Empty Churches Full Of People

The American Church has swallowed a deadly pill.  It is dying inside, but cheerfully going along, unaware.

So says Matt Marino, an Episcopal Priest in Arizona.  He points to the now well-documented fact that young people are leaving churches in droves after they graduate high school.  On the outside, things still look good.  Many youth ministries are large and “vibrant.”  But they are, on the whole, whitewashed sepulchers.

In short, we have churches full of empty people, on the road to becoming empty churches.

Marino lists eight major problems with youth ministry.  The first is segregation.  We effectively cut off young people from the rest of the body of Christ (as Marino puts it, we “ghettoized” them).  In our consumer culture, obsessed with specialized marketing techniques that divide by demographic, this point is not addressed nearly enough. 

Marion’s other reasons are all good ones, and you should read his entire post here (the story he tells at the beginning is heart-wrenching).

As is typical of doom-prophesying articles like this, it’s heavy on the problem and light on the solution.  In fact, the solution is a single  paragraph, and it’s not very specific.  But it is very good, and very true.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

I want to unpack this, and offer a few quick suggestions of my own.  First, church is for believers, not the lost.  This is hard for our evangelical culture to swallow, but the whole point of Marion’s post has been to highlight this fact, that the last few generations of “Finneyism” are creating big churches full of empty people.  During the Reformation, the Lord’s Supper meant so much to the believing community that the table was “fenced off.”  Preaching was expositional and intensely Gospel-focused.  It’s impossible to unlock the deepest treasures of Scripture and feed people meat when the weekly worship service itself is designed to dispense milk to the visitors.

Second, the youth service has to go.  Period.  If that sounds ludicrous to you, I would merely point out that I have grown up in churches without one, and they actually retain a much higher percentage of their kids after college than the national average (this is anecdotal, but the churches are small so it’s easier to count heads).  Ages 3-5 are excused (because kindergarteners are unruly little heathens at the best of times), but once you’re in the first grade you will sit with your parents and have the Gospel preached to you every week for (Lord willing) the rest of your life, as a full member of the one, united body of Christ.

Third, parents need to step up and the church needs to help them.  I’ve taught 9th grade catechism for the past three years, and the difference between a student with actively involved parents and a student without parental aid was enormous.  And I only had them for 45 minutes per week, for 30 weeks.  That is simply not enough time to engage in real, life-changing discipleship.  These kids need a mature, Godly influence 24-7, and only parents can do that.

Fourth, we need to get over our assumption that a small church means a lack of Spiritual vitality.  Believe it or not, I know of more than one denomination that actively keeps their churches from reaching “mega” status, and they are still growing throughout the US.  When a church reaches a size that no longer allows the Pastor and Elders to be active disciple-makers, they plant a new church and shuffle members around a bit.  The result is several hundred-member congregations rather than one, thousand-member monster.  Let me hasten to add that there is nothing inherently wrong with a large church and nothing inherently good about a small one.  Many big churches are implementing small groups that are designed to keep all members active and accountable, and to encourage real discipleship (but then, there’s effectly many small churches in one building).  We simply need to rid ourselves of the notion that big = good such that it encourages us to actively try to make our churches as large as possible. Instead, we need to be theologically serious, radically God-centered, counter-cultural, and not afraid to lose some people along the way.

Finally, we need to be salt and light to a dark world.  This is by far the hardest part.  We must be the people on the streets every night looking to help the homeless.  We need to open so many soup kitchens that there are no more hungry people.  We need to be the people who give so generously of our time and money that the average person is amazed that we care so much for others and so little for ourselves.  When the church becomes the one place that unbelievers know will care for the widows and orphans, we can stop trying to be relevant to the “me generation.”  They will come to us.  When they see that we do all this not as an attempt to impress the World, but rather because we are not the World, we will have churches overflowing with souls longing to be liberated from themselves.

Above all, pray.  Pray ceaselessly.  Pray for the Holy Spirit, for without Him all our efforts will be for nothing.

