The Christian Church is dwindling. Here’s why I’m still hopeful.

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Image taken from Vimeo

Image taken from Vimeo

Recently, my friend Steven Siwek interviewed me for his “Future of the Church” web series. His first question was “When you hear that phrase–‘future of the church’–what comes to your mind?”

My response, in part, was:

I think the word that comes to mind is “hope.” You know, there are a lot of people today who are really discouraged about the future of the Church. They feel like the Church is dwindling. And in some ways it is. When you look at the statistics, you see it all over the place…

[But] I think along with that we’ve seen the death of cultural Christianity. You look years ago, and if you wanted to hold public office–if you wanted to be a part of the school board or run for superintendent or mayor or for dog catcher–you had to be a member of a certain church. That was how you identified yourself as upstanding….I think we couldn’t get our hands around what being a Christian was. I think non-believers couldn’t really understand what a Christian looked like because there were so many people who claimed that title who maybe didn’t live a lifestyle that was consonant with what it meant to follow Jesus Christ.

What I think now we’re having with these shifts is a falling away of that. You might even say–even though it is a strong word–a purification of the church. So that people who claim the name of Christ, many of them or more of them might actually follow Jesus Christ. And it allows us to in some ways to be a minority but to be prophetic, to be pure, to be the people of God who we were called to be. To represent Christ in a way that is going to look a little more radical, it’s going to look a little more countercultural. But I think it will, in the long run, represent Christ better on the whole to a secular culture.

For my full answer, check out the full interview in the video above. In it, I also answer questions about what amazes me most about Christ,  where I see the sexuality debates heading, how to navigate moral gray areas, and much more.

  • Tim

    Your excerpt above reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ take on making college chapel optional. The demise of cultural claims to Christianity will mean that the people who identify as Christians are more likely to actually belong to Jesus.

  • Karla

    The point in the interview about people being spiritual not religious was right
    on! Bad mouthing religion backfired and many people are spiritual but not
    Biblical. Bible says if you say you love Jesus then don’t follow Him/the Bible
    and the religion no Truth is in you! Jesus said you are one of Mine only if
    you follow Me and many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven!
    It doesn’t mater how spiritual people are if they aren’t Biblical they are lost!
    We need to get back to what the Word of God/Bible says and stop being spiritual and start being Biblical. The people that fall away were not true
    followers of Jesus and the Bible warns that many will fall away and not
    stick to sound doctrine and we see it everywhere. Many people today
    only want to go to heaven that’s it and the reason why we see so many
    don’t change then fall way because they were never followers of Christ.
    They just wanted to go to heaven,find a good spouse,socialize,drink some
    coffee and have fun. The Bible says there are none good…not even one
    so the “good person” lie also has backfired. One of the reasons people
    don’t Repent/change is because they think they are a “good person” so
    they don’t run to the Cross/Jesus to get forgiven or see themselves as a
    wretched sinner they just want to go to heaven that’s it. Bible warns people
    will want to have their ears tickled and that the sound teaching/doctrine will
    not be liked but we all have to stick to what the Bible/Truth says and that
    Truth is we are all wretched sinners that need to Repent! The Bible says
    that we must Repent or perish! Perish where? In Hell. Bible says that many
    will say Lord did I not prophesy in Your name and in Your name did I not
    do many wonderful works and the Lord will tell them plainly depart from
    Me you are a worker of iniquity I never knew you! We all must Repent/follow!

  • Church dwindling? Wow, what a myopic viewpoint.

    Take a look around the world people. You are living during what may well turn out to be the greatest advance of the Kingdom there will be until Jesus arrives

  • Philip

    Agreed. We are only concerned with our borders, but looking around the world Christianity is expanding and healthy. Another example of American exclusivism run afoul. Still, there is no reason to lament the point of the article. A smaller church full of authentic disciples is better than a larger church full of mediocrity and compromise. Let the refining continue.

  • Fran

    We are evidently living in the “last days” of a wicked era on earth according to the signs Jesus provided while he was on earth, which are being fulfilled worldwide now (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21).

    As prophecied at Matthew 24:14, the good news of God’s kingdom or heavenly government as the ONLY hope for mankind is being preached through the inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations before the end comes.

