By / Apr 7

America is no longer a Christian nation if one goes by the official membership rolls of churches. According to a recent study by Gallup, church membership dropped below 50% for the first time in their 80 years of studying religion. This follows a decades long trend of increasing disaffiliation, rejection, and apathy of faith by Americans. The data from Gallup points to some trends that all pastors and leaders in ministry should be aware of, but it also holds some important points about how to stem the growing number of people walking away from Christianity specifically, and faith generally. 

Problem of decline

The decline noted by Gallup is not a new phenomenon. As Gallup’s polling shows, church membership held steady at roughly 70% for most of the 20th century. However, in the mid-to-late ’90s, there was a sudden uptick in the number of people moving away from religious identity. These “nones” represent the fastest growing segment of the American religious landscape. As Ryan Burge has written in his study of this group, it includes those who are atheists and agnostics as well as those who are “nothing in particular.” It is this third group, who eschew religious labels even as they retain a limited number of religious beliefs, that account for the decrease in religious behavior. For an interview with Burge, view this ERLC article. 

However, the rejection of affiliation is not just from those who dismiss the tenets of the faith. Even among believers, formal membership has declined. What can account for this? While there has always been a fluidity to church membership in America’s religious marketplace where people could leave one church and go to another without much trouble, a trend that has accelerated with the rise of larger parachurch organizations and the ability to “go” to church online. But based on the rapid increase, it seems that there are other reasons for this decline rooted primarily in our loss of trust in institutions across society of which religion is just one victim. 

Crisis of institutions

The trend toward declining membership began in the late ‘90s and has accelerated over the past two decades. While monocausal explanations are rarely sufficient to capture the complexity of any situation, it is not a understatement to say that the past two decades have revealed deep rot within our institutions and a growing distrust by the public that institutions serve the public good. From the scandals of sexual abuse within Catholicism and Protestantism to the #MeToo revelations in the halls of Hollywood, not to mention abuses by celebrities and leaders (both religious and secular), the last decade especially has evidenced the deep problems that exist. 

And the effect of this crisis is that younger generations are less likely to see a reason to join any traditional institution because of a creeping cynicism about the motives and purpose of the institutions. Rather than being places of formation, the institutions are viewed as means for those in power to protect themselves and ensure their ongoing prosperity. And the response increasingly is “Why bother?” Why bother with a church that prioritizes politics over fidelity to the gospel, an abusive leader over protecting the vulnerable, or that is satisfied with “only preaching the gospel” without ever asking what the gospel requires of us when we go into a world filled with injustice? A church that is no more sanctified than the local Kiwanis Club is not worth the effort it takes to invest your life, and at least the Kiwanis don’t require you to give up a Sunday morning. As Russell Moore has said,

“The culture often does not reject us because they don’t believe the church’s doctrinal and moral teachings, but because they have evidence that the church doesn’t believe its own doctrinal and moral teachings. They suspect that Jesus is just a means to an end—to some political agenda, to a market for selling merchandise, or for the predatory appetites of some maniacal narcissist.”

Places of hope and renewal

But it is not all bad news. In fact, the problem reveals the solution, even if it is a generations long project. First, though church membership is declining, religious belief still remains strong. Though the nones are growing, and growing rapidly, over 70% of Americans still identify with some form of organized religion, even if they are unwilling to formally join that religion. As discussed above, it is the institution that needs to be reformed as well as the individual; just because people aren’t on the roll at their church doesn’t mean that they aren’t finding their identity somewhere else. So the task of Christian leaders and congregations is to help situate their members’ identity primarily in the gospel, and especially in the context of a local church that is part of a global body. Institutions are strongest when they are places of character and identity formation.

Someone who goes through the military comes out a certain type of person. He or she has been molded and shaped by the norms of the institution into a person who values, loves, lives, and acts in accordance with institutional norms and expectations, often to such a degree that it is apparent in all areas of their life. 

The church should be no different. The decline in church membership is not the real problem, only the evidence of the deeper problem that people are not being formed into the type of people that prioritize the local body. In order to change this, a perspective is required that looks not just at the immediate circumstances, but generations down the line and into eternity. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, it is in the everyday choices that we are being conformed into either a heavenly or hellish creature. It is an ongoing process of formation and molding—or sanctification, to use the terminology of the New Testament—that occurs over a long period of time. 