Published by

David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.a.marino Matt Marino

    Amen, David. Well said!

  • http://www.facebook.com/soujirou7 Jonathan Barker

    Ditto; good article and insightful. I used to wonder that if the church was to minister to the lost (as its mission seemed to indicate), then why are there so many believers just sitting there rather than on the street inviting people in? (like Matt 22:9-10)

    However, along with that the fourth/final point is in fact very difficult. We are creatures of habit and it would be so much easier to continue our rhythm of going to Sunday service each week and (hopefully) giving our tithe so the church organization can do its “job”; the one we would rather not do. We would rather not be uncomfortable or one of the 11 scared dudes.

    Looking at myself personally I see that it is also tempting to rest against a “good enough” mentality. Similar to the unbeliever’s assumption that “if I am basically more good than bad, God won’t send me to hell,” I fall back on the idea that if I participate in church and donate enough to maintain my tax bracket, He will still say “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And here I thought resisting the temptation of covetousness was hard.

  • jamesfarnold

    “We are creatures of habit and it would be so much easier to continue our rhythm of going to Sunday service each week and (hopefully) giving our tithe so the church organization can do its “job”; the one we would rather not do.”

    That latter part is when things get tricky: what is the Church but a collection of believers? Surely we, as members of the body, are part of the ‘church organization.’

    Good thoughts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/soujirou7 Jonathan Barker

    I was thinking primarily of the sentiment that God’s work is best done by the clergy and those with official offices. I don’t agree with that and I know there are many who also invest in the body and church culture (a whole other topic) but there are definitely some who do agree; at least in practice. My intention was/is to point out that while doctrinally believers are the church, there is a mental separation between the church organization and the obligation to be salt and light. :)

  • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

    Simply an excellent article, including the title!

    My only point of disagreement might be the statement, “Ages 3-5 are excused (because kindergarteners are unruly little heathens at the best of times)…” I say this because I think it is important for kids to learn to be in worship, even at such an early age. It’s also important for parents to learn to parent and the rest of the congregation to learn to get used to being a family. Unfortunately, while kids of this age in worship was the norm just a couple of generations ago, it has been abandoned in all but a few denominations today. While kids in worship might not be following everything happening, I think they are learning to be a part of the body, and the body is learning to welcome them (even a bit of ‘joyful’ noise).

    The other practical implication, especially for smaller churches, is that often adult-ed is poorly attended with no child-care, making it hard for parents to attend. If ‘Sunday’ school (for most smaller churches, before or after service would actually be a pretty good time for education time) were at the same time as the adult education, everyone could attend, yet still worship together. And, as most of the studies show, having parents who are well educated and strong in their faith is much more important to the faith of the children than any Sunday school or youth program is ever going to be. We’re not only failing to integrate the kids, but also failing to educate their greatest influence.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Thank you, Steve.

    My church actually does catechism and adult Sunday school simultaneously. Ironically, our problem is that parents will drop the kids off for catechism and skip Sunday school themselves. Thankfully, that’s only a minority.

    As for the 3-5 kids, I was only describing how my church does it (and making at joke at the kindergarteners’ expense, because I had to herd them on the playground for a couple years). I’m really not sure how important it is to have them in worship that young, or why the cut off should be 5 (why not 4, for example).

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.a.marino Matt Marino

    Steve, I just re-read your comment. I couldn’t agree more that strong parents are the key to strong children. Too often we have given our children rigidity without relationship with Jesus. When we, as parents, are unformed spiritually, we reproduce moralism rather than faith.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    It’s difficult to know what this looks like, sadly. We’ve bought into the “demographic marketing” strategy so deeply that it’s going to be very hard to retrain the current generation of church leaders to think in terms of community and family, rather than exclusively individuals and the different subsets we arbitrarily put them in. That’s why I still think your first point about segregation is the most important, and why the youth worship service has got to go.

