The Dying Church?

I have often found myself wondering why the Church in the West is dying.  The easy answer, and the one that probably makes preachers feel better about their role, is that younger people today are less interested in God and more interested in themselves.  They are hedonists who just want to have a good time.

Well, that may be partially true.  There does seem to be less of an interest in God, at least the God of the bible.  And it is true that we in the West (and I include myself in this) spend an awful lot of money on entertainment and self-indulgence- around $750 billion a year in the U.S. alone.  But that doesn’t explain it away.

A lot of young people in the U.S. are very interested in doing good for others.  Look at the massive success of donation-based businesses, such as gofundme, and non-profit micro-loan entities, such as Kiva, just to name a few.  Billions of dollars are given to these causes, mostly by young people, and for no other purpose than to help people they do not even know. A staggering fact is that 75% of non-church attending people in the U.S. do, in fact, give charitably. What is even more staggering is that this is a higher percentage than those who attend worship at a local church.  Only 68% of people who attend church give to their church.

You may be thinking, “Well, the people who give to churches give a larger amount than what non-church attenders give to charity.”  That is true, overall.  73% of all giving to charity in the U.S. is either to the local church or to religious charities; for many churchgoers who are giving 10% (or more) of their money to the church, this certainly applies.  Perhaps not surprisingly, though, 80% of giving churchgoers give only about 2% of their income.  What that boils down to is that religious giving is the lion’s share of what is given in the U.S., but relatively few people do most of this giving.

No, it is not fair to say that the church is dying because young people are selfish and don’t want to give their money.  They are giving their money at about the same pace as the average churchgoer- often more.  On the contrary, I think one of the main reasons the church in the West is dying is because younger people have taken a good hard look at the church, and they don’t like what they see.  Yes, in some cases that means they don’t like Christianity (at least how they envision it), but more often I think they see something that we have overlooked.

Let’s go back to the overall amount of charitable giving.  41% of that is given to the local church.  That is huge.  But what does the local church do with it?  In many churches, as much as 90% of this giving is spent on themselves, either as staff salary or operational expenses.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I understand that there are expenses to be paid.  Ministers, overall, do not make a ton of money, but they put in long hours and should be reasonably compensated for their work.  And of course it is rather better in the church building if the heat works and the lights turn on.  However, imagine if you gave $100 to a charity, and they told you that only 50% of that would be for staff salary, and only another 35% would be for other operational costs, leaving all of $15 to actually help needy people!

Honestly, I think that younger generations today are sickened by millionaire preachers and $50 million “worship” buildings, and frankly, they are right to be.  I cannot, for the life of me, understand how some preachers can call themselves servants of God and followers of Jesus Christ while flying around in private jets, riding in $100,000 cars, and having bank accounts in the millions- all from “donations”.

Unfortunately, even the most genuine church leaders feel they are in a catch 22. One of the reasons that many churches (I refer to genuine churches here, not the ones that exist to make preachers rich) feel caught is because we perceive a need to please people.  We feel the need to “put on a good show”, and quite frankly, in a society that spends almost twice as much on entertainment as it does on philanthropy, this may not be far off the mark.  Most people don’t want to go to a church that does not “perform well” on Sunday Morning and the ceiling leaks. And, again very sadly, we feel in competition with the church down the road to provide bigger and better services to the people attending.

I think there is far more opportunity in reaching the younger generation by demonstrating that the church is about helping people in need instead of spending all the money on making a nicer place for the people giving the money.  What if we made it clear that coming to church wasn’t about pleasing you, but about helping others?  I mean really helping- helping by feeding starving people and putting clothes on their backs and roofs over their heads, while at the same time teaching them to read AND giving them the Holy Gospel.

I think the single most attractive thing to a young person regarding getting them involved in a church is to share with them that the church is genuinely outward-focused and to show them that every penny spent is genuinely and legitimately spent in the attempt to fulfill that outward focus.  While the primary goal of the church should always be to worship God and bring the gospel to the world, it is incumbent upon us to show that we are doing that through caring for and loving people we do not even know.  I firmly believe that if people in their 20s and 30s who are concerned about the world see that a church is using a lot of its resources for exactly this purpose (caring for the world), then they would be much more likely to attend than if they saw a fantastic light and sound show and a razzle dazzle preacher.

I am absolutely thrilled to attend a church that apportions almost the same amount of money to missions around the world as it does to staff salary.  The fact is that we give far more to help people who have empty stomachs than we spend on “keeping the lights on” in our building.  This little church of just under 100 people gives around $40,000 every year to charitable missions, most of which goes to providing food, shelter, safety, and education to those who would otherwise not have those things. It is an honor and privilege to do so, and I think we should not be ashamed to tout that.  In fact, I think it would be good to do so.