    That government will soon put an end to all the wicked ones on earth (Psalm 37:10,11), put an end to all corrupt governments and systems of man (Daniel 2:44) and put an end to all sickness, disease, old age and death (Revelation 21:1-4).

    That government will also bring back to life or resurrect on earth many of those who are sleeping in death (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10), to be reunited with family and friends (Acts 24:15; John 5:28,29).

    There are a plethora of Christians who are following the example of Jesus in preaching about that kingdom! (Matthew 4:17)!! 😀

  • Shawnie5


  • Sister Geraldine Marie, R.N

    So many Christians are dying for the Faith in many parts of the world at this very moment. The Faith isn’t dead for them. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” Remember?

    These people are willing to die for Jesus, just as many have in previous centuries.

    Let’s meditate on our own convictions about Faith! Are we willing to die for it?


  • @Sister Geraldine Marie,

    “These people are willing to die for Jesus”

    Death cult.
    And the band played on.
    So sad.

  • Fran


    And the meek shall inherit the earth!!!!! 😀 😀 😀 (Matthew 5:5)

  • Doc Anthony

    Well, let’s do a thought experiment Max. Let’s say that tomorrow, the evil agents of ISIS kidnap the two of us.

    (They’ve been monitoring our respective RNS posts, and they’ve decided to kidnap and behead you and me for payback.)

    So here we are, winding up on the same video with that ISIS terrorist with the big mouth and the sharp knife. I’m on one side of him, you’re on the other side of him, all tied up and on our knees.

    He says, “Both of you will publicly deny, renounce and repudiate your beliefs on this video right now, or I will cut your heads off just like the other guys!!”

    What would you tell him, Max? Hmm?

    I know what I would tell that guy, and the world, for my last words. I would say out loud (NO begging, NO wimping!!!) that the Lord Jesus Christ has done salvation, miracles and healings for me and my family, and if need be, I will gladly now die in the dirt for Jesus, and go on to heaven.

    No joke. I’ve thought about it already. I’d say it out loud, lookin’ straight at the video camera.

    So now the big Terrorist says, “The stupid Christian is beheaded. What about you, atheist? Will you publicly renounce and repudiate YOUR chosen belief of atheism on this video?”

    So what will you tell him, Max? What would you tell the world on that video? And what happens to you after YOU get beheaded?

  • Larry

    I would say:

    Your beliefs are silly garbage.

    You can only convince people at gunpoint

    You are going to kill me anyway.

    Get on with it!

  • Frank

    The areas where people take the bible seriously Christianity is growing at break neck speed; Asia, Africa, South America. Where people try and change and rewrite the bible? Dying, like the liberal American church.

  • Chris Byrum

    Actually Larry, I think you side stepped his point a bit. To make his scenario a little more to the point, imagine you are an Iraqi atheist and ISIS takes over your village. If you see that they will indeed let your fellow villagers who repudiate their beliefs live would you then repudiate your own atheist beliefs?

    If you or Max would say “no” then you would be a martyr for your beliefs. That wouldn’t make atheism a death cult (as Max put it). In the same way, the fact that Christians willing to die for their faith doesn’t make Christianity a death cult. Ridiculing religious people out for refusing to deny their beliefs in the face of death is mindlessly dogmatic, not rational. You are then yourself taking the position that you are supposedly criticizing.

  • Larry

    You guys simply don’t understand what atheism is. Most of the times it is deliberately conflated with nihlism, selfishness and immorality by those who are touting their religious belief.

    Just because one has no religious beliefs, it doesn’t mean one has no beliefs at all. Nor does it mean one has no concern for the lives of others. Some things are worth defending with one’s life. Especially if it affects the lives of others in a meaningful way. You don’t have to expect heavenly reward to make a stand of principle. In fact its best that one does not since it tends to cheapen the motivation of such things.

    Dying for religion, because it asks one to do so, is meaningless. It serves no purpose to fellow people. Its not like dying to save others or in defense of freedom. That is the difference between a “death cult” and noble act of self-sacrifice.

    If my execution serves as an example of what happens when religious extremists run amok, then it serves a noble cause. It helps people understand the depravity of the enemy involved. It shows what it is like not to live free. That is a lot more than dying because Jesus wants you to be stubborn.