    Another problem I didn’t highlight is that we treat church the way we treat education. For most of us, education is memorizing facts to pass a standardized test to get a good job. In other words, education is no longer about discipleship. Having this as a kind of starting paradigm, I think, ruins the way we view church. Protestants rightly emphasize teaching and the centrality of the Word in worship, but unfortunately you can’t just digest a few easy-to-memorize facts about the Bible, take a standardized test, and call yourself a disciple of Christ.

    Anyway, now I’m just rambling. There’s so much to think about, and like I said in my post, it’s easy to see the problem and very hard to come up with solutions. But thanks again for your great post! I’m sure I’ll be coming back to this subject again and again.

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  • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

    Getting the parents involved is going to be crucial. I’m not sure exactly how to do that, but part of it is going to be getting them to recognize the reality of the situation Christians face in the culture today and get training. (ie: apologetics)

    As much as I’m thankful for youth-pastors and workers, they just aren’t going to be enough unless parents and kids step up their effort. At best, they probably get a couple of hours per week (usually less). What other area in life do we prepare for with so little time commitment? Imagine only spending an hour or two per week preparing for our career, exercising, or in school. And, most of us easily spend an hour or two on hobbies, watching sports, playing video games, etc. Sure, we’re all busy, but this is really a priority issue, not a time issue. Parents spend the most time with their kids (or should) and have the greatest influence. If the parent doesn’t really care or have answers (or know where to get them), it’s likely the kids will have a similar attitude towards religion (even if they go through the motions).

    Regarding the young children, I think it is important for them both socially and community-wise to be in worship. Socially, at least part of the reason kids can’t sit still (within reason) these days is because parents don’t really try. (People comment that our son does fairly well in church, and I’m always thinking, ‘yea, and we’ve been working on it for 4 years now, it didn’t just magically happen.’) I see other parents just sit and listen or sing while their kids go nuts, until the ‘children’s sermon’ after which they are led away. Community-wise, I think it’s a good thing for the kids to get used to worship and being a part of it (quietly playing and listening, observing, learning to sing, etc.) as it is for the older folks to see them there and learn some patience over a bit of (again reasonable… taking them out is part of the learning process) family noise.

    IMO, we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking 30-40 minutes of ‘Sunday school’ is more important to their Christian development. It was done out of good intentions (at least in part), but not well thought through (theologically or otherwise). I think we need to start rethinking this part of modern church culture, and take a peek at some of the denominations who are doing that aspect better (ie: many Lutherans). (Historically, I think the shift happened around the 1940s or 50s in response to what was happening in R.C. and other rather dead catechism processes, where many were leaving. Evangelicals stepped up in response, applying some of the latest secular marketing strategies they borrowed from. Short-term, it was effective, but I think we’re now seeing the results.)

  • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

    Right on!

    I think we often get confused about method and result and what drives what.

    We shouldn’t be filling the church to make believers so we can feed the poor. We should be training (not just teaching) disciples, so THEY will make believers and feed the poor, of which, many will come to church.

    Also, as a side effect, often many secular (or para-church) organizations, dedicated to some particular task, do a better job than many churches (at least the smaller ones) can muster when it comes to feeding the poor (or other relief efforts). Now, consider the evangelistic impact of a hundred well-equipped Christians working alongside unbelievers in such efforts, as opposed to that same 100 Christians in a group doing similarly. (Not that I’m opposed to the latter… but just sayin’.)

  • http://www.transitionministriesgroup.com/ Bud Brown

    My son-in-law has been in youth ministry for almost ten years now; eight years in one church. He is dispirited and sorrowful because Senior Pastors are more interested in large numbers in the youth group than they are in insuring that youth are being discipled to be mature followers of Jesus.

    Part of this, I suppose, we could lay at the feet of the Church Growth movement. Part of it is because we use faulty church metrics. Part of it is the fact that those of us in the ministry (self included) lean on the numbers to derive some much needed ego satisfaction.

    This is a burgeoning tragedy of epic proportions.