Statistics show conclusively that church membership in the United States is not keeping pace with population growth. Allowing for variations in the methods of ascertaining these figures and agreeing that church membership and the individual Christian’s spiritual health may be separate, still one may say that compared with the past, the rate of spiritual growth is not keeping up with the national birth rate.
That this is true in a country so richly favored by God and with so many churches and church activities should shock all of us into a willingness to take stock of our personal commitment to the Lord and our stewardship of the grace so richly given. Furthermore, it should cause the corporate church to take stock of her own faithfulness and stewardship.
Many causes for this decline will be brought forward. Some will insist that the Church has lost her influence because of her many divisions. They offer as the solution the “reuniting of Christendom,” with church merger after church merger—all with a concentric trend towards one great Church.
One wonders, though, whether the decline in ratio of church members to general population can rightly be blamed on the multiplicity of denominations. The average individual is little concerned about the organization of the church. In fact, he sees the church in terms of the Christians he meets and the personal and church-centered efforts to reach him as an individual.
Is it not axiomatic that the elemental impact and continuing influence of the Church depend, not on her organization, but on the messages from her pulpits and the dedication of those who claim the name of Christian?
Yet it is at this point that there is the greatest evasion today. There are many who for the sake of an outward unity play down the inevitable spiritual unity which exists among those who know and love the Lord and try to serve him. Such persons insist that the Church can present an effective united front without corresponding convictions on the very content of the faith itself.
To this writer there are some discernible reasons for the decline of the Church and some questions which need answers.
For centuries the Church was composed of men with a Book. The full integrity and authority of the Word was questioned only by those on the fringes of the Church and those openly hostile to it. Today a new generation of “priests” has arisen, leaders who in their composite attacks leave little more than the covers of the Book.
Human reason, intellectualism, and unbelief have combined to sit in judgment on the divine revelation with disastrous results. The opinions of men have been substituted for “Thus saith the Lord,” so that from a host of pulpits those in the pews hear the opinions of the latest writers and most popular scholars. One wonders whether the words of Jeremiah do not apply to us today: “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” (Jer. 5:30, 31).
Again: “And the Lord said to me: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds’ ” (Jer. 14:14).
Again: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord’ ” (Jer. 23:16).
But Jeremiah does not content himself with denunciation; he has the answer from the Lord. “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who use their tongues and say, ‘says the Lord.’ Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them; so they do not profit this people at all, says the Lord” (Jer. 23:28–32).
The writer would use these words to warn all of us—Christians who live lives utterly inconsistent with their profession, ministers who preach anything other than the Word of God.
The Church losing ground! Surely the fault lies within us. We have permitted the people of God to be infiltrated by the world and its lust. We live in a time of unspeakable moral declension and find these lowered standards seeping into the visible body of Christ, to the point where the worldling cannot distinguish between those who are members of the Church and those who are not.
Ezekiel takes up the warning to those who speak in the name of the Lord: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, prophesy and say to those who prophesy out of their own minds: “Hear the word of the Lord!” Thus says the Lord God, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!’ ” (Jer. 13:1–3).
The basic problem of a declining Church is her failure to face up to the sin problem and to God’s cure for sin. Words such as “conviction,” “repentance,” “confession,” “renunciation,” “cleansing,” the “person and work of the Holy Spirit” have almost vanished from many vocabularies. We have become obsessed with humanism and have made it a substitute for Christianity. We have placed reformation ahead of regeneration even to the point where there is no longer a distinction between the redeemed and the lost—just those who are saved and know it and those who are saved and do not know it.
Although church membership is certainly not the ultimate index in God’s sight, it nevertheless is an indicator on which many implications rest.
We are constrained to believe that the Church is losing membership and influence because only too often she is ceasing to be the Church: she is becoming instead a political organization dedicated to world betterment without reference to soul betterment, to political pressures instead of the power of the Holy Spirit, to humanism rather than Christianity itself.
What shall it profit if the Church becomes instrumental in solving every problem of human relationships, every injustice and inequity of society, every material need—only to find that men are still estranged from God and know not his Christ?
L. NELSON BELL
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