More importantly, the church should hold out the beauty and power of the community that is the church to the world. The early church had its share of struggles and growing pains, with division between rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, and controversies over who had baptized them, all of which were rebuked. They were also called to unity and community because of their shared identity in Christ. It has become increasingly obvious over the past year that we are not meant to live life alone. Isolation is not good for our souls. And the community the church offers in its rituals and membership is a fellowship that goes deeper than just a Kiwanis meeting. 

The church is a place of vulnerability as we reveal our pains and hurts. It is a place of love as we are served by and serve those around us. It is a place of welcome as we are brought in without regard for our past and are seated at the table where the cup and bread are passed from one broken individual to another. And it is a place where the markers of identity that matter outside the church—race, gender, income, marital status—are not ignored, but they are subsumed in the deeper identity shared by all who are united to Christ. People are looking for community. May they see the church as a place where they are pursued and welcomed into deep, lasting relationship.

By / Mar 12

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. At that time, the novel coronavirus responsible for causing COVID-19 had spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan to every continent except Antarctica, infecting more than 121,000 people and causing 4,300 deaths. One year later, the virus has infected 118,908,424 people around the globe, killing 2,636,186—including 542,477 Americans.

Few of us had ever faced a crisis quite like this before, and were unsure how to address the myriad concerns that came with the pandemic. How do we decide whether to close our church building? How do we serve our neighbors who are serving from loneliness during a quarantine? How do we know we can trust vaccines that were created so rapidly?

Over the past year the ERLC has produced nearly two hundred resources to help families and churches answer questions like these. We’ve produced articles to help you stay informed about vaccines, identify potential threats to religious liberty, and learn creative ways to serve our neighbors. Here are some of the highlights from our coverage during the year of COVID-19.

Resources on serving our neighbors

“Neighboring is hard, especially in a pandemic,” said Stephen Stallard. “As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). Yet, the challenges of a pandemic have many of us shrinking back from our neighbors.” Despite the fear, loneliness, and frustration that resulted from lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing, Christians continued to find a way to show love for our neighbors. 

Resources on church, state, and religious liberty 

“Ever since it first became apparent that efforts at ‘social distancing’ were likely to affect the ability of churches to gather,” wrote Josh Wester, “one of the first questions on the minds of many pastors and ministry leaders were concerns about religious liberty.” Finding the answer to such questions was not always easy. But ERLC produced nearly a dozen resources that helped pastors and churches think about how to comply with government mandates without sacrificing their freedom.

Resources for the local church

“I firmly believe that God places us in a community not just to cultivate people in the pews or seats of the worship center, but to be “salt and light” in that community,” says Rolland Slade, the senior pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon, California, and the first black chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee. Since the pandemic began, local churches have been at the forefront of helping our communities. But our congregations have also struggled to adapt to the challenges that come from “doing church online.” ERLC created several resources to help church leaders think creatively about the problems they face during a time of pandemic.

Resources on vaccines

At this time last year, the National Institute of Health was announcing that the first participants in a clinical trial were testing a new form of vaccine using mRNA. A year later, almost 10% of the American population has been vaccinated. The rapid distribution of vaccines has been aided, in part, by churches across the country serving as vaccine sites. “Churches have often been a cornerstone in the fight against inequities and a trusted source of information and guidance during troubled times,” writes Deborah Barfield Berry of USA Today. “During the pandemic, vaccinations have become the latest public service in a health and economic crisis that has seen places of worship offer canned food, clothing, housing and other assistance.”

Throughout the creation and development of these historic vaccines, the ERLC has been working to keep Christians informed about such issues as how they were developed, how they work, and how to think about potential ethical concerns.

By / Mar 9

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a creeping global disaster is taking hold of families that can’t be fixed with a vaccine. A tsunami of children are at risk of being institutionalized in orphanages due to crippling poverty and loss of life as a result of the pandemic.

While churches may want to rush to help these displaced COVID-19 victims by donating to orphanages, it is also important to consider ways we might support these children and prevent them from being institutionalized in the first place.

A growing problem

In addition to the loss of parents and caregivers, the pandemic’s economic devastation is expected to pull as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty this year, according to the World Bank. This will be the first time this century that the number of people living in extreme poverty will increase rather than continuing its historic decline. An estimated 5.4 million children are already living in orphanages around the world—a number that will surely rise alongside the increasing number of impoverished families.

