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Is the church dying in America?

Several years ago, I served as a moderator for a MediaOne/HBO broadcast titled, “Violent Minds: Violent Times.” The program, nominated for a Cable Ace Award, was about kids who kill. The panelists included experts from juvenile justice, Emory University, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the ministerial community.   A major focus of the discussion was why kids often turn to gangs, rather than the church, as a place of solace during times of crises in their lives. Leading up to the program, interviews had been done with incarcerated, juvenile murderers, who revealed that the gang was a place where they could feel ‘in’ rather than ‘out.’ The church was a place they felt isolated and unwelcomed. They did not believe that the friendly overtures from members they received while attending churches were actually genuine.

A January 2014 Huffington Post article on religion stated, “the church is not dying, but in transition.” The article included research according to the Hartford Institute of Religious Research that revealed 40 percent of Americans say they go to church weekly but as it turns out less than 20 percent are actually in church. The article went on to report that 4,000 to 7,000 churches close their doors every year. In an earlier report, Southern Baptist researcher, Tom Rainier, in an article entitled, 13 Issues For churches in 2013, puts the estimate much higher. According to Pew Research, every day for the next 16 years, 10,000 baby boomers will enter retirement resulting in church conceivably being filled primarily by elderly congregants and possibly increasing the number of church closures.

A cursory look at churches today reveals that Americans have not necessarily lost their faith-just their interest in being in a church on Sundays. The fact of the matter, however, is that statistics from the reputable, Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development, tell us that nearly 50 percent of Americans have no church home. In the 1980s, membership in the church had dropped almost 10 percent; then, in the 1990s, it worsened by another 12 percent drop — some denominations reporting a 40 percent drop in their membership. And now, over halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, we are seeing the figures drop even more.

The Institute also revealed that every year, 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity. This translates into the realization that people are leaving the church. From our research, we have found that they are leaving as hurting and wounded victims-of some kind of abuse, disillusionment, or just plain neglect.

The Rev. C. L. Franklin, deceased father of popular soul singer, Aretha Franklin, is quoted as saying, continued growth of a church by a minister must be a priority at all times. Franklin, at one time, considered one of America’s greatest orators and nick-named-the minister with the million-dollar voice, stated that the attitudes of members, especially the newly converted, is often the reason people become disaffected and abandon the church. The newly converted, he stated, should be nurtured, and even go through an orientation process. He felt that all too often, new believers, can become so religious and messianic, that they can do what is only in the power of God: determine who will go to “heaven or hell.”

Dr. Glenn Dowell is an author and columnist who currently lives in Jonesboro, Georgia. He may be reached at gdowell@live.com