  • Larry

    In areas where education levels are generally low, people live in poverty, and authoritative government is the norm.

  • Frank

    That’s doesn’t hold up, you are an atheist and your education level is very low.

    You will never, ever stop the power of God. But continue to waste your time.mtock rock.

  • Larry

    If you are an agent of God, God needs to find better helpers.

    You can’t stop Miley Cyrus

    You Can’t Stop the Music!

    You Can’t Stop Rock & Roll

  • Larry

    And yet Christians here are some of the most self-important, venal obnoxious people out there.

    Whereas some Christians all over the world are suffering for taking principled stands for religious freedom, their American counterparts whine like little babies when people tell them they can’t act obnoxiously or maliciously towards other people or beliefs.

    Sorry Sister Gerry, attacking civil liberties of gays, minority faiths & atheists and forcing others to accept your view of family planning are not acts of conscience/principles. You guys are not a bunch of Dietrich Bonhoeffers. American Christians have a lot to learn about what principles really mean.

  • Jonathan J. Turner

    Eighty-two percent of the way through your video “conversation” we discover that, the previous 30 minutes of facile exposition notwithstanding, the church’s view on sexuality is the number one issue facing the church through the next two decades, as evidenced by the many recent schisms in the mainline churches.

    Perhaps you should have started with this question, so we could see exactly how you would reconcile your other takeaways (hope etc.) with such schismatic ideas so strongly anathema to not only foundational Christian thinking and experience, but naturalistic and evolutionary thinking as well.

  • Chris Byrum

    I didn’t conflate atheism with immorality, nihilism, or selfishness. I think my question was essentially would you live life as a Muslim, attend worship, profess the faith publicly, etc, if it meant saving your life?

    Perhaps you would or would not. I’d imagine that there are atheists out there who would rather die than live that falsehood, and if you would die rather than renounce deeply held convictions or beliefs, well then that is the very definition of being a martyr. The distinction you are drawing is based on your own perceptions of the internal motivations of Christian martyrs rather than any legitimate argument.

    I’m honestly not interested in convincing you that Christian martyrdom is a noble self-sacrifice. I imagine that would be beyond my capabilities. I was merely pointing out that both you and Max are characterizing Christianity as a “death cult” based on prejudice not rational thought.

  • Karla

    This interview made/had some really good points and the church needs to
    talk about all of the sins not just focus on the one or two that seem to get
    talked about. Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk and the Bible also says
    in 1 Corinthians 6:10 that all drunkards go to hell. The wine that Jesus made
    was from the fruit of the vine/new wine/diluted and the Bible also says don’t
    get drunk on strong wine so people who get drunk with wine are also wrong!
    All subjects need to be talked about and all the sins need confronted not just
    gay marriage and/or abortion. Being mean/sharp tongues,gossip,gambling,
    getting drunk,coveting/jealousy,liars,thieves,pride,greed,havin premarital sex
    are all sin/wrong yet harldy ever get confronted. Many say something mean
    and then laugh after like that makes it okay or say “I was just joking” to try to
    cover it up. People sleep around/have premarital sex and then get married
    thinking they coverd it up but never Repent/agree that premarital sex and
    sleeping around are wrong! People today seem to forget that Jesus said
    many will say to Me Lord.Lord and not enter heaven! We all must Repent!

  • Larry

    My point is not dying because of beliefs as much as dying for a purpose which serves some purpose FOR OTHERS.

    The distinction I made was exactly the kind Doc Anthony was trying to make. Its not the internal motivations which differ, but the intended effect. Doc fell on the side of doing so for a statement of Christian martyrdom. It is rather self-serving (or serves only those of the religion). I am seeking to set my purpose a little wider, much less exclusively.

    More importantly, nobody is EXPECTING me to lay down my life for such a reason. That is the key difference here.

  • Frank

    Waiting your time…. So sad.

  • @Doc,

    “What about you, atheist? Will you publicly renounce and repudiate YOUR chosen belief of atheism..?”

    To save my head? ! Of COURSE I would lie completely !

    If lying is your best argument for a god don’t tell me it is ‘pious’ or ‘righteous’ to do so. LOL! .

