Why Do Christians Continue To Diminish In Numbers?

Steve Lindsley
(Ezekiel 1:1, 4-5, 12, 15, 19-21; Acts 2: 1-13)

Last week we began a sermon series titled Questions of Faith: A Sermon Series for the Uncertain.  It is based on questions you came up with as part of a sermon Grace preached in 2017, where she asked people to share doubts and questions.  Grace and I have picked six of those questions for this series – last week our first question was “Why is my doubt stronger than my faith?” 

Today’s question is focused more on the wider community of faith – namely, the church.  It is a question a lot of us have been asking, either to ourselves or out loud, because of what we see happening around us, and how we tend to interpret what we see.  Today’s question is:

Why do Christians continue to diminish in numbers?

Keep that question in the back of your mind as I read to you familiar words from the second chapter of Acts, verses 1-13.  We are a good 5-6 months away from Pentecost, but join me in a quick trip to the future as we read these words together, recounting the story of what many call the birth of the church. 

Listen to the Word of God: (Acts 2: 1-13)

This is the Word of the Lord – thanks be to God!

Would you pray with me?

Almighty God, speak to us a new word that informs, that challenges, that comforts, that inspires.  And walk alongside us, not as we avoid our doubts and questions, but as we step right into them.  In Jesus’ name we pray, AMEN.

***************

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells this story:

When [my pastor] was about 7, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around trying to find a landmark.  After a little while, the girl suddenly started flailing her arms and saying, “Stop here!  Stop here!”  The policeman stopped, right in front of this beautiful tall building with stained glass windows.  It was a church.  The policeman was puzzled, until the little girl said, “You can let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”

And that is why I have stayed so close to my church, writes Lamott – because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their voices, I can always find my way home.[1]

For many of us, Lamott’s story resonates deep within us when it comes to the essence of what church is  More than a building, more than programs and ministries.  The people, the spirit we find, that serve as a center from where, as the little girl said, “I can always find my way home.”  Church is grounding for us.  It acts as a compass.  Amidst busy schedules and life’s uncertainties, church gives us direction and puts everything around us into context.

Church is what was birthed in our Acts passage today, whether those present knew that’s what was happening or not.  This passage is full of language that is alive and energetic and vibrant.  From the moment God’s spirit descended into the gathering, it instilled life into everything it touched.  Rushing wind, tongues of fire, people!  Folks who were there were suddenly able to speak languages they didn’t know before – a clear sign that the reach of the church and its message was intended to go far beyond the Jewish world into nations and cultures that those people could only dream of.  So full of life and energy was the church in its first moments that befuddled bystanders wondered aloud if those in the gathering had had a little too much of the bottle.  That always cracks me up – when church is at its most “churchy,” people on the outside think we are intoxicated!

It is enough to make one look at church today, two thousand years after the fact, and in a more cynical moment, wonder, “what in the world has happened?”  Or a more direct question, such as the one etched on an index card in this sanctuary two years ago:

Why do Christians continue to diminish in numbers?

Now over my two decades and counting in ministry, I’ve heard this question before.  Many times, in all kinds of different iterations.  Such as:

Why are the pews getting more and more empty?

Why aren’t people coming to worship anymore?

Why is it so hard to get people to serve on a ministry team or sign up for something?

Why do more and more people seem to be less and less religious?

Why is church giving going down?

What in the world has happened to the church?

You can probably come up with your own question – maybe you already have.  And see, at the heart of all of these questions – including our question today – at the heart are a host of assumptions made in light of a host of observations.  And from those assumptions we’ve concocted a narrative that more or less goes something like this: the church today is in decline.  It is less than what it once was.  More and more people seem less and less interested in church, and less interested in religion altogether.  So they’re not coming as much as they used to.  They’re not giving as much as they used to.  And it’s due either to something we have done as the church, or not done; or to things happening in our culture over which we have no control.  Maybe it’s a little of both.  Whatever the case, it is on us to solve this problem and somehow bring the people back, back so the church can be what it once was.

It is a very convincing narrative, if for no other reason that it has as a main ingredient one of the things we find at the heart of a lot of our narratives these days: and that is fear.  Fear of loss, of absence.  Fear that we’ve messed it up.  Fear that we’re not who we need to be.  It leads us to make assumptions and ask questions like our question today.  It is a convincing narrative – but is it an accurate one?  Something has changed, yes.  The question is, why?

Many years ago, my wife came to me with a great deal of excitement in her voice.  One of her favorite bands had announced they were going on world tour.  Wouldn’t it be great to see them in concert, she exclaimed.  I got the hint.  So I pulled up the band’s website and looked at their tour schedule to see if they were coming anywhere near us.  Sadly, they weren’t, which was a bummer. 

What I remember about that, though, was how I scrolled down that website and looked at every date of this world tour.  And I was struck by the sheer magnitude of what these guys were embarking on.  The cities and countries read off like the trip of a lifetime.  Beginning in the States – Los Angeles.  Chicago. Boston.  New York.  Moving across the Atlantic to Europe – London.  Paris.  Rome.  Berlin.  On to the Far East – Hong Kong.  Tokyo.  Seoul.  Then down through the Southern Hemisphere – Sydney.   Johannesburg.  Buenos Aires.  It went on and on, city after city, for two solid years.

