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.