There is a direct connection between poverty and the institutionalization of vulnerable children. As much as 80 percent of children in orphanages today have a living parent. Furthermore, preliminary research shows that the children who have lost a parent due to COVID often still have a remaining parent and other family members to care for them. In times of crisis, without access to support, parents make the hard choice to place their children in an orphanage because they are unable to provide for them.

The proliferation of orphanages should concern every Christian because it is a direct affront to God’s design for families. With the right support, parents or close relatives can care for the majority of would-be orphans. If living with a biological family is not an option, local foster care and adoption are great secondary options that provide what a child needs most: a loving family. Decades of research show that children develop best in families, not orphanages.

The good news is, many churches are now choosing to move toward missions programs that support family-based care for orphans and vulnerable children. There’s something we can all do to help.

3 ways the church can help

First, it’s imperative that we know the facts and understand our role. Chances are, requests for more financial support for orphan care will rise along with the number of extreme poor. If you personally donate to a ministry that operates one or more orphanages, or your church does so with your tithe dollars, then it’s not just a distant concern. This question hits home for all of us: Is your charity answering the biblical call to care for the orphan by ensuring that they can live in a loving family? Or is it unintentionally tearing families apart?

Second, churches and other ministries in the United States have always played a crucial role in responding to global disasters. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and other natural catastrophes consistently raise millions of dollars in donations to charitable relief efforts, as was seen with the response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico. The economic impact of COVID-19 must be considered in this category of global emergencies worthy of our attention and donations. In emergencies such as this, it is critical to fill the funding gaps and support local recovery efforts before children are placed in orphanages.

Third, international ministries and organizations must lead in solving this global problem. In 2019, the United Nations unanimously passed the Resolution on the Rights of the Child, which confirmed a commitment to prioritizing strengthening families over placing children in institutions. A growing group of over 60 Christian nonprofit organizations, including my own, affirmed that priority with the creation of the Global Church Pledge to See Children Thriving in Safe and Loving Families. Little did we know that our resolve would be so greatly tested by a global pandemic.

It takes a village

The problems facing children and families around the world are enormous and can feel overwhelming, especially as we are still dealing with COVID-19’s toll on our own lives. No single organization, government, or other entity is going to be able to tackle the problem on its own, but we can all do something. You can start by signing the Global Church Pledge, where you will learn more about the specific ways you can help at the individual or local church level.

There are millions of COVID-19 victims who are not in hospitals. They are headed for—or are already institutionalized in—orphanages. It’s time for churches to mobilize on behalf of these vulnerable children so they can thrive within a loving family, either by staying with their own parents or by being placed with other family members or a foster family. Children need families, and families reeling from the devastating economic impact of COVID-19 need our support to care well for their children.

By / Mar 8

In a recent docu-series entitled Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, Adam Curtis says, “In the age of the individual, what you felt, what you wanted, and what you dreamed of were going to become the driving force across the world.” Being a Christian in this “age of the individual” can be challenging. Our culture prioritizes self-expression, self-assertion, and the realization of our internal dreams and desires. Often, this vision for living conflicts with the call of our cross-bearing Savior.

Yet Christ has offered us a resource to combat the temptation to exalt our self-fulfillment above all: church membership. According to Jonathan Leeman, church membership is “a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” God has designed our reconciliation to Him in such a way that it grafts us into a community with others. Our faith journey is a communal project.

By committing to a local expression of God’s Church, we confront the idols of individualism. By faithfully committing to a local church, we are bound and rooted in a received community. While this commitment can be challenging, the practice of church membership counter-culturally forms us as disciples of Christ.

Here are three ways that church membership challenges the individualism of our culture.

  1. Church membership means we can’t choose our community.

By exalting self-fulfillment as a supreme good, individualism communicates that our relationships are contractual, contingent upon their ability to meet our needs. As a result, our social groups are typically chosen, made up of people we intentionally select to associate with.

To paraphrase Harper Lee, you can choose your friends, but you sho’ can’t choose your church family. Church membership binds us to a community that is received rather than chosen. While we can determine the church we join, membership places us in proximity to people we wouldn’t necessarily spend our time with freely. Thus, church membership offers a countercultural experience. 

By committing to a local expression of God’s Church, we confront the idols of individualism.

