During the last leg of my summer vacation this year, I went home to Athens, Georgia, to visit my mother and attend part of the retirement celebration for the Rev. Dr. Winfred M. Hope, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church West, the church that played a significant role in my upbringing. It was so hard to believe how fast the decades flew by since Hope arrived in Athens in 1979 with his wife and two young daughters. I remember this time as a glorious era growing up in church. Folding chairs had to be put in the aisles, as the sanctuary was packed to capacity. People of all ages eagerly attended Bible study, midweek worship and Sunday school. As a child, I was a Sunday school star, and I fondly remember Hope complimenting me on my knowledge of the Scriptures. I was especially intrigued with the Old Testament stories of faith champions like Abraham, Daniel and Deborah. Hope, now 74, thoroughly enjoyed the special memories of his tenure. But as he was teaching a Sunday school lesson on Solomon, he expressed concern about a disturbing trend that will be a challenge for Ebenezer in the future: declining attendance in Bible study activities and church service.
I have been giving quite a bit of thought to declining church attendance — not just in my hometown church, Ebenezer, but nationwide — since a Gallup poll published in April found church membership at a record low of 50% in 2018. According to the survey data, 68% of U.S. adults were attending church in the 1970s through the '90s. The peak church membership of 70% or higher occurred from 1937 to 1976. The present decline can be traced to generational differences in the past 20 years. More than 50% of traditionalists (those born in 1945 or before), baby boomers and Gen Xers (my generation) still have their names on church rolls. Only 42% of millennials, who were polled from 2016 to 2018, have a church affiliation.
One of the major reasons for the overall decreasing numbers of parishioners in pews on Sunday mornings is what the Gallup findings described as "Americans' eroding confidence in the institution of organized religion." As a Christian, I have always had a strong dislike for the term "organized religion" because attentive study of the ministry of Jesus Christ shows that His church, known as the "ekklesia" in the Greek translation, is meant to be a body of "called out" ones. The church is supposed to be a vibrant assembly of believers who victoriously activate their faith in love, compassion and humility. Although we gather in a physical building for worship and fellowship, the Bible teaches that the church is spiritually housed within us (1 Corinthians 3:16).
In order for churches to begin to draw people back, especially young adults, more focus has to be on teaching Scriptures' applications to everyday life. For example, Jesus taught in Matthew 6:25-34 not to worry about our physical needs but to trust God for their provision. How do we trust God? Philippians 4:6-7 instructs us to seek God through "prayer and supplication with thanksgiving" so that God's peace and understanding will keep our hearts and minds. If we do not have peace, we will worry or be anxious about everything — our finances, our jobs, our families. Not worrying — in addition to other Scriptures that teach us how to build our faith — must be put into practice or our faith will wane.
The implications of the Gallup data show the church is in need of a great spiritual revival. The focus, however, must not be on just building membership but also on transforming lives so that people will remain. Hearing an excellent Sunday morning sermon is great, but in the critical times we are presently living in, it's not enough just to hear. People need to see manifestation of the promises of God actively working in their daily walk.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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