  • @Doc,

    “Will you publicly renounce and repudiate YOUR chosen belief?”

    You said, “CHOSEN BELIEF.”
    We do not choose our beliefs. I cannot ‘choose’ to not believe in gravity. I cannot choose to not believe I will be hungry if I do not eat or thirsty if I do not drink.

    You may be convinced that fooling oneself to believe in something is a good thing – event though it is clearly unbelievable – but that is not the same thing as believing in it.

  • Chris Byrum

    The problem is that you are still trying to turn this into a discussion of the relative nobility of the actions those who are martyred. To support your point of view you are judging the motivations, intended purposes, whatever, of people who are actually dying and comparing it against the hypothetically more noble and less exclusive purposes you expect that you would have in such a situation.

    I would emphasize that your judgement is based on information that you cannot possibly know, which is the internal thought processes of these individuals as they are making these choices. Your judgement is therefore based on your preconceived notions of what you think they *must* be thinking (i.e., that death is expected of them), and these notions are based on your personal interpretation of their religious beliefs. This is the exact dictionary definition of prejudice.

    Look, as I said before, I’m not trying to convince you that a Christian worldview is valid, nor am I commenting in any way on atheism. I’m simply calling you out on defending what was essentially a prejudiced, intentionally inflammatory troll comment calling Christianity a death cult because people are martyred for refusing to renounce their beliefs and live a lie. I’m a little surprised that you can’t just admit that you’re wrong on this one.

  • Diogenes

    Logical inconsistency…the laws of physics; i.e. gravity and sensory deprivation, have nothing to do with the operation of the deductive processes of the mind relative to metaphysical potentialities. You have engaged in a category error.

  • Earl

    Hi Jonathan,

    I am far afield from my usual reading here, but I came across your blog as a result of searching for commentary regarding Mark Driscoll. These issues you touch upon are interesting to me, as I am part of this “purification” you speak of, having left the Christian faith twenty years ago. Normally I wouldn’t comment in a forum so likely to be unreceptive and hostile, but thought I’d add an alternate voice for you.

    Firstly, background – I am from the South, culturally and religiously. My grandparents were sharecroppers, and for the most part even those in the family who have done well in later generations (in terms of education and economic status) have remained true to their conservative roots. I give this information only because I know too well how “Christians” like to dismiss the perspective of “liberals”, and the skewed view they tend to entertain of what a “liberal” looks like. My cultural bona fides are not of the “brie-eating Volvo driver” stripe. I even (shock) own firearms.

    So, on to the meat of the matter – I and many of those like myself left the church not because it was “too liberal” (as I see many comments claim), but because it has grown increasingly retrograde, reactionary, and bitterly conservative. The comments defending Driscoll, and many of those above typify the kinds of attitudes and people which helped drive me from the church.

    It’s not simply because of the church’s attitudes towards sexuality. I was one of those who took the Gospel picture of Jesus – compassionate, caring, kind, graceful – seriously. This would be the “gay” Jesus which Mark Driscoll hates so much, the Jesus interested in social justice, who refused to engage in hatred and judgement. So when the American church began more and more to seem like a shadow arm of the political right-wing, mirroring all the hateful, judgemental, smugly self-righteous, retrograde and reactionary attitudes, I left.

    There were many theological and moral critiques which were difficult enough to square with much that was presented in the Bible, but when the ideas of social justice, good stewardship of the environment, etc were so roundly rejected by the mainstream of Christianity, the combination was enough to drive me towards the final step of apostasy.

    That more Christians don’t find this troubling is even greater reason for membership dwindling. And touting the growth in parts of the world where poverty and ignorance reign is appalling – do we want that kind of Christianity here, where LGBT people (among many others) are subject to literal death sentences because they don’t hew to some particular reading of Scripture? From what I can see, those who would answer “yes” are legion within the church. These are moral monsters whose attitudes are contradicted by the words and actions attributed to the founder of their own religion.

    The complete lack of grace, of compassion, of humility; the disengagement from pressing issues of the day, including environmental devastation and economic injustice; the doubling-down on hateful rhetoric and the politicization of the faith – these are why so many of us have left the church and haven’t looked back.