Chosen relationships are prone to land us with friends who share our experiences, opinions, and affinities. Like the lunch tables in high school, our table fellowship is exclusive to our clique. In contrast, church membership leads us to share the Lord’s Supper with varying age groups, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and political convictions. If we experience conflict or disagreement with a fellow church member, we are encouraged to pursue reconciliation and bear with one another in love (Col. 3:13). Covenant relationships like these brush up against the conditional view of relationships offered by our individualistic culture.

As people made in the image of a Trinitarian God, covenant community and committed relationships are good for our soul. We are social beings who flourish only while living alongside others through the ups-and-downs of life (Eccl. 4:19-12). The commitments we have to our church family deepen our discipleship by forcing us to de-center our preferences and priorities in community with others.

  1. Church membership means we are rooted rather than detached.

American culture fosters transience. We are encouraged to chase lucrative salaries, comfortable conditions, or adventurous experiences to new locations without being rooted in a community. Each new place exists to give us what we want. As such, we often lack connection to our neighbors or physical community.

Church membership is a resistance against the flighty tendencies our culture encourages. “For people who have been discipled by our society,” notes David Swanson, “to imagine themselves removed from creation, able to move here and there with little thought about the consequences, the decision to prioritize rootedness and presence will not come easily.” Church membership encourages us to build our lives around relationships in our church and take an interest in the community surrounding our congregational meeting place. While this can challenge our deep desires for autonomy and flexibility, it also grants us a rich experience of the body of Christ and forms us towards faithfulness.

A recent study (pre-COVID) reports that more than 3 out of 5 American adults are lonely. In an age of loneliness, church membership opens the door to loving relationships that can combat alienation and offer us a lifeline as we navigate the rocky seasons of life.

In an age of consumerism, rootedness calls us to reject viewing our church and community exclusively by what we can receive from it. We are encouraged to ask questions about how we can contribute to and bless our church family and neighbors (1 John 3:17).

  1. Church membership means we can’t curate the opinions around us.

Technology feeds our individualism. We curate the information, opinions, and ideas that we encounter daily, conveniently selecting our news sources, social media follows, podcasts and commentators. When we disapprove of what we see or hear, we can block or unfollow. And if we miss a spot, our feed picks up the slack by giving us more of what we liked yesterday.

Self-selecting our information consumption is no new phenomenon. Scripture warns against the temptation to exclusively pursue voices that “tickle our ears” (2 Timothy 4:3). Without covenant commitment to a church, we are free to curate a chorus of voices that reaffirm what we already believe. Healthy church membership, then, is a resistance against this deceptive habit, a reminder that we share a common faith and practice with those in our church body. 

But beyond core doctrines, committing to a community means we will often encounter opinions and ideas with which we disagree. Proximity to diverse opinions will often challenge us to reconsider deeply held assumptions. Moreover, we are encouraged to open our lives up to the input of our brothers and sisters (Hebrews 3:13). As such, church membership is a bulwark against the social media silos and internet algorithms that simply reaffirm what we already know and believe. It is countercultural for dissenting voices to coexist. It is even more so for those dissenting voices to love one another as family. Within the church, we are called to precisely that.

Last year, amidst the political tensions our nation experienced, it was jarring and often difficult to share a church with various social and political perspectives. I witnessed outbursts, awkward silences, and tense follow-up conversations as we discussed sensitive issues with one another. Yet, I treasured this experience, as it reflected the unity we have in Christ. While our culture is eager to cut off and defriend one another over tense disagreements, our unity in Christ is strong enough to bear the freight of our dissent.

Practicing church membership

Christ presents us a thrilling alternative to the exclusively conditional, chosen, and curated bonds offered by our society. Challenging our deeply held desires for autonomy and self-exaltation, church membership forms us into more faithful Jesus-followers. Moreover, when we commit to a local church body, we are granted a church family to bear our burdens in an isolated and unstable world. In this “age of the individual,” faithful church membership is one of the most countercultural offers the church has, and an invaluable resource to every Christian.

By / Feb 6

Late Friday night, Feb. 5, the Supreme Court responded to California’s ban on all indoor religious gatherings by granting injunctive relief to the churches challenging the overburdensome pandemic restriction. The Court’s 6-3 order overturned the ban, replacing it with a 25% capacity limit on indoor worship. However, litigation will continue on the state’s ban on singing and chanting, as the justices were split on that particular policy.

