I was a pastor in a small rural community many years ago, and one of the big events was the annual school board election.
The community was small enough that everyone knew everyone else, including all their weaknesses and strengths.
Consequently, no one ever campaigned for election to the school board. In fact, nobody really even talked about it. Everyone just voted without the influence of others.
However, one year I received a flier in the mail from one of the men who was running for office. He listed a bunch of qualifications, and the final one on his list was that he was a member of First Baptist Church.
I had been pastor of this church for more than a half-dozen years and he had never entered our building, so I confronted him. I asked why he considered himself a member and why he listed it on his campaign flier.
Back in those days (it was the 20th century, after all), being a member of First Baptist Church carried some weight. Church membership today doesn’t have the clout it used to possess.
In fact, the church today might carry less clout than we think. A Pew Research Center survey reported recently that the number of young people leaving the church is much worse than we previously thought.
As a lifelong church participant and an eyewitness of what has happened in churches for several decades, let me offer six observations in light of this report:
1. Young people are not that interested in politics.
For much of the church, politics is the focus of the day. Yet, younger generations are not going to join your political crusade.
2. It is disheartening that some are admitting there are fewer who identify themselves as Christians, but then act as if it is fine by saying, “It’s not happening in my church.”
When you identify yourself as the only church doing it right, it is not surprising that you alienate everyone else.
For example, many are celebrating that only the mainline denominations are declining, but not evangelicals. This kind of arrogance that your brand of faith is better than theirs is a cause for Christianity losing its appeal.
3. The church should never expect to be in a position of power in the world.
Such an attitude is contrary to our founder’s teaching. In fact, the church is probably stronger when it serves rather than rules.
4. Other than politicians and preachers, few people have much interest in large numbers of followers.
5. The fact that fewer people readily identify with being Christian probably has something to do with what the term has come to mean. If you are not sure what that means, ask around.
6. I learned a long time ago that it is much easier to attract a crowd than it is to build a church.
If you really need to have a large crowd in order to validate what you are doing, there are numerous ways to be quickly surrounded by interested people.
However, unless you have something substantive to offer, the crowds will disperse just as quickly.
My friend was not elected to the school board. Remember, I said that everyone in town already knew everything about everyone else.
However, he and I continued our conversation, and in time he became a regular participant with our congregation.
When I eventually left the church and community, he stopped by my house as we were loading the truck, and we shared a tearful goodbye.
Any news that fewer people report a positive experience with the church is bad news for all Christians.
However, instead of debating who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong, perhaps we can all learn from the situation and strive to make Christ more appealing by making his followers more appealing.
Terry Austin is one of the pastors at Bread Fellowship Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He is also the principal partner of Austin Brothers Publishing. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Intermission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @wterrya.