I can barely imagine going on a trip for two weeks, much less two years.  Traversing around the world and seeing place after place, people after people, sight after sight.  What an incredible journey that must be.

I share this with you because I want to lift up the image of a world tour as we consider our question today, why do Christians continue to diminish in numbers. Because part of the answer to that question, I think, is understanding that God has been on the move for the past two thousand years.  We might even call it, “God On World Tour.”

This tour, this idea of God traveling, God moving around, shouldn’t be all that strange to us.  Our God is a God of endless activity, going where God is needed the most.  Remember the scripture Grace read earlier?  The Hebrews are in Babylonian captivity; they’ve been ripped from their homeland, a land where the temple once stood, a land that was the geographical center of their faith.  For them, God was tied to that land in an existential sort of way that made them feel not only removed from their homeland in Babylon, but very much removed from their God.

So there’s the prophet Ezekiel, resting along the banks of the Babylonian river, lamenting his exiled state, when suddenly he encounters this vision.  It’s this very intricate vision with lots of details that sound strange and confusing.  I asked Grace to read selected verses because the intricacy of the details can kind of overwhelm the main point of the passage, and that point is simply this: God goes where the people go.  In fact, God is so mobile that God is literally on wheels in this vision – like a huge holy go-cart or something. 

So we read: 

Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them.  When they moved, the others moved; when they stopped, the others stopped; and when they rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them – for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

This bizarre vision with living creatures and wings and human torsos and animal heads, all of it symbolizes the awesome presence of God – and, more importantly, the fact that this awesome presence goes where the people are and where the spirit leads.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for Ezekiel, or any other Israelite in Babylon, homesick beyond belief, devastated in their faith, feeling abandoned by God – can you imagine what this vision must have meant to them?  God is not stuck “back there” in the Promised Land far away.  God is right here, right now – right with you in this strange place, among strange people with strange customs.  God is with you.  And God will always be with you.  Cause God’s got wheels.

It is a beautiful image of God’s active presence in God’s people in the world.  And it’s not something that’s confined to this one instance.

Because for the past 2000 years in the history of the church, God has been on world tour.  It began at Pentecost, God’s spirit coming to those gathered in Jerusalem and then sending them out to places like Thessalonica and Corinth and Ephesus, with the help of folks like Peter and Paul. Hundreds of years later, God’s world tour stopped in Rome as Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire.  Later that tour would take God both east and west, including we now call Europe.  Then, hundreds of years ago, God came across the Atlantic; and for many years, North America – specifically the United States – was a center of Christian activity in the world.

But God is on the move.  And the world tour goes on.   And so that tour has now taken God to places like Africa and Asia and Latin America, where the church of Jesus Christ is growing the fastest. 

Consider this: today, sixty-percent of the world’s Christians reside in Africa, Asia and Latin America – a majority.  And how’s this for contrast: from 1970 to 1985 about 4300 people were leaving the Church in North America and Europe on a daily basis, while in that same period over 16,000 were converting to Christianity each day in Africa alone!  Jerusalem.  Rome.  Europe.  America.  Africa and Asia and Latin America.  God is on the move.[2]

So – what does all of this mean?  Well, first let me tell you what it does not mean.  It does not mean that God has left us.  The cool thing about God’s world tour, unlike your favorite band, is that God never really leaves a place when God’s wheels head to the next stop.   God’s presence remains constant as the Spirit explores new corners of the earth where the spirit can come alive like a rushing wind and tongues of fire.  So hear me: God has not abandoned the church of North America. 

What God has done is let us know that we cannot be church the way we once did.  One scholar makes the case that, because of the changing dynamics of the church in the world, by definition, we in America are now a mission field; and that the day is coming when the number of missionaries who come to America from other countries will outnumber the ones we send out to them.  Which is fascinating, isn’t it?  We need to begin understanding ourselves not as the center of Christianity in the world, but part of a larger network of the universal church, where we have as much to gain and learn from other Christians as they do from us. 

And I tell you, I actually welcome this change.  There was a time when the church could simply open their doors on Sunday mornings and people poured in.  There was a time when churches and pastors were granted power and authority in the wider community simply because they were churches and pastors.  There was a time when church finances were strong because people gave out of a sense of obligation and duty.

I welcome that things are different now – because it forces us to actually think about who we are and what we do as the church of Jesus Christ.  We cannot just sit on our laurels and expect church to happen.  We have to work to make it happen – with God’s help, of course.  We have to proclaim and live out the message of the gospel, because that is what people are really needing from the church these days, a place from which they can always find their way home.  And we, like God, have to be “on the move” – living, energetic, vibrant, rushing winds and tongues of fire.  We have to go where the people are. 

If this sounds like a sermon you’ve heard  before, it’s because when I first came to be with you, we talked a lot about this.  We talked about the need for Trinity to grow and change, because change was already happening.  And it is still true – the church is facing a new landscape these days, because God is on the move.  Which means you and I cannot continue doing things the way we once did.   But more importantly, we cannot keep expecting and assuming things as we once did.  Everything must change. And that is challenging, and unsettling, and daunting, and very, very exciting.

We are not diminishing, my friends.  We’re changing.  And for that, in the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 55.
[2] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: University Press, 2002), 2ff.  Kenneth L. Woodward, “The Changing Face of the Church” in Newsweek (April 16, 2001), 46-52.  Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity?, 15.