April 26, 2016

What Happens to All the Churches?

Lake Eustis Christian Church
Lake Eustis Christian Church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Drive through any small town in the U.S., and you will see Christian churches everywhere. This is particularly true here in the South. It seems like there are so many of them that there couldn't possibly be enough people to fill them each week. I realize that my perception of the number of churches is skewed from living in a region that seems to have more of them per capita than any other. Still, I think we can agree that there are quite a few churches.

From a basic supply and demand perspective, the massively large number of churches suggests that there has been a high demand for the services they provide. When I drive by the local churches, I notice that their parking lots are crowded every Sunday. It is easy to leave with the sense that almost everyone around here attends services at one of them even though I know that this is not the case.

Assuming that the widely reported trend of declining religious affiliation continues, what will happen to these churches as the number of potential congregants drops? Obviously, some will close. In some communities, this has already been happening. When a community can no longer support the number of churches it has because there is not enough demand for what they do, we end up with fewer churches.

It seems to me that the primary challenge facing Christian churches today, again assuming that the tends we have seen continue, is one of demonstrating their relevance in our modern age. While they will likely retain their grasp on the older generations, they have clearly lost ground with the youth. If younger generations are less interested in religion, church is going to be a tougher and tougher sell. I wonder if we will see churches start to play down the supernatural stuff and emphasize more secular things that might appeal to the young families they must attract to survive (e.g., sense of community, social activities).

I have no idea if such an approach would be effective, but there is at least one anecdotal piece of evidence that suggests it might not be. If I remember correctly, the declining church attendance is most evident in mainline Protestant denominations and least evident in evangelical fundamentalist denominations. If that is accurate, it would seem to pose a problem since the mainline denominations are likely already a bit more flexible around the supernatural stuff than the fundamentalist ones. Of course, it is entirely possible that the fundamentalists are just doing a better job with the more secular aspects. The larger fundamentalist churches certainly seem to offer more of it than do many of the mainline churches.

In any case, I think it would be fantastic if religiosity continues to decline to the point where many Christian churches are cleared of their supernatural elements and re-purposed as secular community centers. I see no reason why the positive secular aspects of churches cannot be retained without the superstitious nonsense.
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