---- — What is the future of the Church and Christianity in the United States? Can the Church continue to be relevant in an increasingly secular world? These questions are often found as the drivers behind my professional ministry as a pastor. These questions also haunt me as a father who is trying to raise my children in a home that embraces the best practices of the Christian way of life. As I look for answers to these questions, I recognize that I am not alone in my quest. Many bloggers, pastors, authors and radio talk-show hosts are all attempting to provide answers to these same questions. But still, the questions remain.
Research has documented the numerical decline of the Christian movement in the United States in the so-called mainline denominations since the 1960s. The United Methodist Church, the denomination that I am a member of, has staggering negative statistics. In the last five years alone, a national decline in membership, worship attendance and baptisms have all been reported at rates of 5.3%, 8.7%, and 21%, respectively. At the current rate of decline, The United Methodist Church in the United States has less than 50 years of life.
Furthermore, research from the Barna Group and the Pew Research Center continues to paint a dark picture. Barna reports that Millennials — those born between the years of 1982-2002 — are largely absent from the church. Barna’s research with over 27,000 interviews of those in the Millennial generation has revealed that almost six-in-ten of these young folks who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away from either the Christian faith altogether or from the institutional church at some point in the first decade of their adult life. The Pew Research Center also released a study in the fall of 2012 that indicated that one-fifth of the U.S. public, including one-third of all adults under the age of 30, have no religious affiliation.
The future of the Church and the Christian movement in the United States seems bleak. However, there is hope. I find hope in the scores of churches that are not turning a deaf ear to these statistics. I find hope in the Christian community’s care and concern for the poor, broken, lonely, sick and outcast. I find hope in the passionate proclamation of the gospel message that the worst thing is never the last thing. I find hope in the lives of the members of the Christian community who embrace others with open hearts, minds and wallets. I find hope in the message of grace and love that was fully embodied in the life of Jesus. I find hope.
Just because I find hope, however, doesn’t mean that these statistics are going to turn around. Perhaps the institutional church as we know it is coming to an end. Regardless of how it all turns out, I believe that we are called as individual Christians and as the Church to never stop in our pursuit of offering love, grace, compassion and care for all whom we encounter. Our profession of Jesus as Lord doesn’t cease on Sunday mornings as we exit our churches in an attempt to beat the Presbyterians to Sunday brunch. Rather, our calling leads us to never cease in doing all that we can — both our words and our actions — for the glory of God.
The Rev. Anthony Stone is associate pastor at Centenary United Methodist Church in Lebanon.