“This is a reasonable and good decision by the Supreme Court,” said Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, on the Saturday morning following the Court’s order. Moore’s comments continued:

The decision respects the inviolable constitutional rights to religious freedom as well as the legitimate role of the government in fighting a deadly virus. It ensures that churches are not penalized because they are religious as opposed to being members of the business or entertainment industries. I hope that now all states will focus on working with, and not against, religious communities on our common goal: caring for the sick, protecting the vulnerable, and ending this pandemic.

As the ERLC has advocated for since the beginning of this long road to find balance between public health policy and foundational First Amendment-secured freedoms, churches must be treated the same as other similar gatherings. Last year in May, just three months into the pandemic, when the justices rejected California church’s challenge, Moore said he, “wished the Supreme Court had acted to bring more constitutional clarity to this pressing question.”

This weekend’s order on California advances religious freedom because Governor Gavin Newsom’s policy was the last total ban on houses of worship in the country as the pandemic enters its second year. The state’s restrictions were also non-neutral, similar to the non-neutral policies struck down in Nevada by the 9th Circuit and the District of Columbia by the federal District Court. Most recently, and most significantly for religious liberty jurisprudence during the pandemic, the Supreme Court overturned New York’s non-neutral restrictions the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

What did the Court decide on California?

Six justices joined to strike down California’s total ban on indoor religious services. Explaining his own reasoning in this case, Chief Justice Roberts argued that California had failed to respect the fundamental rights held by houses of worship: “The State’s present determination—that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.”

Justice Gorsuch also wrote separately, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, arguing that California had targeted houses of worship for worse treatment than the entertainment industry and other businesses. He also rebuked the Ninth Circuit for failing to follow the Court’s recent ruling in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo

Recently, this Court made it abundantly clear that edicts like California’s fail strict scrutiny and violate the Constitution. Today’s order should have been needless; the lower courts in these cases should have followed the extensive guidance this Court already gave.

What happened with California’s ban on singing and chanting?

Three justices would have struck down California’s ban on singing and chanting. Justice Gorsuch pointed out that while California’s ban on indoor singing does technically apply to all businesses and organizations, California has made exceptions:

It seems California’s powerful entertainment industry has won an exemption. So, once more, we appear to have a State playing favorites during a pandemic, expending considerable effort to protect lucrative industries (casinos in Nevada; movie studios in California) while denying similar largesse to its faithful.

The Court left in place, however, California’s ban on singing and chanting during religious services. Justice Barrett wrote separately—her first written opinion—to argue that the record in the case was insufficiently clear to support overturning California’s ban on singing. Justice Kavanaugh joined in her opinion. 

The two churches in this case will now have to go back to the lower courts to present more evidence to overturn California’s singing and chanting ban. However, Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh did both express skepticism about this ban, writing in their opinion, “Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral.” 

Just as we articulated in a July 2020 piece on singing during Covid-19, we would urge California to see these signals from the Court and work with houses of worship to create an exemption similar to that offered to the entertainment industry. We will continue to engage with these cases as litigation over this issue continues.

What’s next?

The California cases will now go back down to the lower courts for further consideration in light of the Court’s decision. As with Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the Court again showed its willingness to step in and provide much-needed clarity for lower courts during the pandemic.

Concluding his separate opinion, Justice Gorsuch urged California and other states to draft narrowly tailored regulations, especially considering how long the pandemic has worn on. In an especially poignant passage, he concluded:

As this crisis enters its second year— and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan—it is too late for the State to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could. Drafting narrowly tailored regulations can be difficult. But if Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.

By / Jan 28

Mat Alexander, a pastor in Alabama, shares about God’s faithfulness at his church.

By / Jan 21

Dan Trippie, pastor of Restoration Church in Buffalo, New York, talks about how the pandemic has allowed his church to build good relationships with the community.

By / Jan 19

Jason Dee, pastor of Christ Covenant in Atlanta, Georgia, shares how his church plant has seen God provide during the pandemic.

By / Jan 12

Todd Gray, executive director/treasurer for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, recounts how Kentucky pastors have been inspiring during the pandemic.

By / Jan 8

Eric Costanzo, a pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shares how tough the pandemic has been for his church and yet the blessing they’ve experienced because of hearing from the nations.