The Church in the U.S. is in Trouble, Big Trouble

The sky might actually be falling.

The Church in the United States is in the most perilous position in its history.

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. The church of Jesus Christ will never die, not in the U.S. and not anywhere else around the world. The church of Jesus Christ is people; the followers of Jesus. For that reason, the Church will never die as there will always be followers of Jesus.

While the Church of Jesus Christ will never die, local expressions of that Church have died, are dying and will die. 

Consider the following statistics from reputable faith-based researchers including Barna, Pew and others:

  • 40% of US churches are at risk of closing in the next year. 
    • In recent years, that number was closer to 10%.
  • Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic:
  • 70% of US churches were in decline.
  • 20% of US churches were plateaued.
  • 9% of US churches were growing only by transfer of members.
  • 1% of US churches were growing by reaching new people.
  • Currently, 38% of US pastors are considering leaving the ministry altogether. This is up from 23% less than a year ago.
  • The average church currently has an attendance that is 43% of pre-pandemic numbers.

I work with churches, pastors, staff and lay leaders on a daily basis. Based on my experience and observations, these numbers are accurate (at best) and conservative (at worst), because pastors/leaders are growing weary. Each week I hear from a pastor on the edge, ready to leave their job or ministry altogether. 

Why? Crisis is an accelerator. As a society, we have become more divisive and angry. We are all emotionally fatigued from the challenges of the last couple years. This anger, anxiety and fatigue has oozed into the church and plays out in profound emotional ways in our churches. During the pandemic, pastors were forced to choose between two options, each of which would make 50% of the congregation unhappy. People in churches are taking their anger and anxiety out on their pastors and staff, saying and doing things they would never consider doing to anyone else in their lives. Churches who were unhealthy before the pandemic have started to crumble. Churches that were healthy before the pandemic have thrived. Unfortunately, the vast majority of churches, pastors and church staff are unhealthy. 

Crisis is also revelatory. It reveals our priorities, our heart, our attitudes, our motivation. For many, the global Covid-19 pandemic has been a moment of great growth, health and reprioritization. For others, the pandemic has only enflamed their already toxic attitudes and habits. 

The Church has lost sight of its primary mission, to share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (God’s unconditional love and grace) and to make disciples of all nations.

Instead, in this time of conflict and uncertainty, we have focused on sustaining institutions instead of bringing the Gospel to a world that needs it more than ever. Our focus has been getting people to come back into our buildings instead of loving a hurting world. This is more than just naive. It is contradictory to the scripture and the early church, which never needed institutions or buildings to be the church.

Leadership guru Patrick Lencioni notes that ‘organizational health trumps everything.’ At Preparing for Amazement Ministries, we have come to realize an important corollary concept to this: in the church, its pastors and its leaders, outside of the work of God through the Gospel, health trumps everything. 

Health trumps.

That is the answer to the challenges that the church in the US is facing. Health. Why does health matter? Health matters, because outside the work of God through the Gospel it is the most important factor in the effectiveness and longevity of a church. Why does health matter? Health matters because without it we cannot be the church that God created us to be, a church that imitates the life, teaching and ministry of Jesus. A church that models the early church in its context, a church that loves God, others and the world well. Why does health matter? Health matters because without it making disciples is impossible. As individual churches our focus should not be on being the biggest church, having the nicest building or most charismatic staff. Rather, our focus should be on being the healthiest church we can be and helping our pastors, staff, leaders and congregation find lasting and transformational health. 

It’s time to sound the alarm. The church in its current form in the US is in trouble. If something doesn’t change, the church as we know it may not exist for our grandchildren and great grandchildren. 

The challenges are complex and real, but the solution is simple: health. Health trumps.

Rev. Dr. Marcus J. Carlson

Categories: Leadership

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