The Atrophy Of The American Church
By Certified Church Consultant, Dan Abbatiello
Muscle atrophy is the wasting away of muscle mass and strength. It occurs after prolonged immobility such as extended bed rest or having a body part in a cast. Fortunately, this type of atrophy can usually be reversed with exercise.
Churches can also experience atrophy by immobility and being bound. Numbers from actual counts of people in orthodox Christian churches show that only 17.0% of the population attends a church on any given weekend. (www.TheAmericanChurch.org) I’m fairly confident that that percentage is even worse since the pandemic. A number of internal factors may contribute to church atrophy such as stagnant leadership, unclear vision, apathy, internal strife, a church split, pastoral change or failure, or a controlling board. Other factors may include resistance to change, fear of what will change, what will change cost or look like, and most sadly, a loss of compassion for lost people.
Additionally, external challenges contribute to atrophy, such as a growing societal and political resistance to Christianity and the fragmentation our culture. There is no longer a general consensus which defines and reinforces what is right and wrong, good or bad, wise or unwise. The culture is divided by preferences. You cannot assume that others think the way you think and common sense is not so common anymore. Allow me to offer some suggestions as to how we can respond to what is happening all around us?
Restore Relationship with Jesus as our Message
First, our previously Christianized culture saw “church” as the central element of their lives, while an authentic relationship with Jesus, for all practical purposes, became as a secondary issue. Today, “church” has become irrelevant for most people. We must therefore, restore the value of a relationship with Jesus as the central priority in our communication, reengaging ourselves and others with the person, words and actions of Christ.
Secondly, we must restore mission. Originally the word church was a non-religious term used to define a working body having gathered to conduct significant business. We must once again, see ourselves as, “A community of faith that is joining Jesus in the mission of sharing His gospel and making disciples. These disciples become more like Jesus and transform their community and the world for the Kingdom of God.” (Stetzer/Rainer) The church is the community of faith living out the “irreducible core” of the gospel – to love God, love one another, and as you go make disciples. (Matthew 22:37-39; 28:18-20)
Folded into mission is the idea of (lower case “a”) apostleship. The word comes from a New Testament word meaning to be sent on a mission to put things in order, to be dispatched on a mission with the authority of the one by whom they were sent. Regardless of where you live, you are a missionary bringing the message of Jesus to the lost. Also, pastors must understand that they are on an apostolic mission. Pastors can no longer see themselves as merely chaplains who service the needs of their constituents. Pastors are called to lead and educate their congregations to think “Christianly”, “missionally” and “incarnationally” (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Restore the Gospel
Much of the Church has diluted the gospel of Jesus Christ into benign, impotent rhetoric. The New Testament word gospel means good news of victory from the battlefield. It could also refer to the platform/promises of a new leader. When people of Jesus’ day heard of the term Gospel of the Kingdom, they did not think of an insubstantial, ethereal, merely in the mind or in the heart idea. They understood it as a reference to an actual kingdom, and so should we. We are not looking for political takeover of this world’s system. We are looking to bring the good news of Christ’s Kingdom into actuality in the here and now. That “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Restore the Supernatural
Nothing of what I have previously proposed can be done by human effort alone. We must have the power of the Holy Spirit to be effective. The Prophet Zechariah said, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of hosts.” Jesus declared, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses…” T.S. Eliot made an interesting observation. He said, “And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.” I believe it is time to see that which has decayed, be restored by the power of the Spirit once again. Join me in praying this historic prayer from the Celtic Daily Prayers:
Most powerful Holy Spirit, come down upon us and subdue us from heaven, where the ordinary is made glorious and glory seems but ordinary. Bathe us with the brilliance of your light. (from Celtic Daily Prayer)