and thoughtful faith that it is a delight to explore. Needless to say many of my friends from the very conservative church have rejected Christ in their adult lifes. My friends from the 'more intellectual' church now include ordained ministers. Thankfully CMI promotes questioning and also provides answers and discussion.
Thomas C.
American churches seem to major on feelings, and peer acceptance instead of seeking God's approval and listening and reading what God is telling us. Thanks for the article.
Philip Bell
Unfortunately, I don't think this is something peculiar to the US church scene but is more and more endemic to churches in the West generally. I'm reminded of what Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias shared at the UN Prayer Breakfast in 2002. It is a long quotation but I share it here for people's interest. What he says is, if anything, an even more relevant diagnosis of society at the end of 2019 (my bold emphases):

"....On the basis of that, I begin my address to you this morning. "In the 1950s, kids lost their innocence. They were liberated from their parents by well-paying jobs, cars, lyrics and music that gave rise to a new term, 'the generation gap.' In the 1960s, kids lost their authority. It was the decade of protests. Church, state and parents were all called into question and found wanting. Their authority was rejected, yet nothing ever replaced it. In the 1970s, kids lost their love. It was the decade of nihilism, dominated by hyphenated words beginning with 'self' - self-image, self-esteem, self-assertion. It made for a lonely world. Kids learned everything there was to know about sex and forgot everything there was to know about love, and few had the nerve to tell them that there was indeed a difference. In the 1980s, kids lost their hope. Stripped of innocence, authority and love, and plagued by the horror of a nuclear nightmare, large and growing numbers of this generation stopped believing in the future."
The previous description was written at the tail end of the 1980s. Somebody asked me now as a philosopher, if you were to add one more paragraph to that, what would you say has been lost in the 1990s?” If there's one thing I would say, it is that we have lost our ability to reason. The power of critical thinking has gone from induction to deduction and very few are able to think clearly anymore. I have often said the challenge of the truth speaker today is this: How do you reach a generation that listens with its eyes and thinks with its feelings?"

(He goes on to affirm what CMI has repeatedly emphasised over more than 40 years of our ministry's existence, that the Bible is the only Foundation, 1. of Eternity, 2. of Morality, 3. of Accountability, and 4. of Charity. Yet the ministers of liberal (and declining) churches seem largely clueless on these very points.)

Ravi Zacharias, address to the UN Prayer Breakfast, www.ce-un.org/resources/speeches/2002-ravi-zacharias.pdf, 10 September 2002.




John P.
A very interesting article.I agree with Ricardo's observation of liberal churches. They could also be called foxholes I think. We need to be consistent and live as bible believing Christians. Hypocrisy turns people off.
Tim G.
Thanks for the nice article. However, there seems to be a typo: The denomination Gereformeerde Gemeenten (top in the list in Table 1) is presented as DECREASING by 2%, but the numbers show an INCREASE (from 105,000 to 108,000).
Lucien Tuinstra
Dear Tim

Thanks for the thumbs up.
You are correct in noting there is an increase in church membership. However, the percentage in the last column is the church membership change in relation to the population growth of the entire nation (see the column header). In short, although the church membership grew, it did not grow as much as the Dutch population.
Hope that clarifies it.
Tracy M.
I can think of many great conservative churches which I consider likeable places to be but of the liberal ones, they are usually small, dead or just not that great to be a part of. The liberal western churches could learn a lesson from Deut 6:10-12, Mat 6:24, and Ist Tim 6:17 regarding putting your hope in wealth, being satisfied about your life once you have attained the world's goods, and noting you cannot love God and money. Once you are in a church where the pastor is liberal, even if they do not preach about liberalism, they won't preach about the most demanding Christian teachings thus a congregation that is not self-sacrificing when it comes to their own lives and thus low church attendance being an example. The congregation will also not be one who you could say has many truly humble believers which also means they will not have the humbleness to accept Christian teachings unconditionally that require humble faith to believe like creationism. Christianity does not flourish in an atmosphere of pride and arrogance. If someone is going to adopt liberal teaching on anything, they need to see if the early church fathers had similar teaching but the reality is there is likely not even one teaching in the early church fathers that support any liberal belief. There were the heresies that were condemned and then there were the delusional people with big egos who wanted their writings to be adopted as part of scripture like apostles' teaching like Mathew but their books were nothing but nonsense. I find it easier to believe conservative beliefs than liberal ones because conservative beliefs have their support with the early church fathers for New Testament and Josephus for Old Testament teachings.

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