On the Cyclical Nature of the Church
I believe that in many ways conservative Christianity is today where the mainline churches were in 1964. It has reached its zenith of grow, power, and influence. The movement helped elect politicians, claimed to represent American values, and successfully welcomed millions of Americans into its churches. But I believe these churches are likely to see their growth stalled, and then to watch a period of decline, unless they recognize the changes happening in society that will leave them increasingly disconnected from emerging generations.
~Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, Adam Hamilton
Did you know that the life of a local congregation is cyclical? The stages are common to many churches, according to people who do this type of research. I’ve seen it in churches that I have lead through the years as well. We can see it when we look back at the history of local churches. And what’s true about the local church is often true about the general Church as well. In this case, what we see is the cyclical nature of the Church in the United States on a denominational and, as Hamilton points out here, even theological level.
Hamilton makes the bold prediction (again, in 2012) that evangelical churches will see their growth stalled, and then enter into a period of decline unless something changes their trajectory. And in the last 10 years, those words have proven to be prophetic.
Since 2007, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has dropped 15% — from 78% to 63% — according to the Pew Research Center. Where are these 15% going? Well… nowhere, really, and somewhere at the same time. The “other religion” category has gone from 5% to 6% in this timeframe, but the real increase is in those who no longer identify with any religion at all — from 16% in 2007 to 29% in 2021. Notably, it primarily comes from Protestant churches (a 12% drop). The Catholic Church has seen a slight decrease (3%), while LDS and Orthodox churches have remained fairly steady (1–2%). That is a dramatic shift, and exactly what Hamilton was pointing out.
There are a lot of reasons for this shift. Just yesterday I saw a video from a woman who was talking about why she left the Church. She was very involved, and was interested in leadership in the local congregation when she was told that it wasn’t going to happen because she was a woman. Nothing to do with her qualifications, call, or heart for leadership. It was entirely because of her gender. She left the Church. She became one of the “Nones”.
Others are tired of the hypocrisy, lack of accountability, and frequency with which sexual abuse scandals arise involving church leaders. Just the other day news broke of yet another prominent leader’s failure. I get it. Why would somebody want to be part of something that seems to perpetuate this kind of nonsense. As a pastor, it’s unbelievably frustrating, and it’s definitely something that needs to be brought into the light. The Church deserves fallout for protecting sexual predators in its leadership. There’s no way around that one.
And, finally, I think the transition we’ve seen in the last 20 years or so from evangelicalism to fundamentalism to Christian nationalism has been especially horrific to see. Twenty years ago, the people who are calling themselves evangelicals today I would have referred to as fundamentalists. And I would have written them off as a fringe group that “real” Christians wouldn’t take seriously. I was wrong, and then it somehow managed to get worse.
Many of these same people made a hard turn into Christian nationalism, which is dangerous and has no place in the kingdom of God. There’s good reason why we should have a separation of Church and State, and we are increasingly seeing why. It leads to things like saying, “I’m only going to vote for one political party because it’s the only one that represents true Christians,” or “progressive Christianity isn’t real Christianity,” or dictators using the words of Jesus in front of a large crowd (or “rally” if you will) to justify their invasion of a sovereign nation.
As a result, the evangelicals have overreached. They’ve strayed too far into politics, and it’s hurting their cause, as well as the kingdom-building work that needs to take place. And people are fed up. So they leave. I don’t blame them. If they don’t know anything different, and this current version of Christian nationalism, racism and misogyny is all they see, why would they want to take part?
Instead what’s needed is a Church that is willing to listen to the people who are leaving. One that is trying to understand why. One that actually cares and has enough humility to recognize that maybe they’re getting something wrong.
I’m not suggesting, nor do I think Hamilton is suggesting, a compromised gospel that leans into culture for meaning. I think we need to be aware of our culture and speak the gospel into it. The problem that we are having is that many people are conflating their interpretation of the gospel with the gospel itself. And if they are anti-modern society, then they will always stand against it.
There is a complete unwillingness to translate the gospel in a way that the culture can understand the good news. We teach mission principles to send people overseas (like translating certain concepts so they can be more fully understood in other cultures), and forget the missional work that we need to do in our own communities. Instead of complaining about our culture, maybe we need to understand it, and adapt our sharing of the gospel so that it is truly good news to those in it.
So, what are we to do? Hamilton’s predictions are bearing out. We are seeing a stark decline in the Church. So, what’s next? I think that’s the real question we need to wrestle with. I don’t have all the answers. If you were looking for that today, I’m sorry to say you will be disappointed. But we must look forward in order to go forward. We don’t drive down the road by looking in the rearview mirror. The key, I think, is our willingness to listen, and not pretend that we have all the answers in the first place.
Just as local churches are cyclical in their life cycles, the entire Christian movement is as well, and it’s about time we discover a time in our history when we were really able to connect to our society, learn some principles from that time, and then adapt them into our current context. Because what we are doing isn’t going to work, and I think the statistics bear that out.