The Church in North America is now in a major evangelism crisis. The problem is as obvious as empty pews. Many mainline denominations are reporting a drop in membership. Last year for the first time in the twentieth century the Roman Catholic population of the United States declined. After several years of diminishing increase, the American Lutheran Church noted in 1969 that its baptized membership decreased for the first time in its ten-year history. In 1968 the Episcopal Church observed that baptisms were lower than in any year since 1947 and that confirmations had dropped to the 1955 level. By 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which had lost more than 50,000 members in two years, recalled some thirty-five of its overseas missionaries to witness in modern America. Similar figures could be cited for other groups. They all suggest that English-speaking America is in a spiritual depression.
What has caused the membership crisis? Some blame it on the pill and lower birth rates. Others ascribe it to a hostile cultural climate and the falling away of the younger generation. Some shrug it off as part of the “cost of discipleship” that the churches must pay as the price for a strong “social witness.” Still others attribute the decline to a period of unparalleled prosperity that has dulled our sense of spiritual appreciation.
But perhaps we err by castigating the world for the problems of the church. It may well be that the cause of our distress is internal, not external. Jesus said that the very gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, but he also stated that “a man’s foes shall be those of his own household” (Matt. 16:18; 10:36). What Christ may have meant, as Professor Edwin Lewis suggested years ago ...1
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