- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN COLUMN:

What’s wrong with America’s churches? I’ve been reading former Dallas Morning News reporter Christine Wicker’s book, “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church,” about how evangelicals are streaming out of America’s churches.

“Evangelicals are not converting and cannot convert non-Christian adult Americans, especially native-born white people, in significant numbers,” she wrote.

Evangelicals? you ask. Isn’t that the ultimate swing-vote group that numbers one-quarter of the American electorate? Isn’t that the group in the catbird seat in terms of calling the shots on public policy?

But not all is well in the evangelical house. There are a few canary-in-a-coal-mine figures, such as a continual annual decline in baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — the nation’s largest Protestant group.

The SBC numbers its membership at 16 million, but 6.1 million actually attend the major worship services each week, according to the SBC’s 2007 annual report. Among its young people, baptisms fell 40 percent between 1980 and 2005.

Then there was a survey of 15,000 people taken a year ago by Willow Creek Community Church, a huge congregation outside of Chicago.

The results were disturbing: the older the Christian, the more dissatisfied he or she was with the church. Researchers identified two segments of unhappy Christians — the spiritually “stalled” and the “dissatisfied.” The latter were mature Christians who felt church was keeping them from growing. Together, they made up 25 percent of those polled. That’s a big market share of fed-up consumers.

I began noticing a widespread restlessness several years ago. I was running into friends who used to be the most stalwart members of their college and young adult Bible studies but now are burned out on church. So they quietly stopped going.

We used to dismiss such folks as backsliders, but their numbers have grown so fast, it’s become the big unchurched trend.

I was intrigued enough to write a book on the phenomenon, “Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It,” which came out this week. I found overwhelming that something is very wrong with the American church politic. New book titles such as “So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore” and “The American Church in Crisis” are pouring off the shelves. You never heard sentiments like that back in the revival-minded 1970s.

What’s wrong? I identified several areas: Sermons geared toward babes in the faith instead of mature adults, pastors who don’t get it when it comes to realizing the lives the average person leads, churches that barely tolerate singles (a huge, untapped demographic), churches that have quenched anything having to do with the charismatic movement (which led to significant church growth several decades ago), the never-ending stories of abuse of the Big Three Temptations - money, sex and power.

I interviewed famous evangelicals — author John Eldredge, pollster George Barna, Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead and many others who left church years ago and aren’t coming back. Each told me that church services were harmful, not helpful, to them spiritually.

Folks still in church tell me they, too, are fed up and are barely hanging on. There’s a lot of anger and frustration out there and it’s getting worse, not better.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected]

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