How Are Our Churches—and Our Movement—Doing Today? An Honest Evaluation
By Alan Ahlgrim
My friend Adam Turner recently said to me, “There’s not a day that goes by I don’t find both reasons to mope and reasons to hope!”
This I know: The more time I spend immersed in the chaos of our culture, the more I mope. By contrast, the more time I spend pondering the promises of God and luxuriating in the presence of Christ and his people, the more I hope!
Negativity and positivity are both emotionally contagious. We are each profoundly affected by the attitudes and outlooks of those things we ponder and the people with whom we spend the most time.
When asked to write this article I sought the insights of several dozen leaders I am connected with via head and heart. These well-informed and influential leaders are scattered throughout the country, so their thoughts represent a national perspective.
I asked them for an honest evaluation of how our churches, institutions, and movement in general are doing. Where are we strong, and where might we need to get stronger still?
Their input, and related information I’ve seen or gleaned from other resources, provide us with reasons to mope . . . or to hope.
Reasons to Mope
- Most of our strongest churches are now, at best, averaging only about 80 percent of their pre-COVID in-person attendance.
- Church attendance is less regular than in the past; the average regular attendee is present only 1.5 times a month.
- Recruiting and retaining faithfully committed volunteers has become more difficult, with few even willing to devote more than an hour or so to Sunday engagement.
- While the online church option is benefiting some who are struggling or traveling, it has led to further normalization of disengagement from face-to-face community.
- Churches that are attracting greater online viewership wrestle with how to meaningfully measure true participation and struggle even more with how to assimilate viewers into true community.
- Leaders’ hearts are weary, not so much from overwork but from excessive worry that their messages will be heard as too challenging in an increasingly hypersensitive and critical culture.
- The fear of criticism has led many to give up on consistently balancing messages with both grace and truth; instead, many have resorted to shouting acceptance and, at best, whispering repentance.
- The corruption of the culture and the growing acceptance of deviant sexual behaviors are affecting and infecting many families even in the core of the Christian community, especially those fearful of losing their own children from the church and the faith.
- A recent Barna report indicated that an astonishing 40 percent of pastors now show a high risk of burnout, and that with younger pastors—those under 45—it’s at 50 percent.
- The stress at all levels of leadership has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and its aftershocks, with one high-ranking Army chaplain observing that pastors now have more PTSD issues than soldiers!
Reasons to Hope
- The lost have lost hope that the things of the world—whether education, government, or business—will bring them a sense of security, comfort, and personal peace. Desperation is a wonderful motivation for a glorious pursuit!
- Spiritual curiosity and hunger are increasing among the younger generation; many are searching for meaning for their lives. This is documented by the ongoing success in attracting young people to both Christ In Youth gatherings and The International Conference on Missions.
- The recent awakening at Asbury University and the popularity of the recent movie The Jesus Revolution and streaming series The Chosen indicate a longing for in-depth encounters with the living God.
- Christians have an avalanche of high-quality resources, including countless encouraging podcasts, conferences, and connection opportunities available at minimal cost.
- Professional counseling for leaders has become more common and is no longer a cause for embarrassment; instead, it is now considered a notable credential confirming a desire for personal health and growth.
- Skill-sharpening cohorts and soul-enriching covenant groups are becoming a new standard of ministry excellence for many leaders.
- Discipleship is now measured not merely by the transfer of information, but also by spiritual transformation in life-giving community.
- Overall church attendance is down, but not church giving. In fact, charitable giving increased nearly 5 percent during 2022’s record inflation.
- Our movement has several organizations that specialize in providing financial assistance for building and ministry expansion with virtually no problematic loans on their books. Churches, it seems, are the most reliable borrowers!
- Many congregations have dynamic, flourishing, exuberant intergenerational worship celebrations featuring energetic contemporary music.
- Baptisms of people of all ages at worship gatherings are increasingly common, with periodic mass celebrations of dozens of baptisms on special days.
- More of our churches and parachurch organizations are demonstrating compassion through creative pace-setting approaches in church planting, world evangelization, child sponsorships, and church-based foster care efforts.
- Elders are focusing less on church management and more on church health by working with and encouraging staff leaders.
- Amid vitriolic culture wars, church health is prized more than ever and healthy church relationships are being pursued through authentic life-on-life, small group connections.
- Our churches are typically islands of joy, peace, and civility in a world filled with discord. They reflect confident hope in the One who promises to redeem all things!
Reasons to Rejoice!
I recently saw someone wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “Eternal Optimist!” I want that description to be true of me. Years ago, noted British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge made some pessimistic comments about world affairs while visiting Washington, D.C. When asked if he saw any reason for optimism, he said, “My friend, I could not be more optimistic, because my hope is in Jesus Christ alone.”
That’s how I see it, and that’s why I’m hooked on hope . . . because my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness! As I approach the eighth decade of my life, I am more devoted to Christ and his community than ever, and I’m not alone! Cam Huxford, my closest friend in ministry, recently said to me, “I believe the best days are still ahead. The challenges are making us stronger and more grateful. I’m confident God is raising up leaders to move his church down the field. . . . What a great time to be a Christian leader!”
In summary, as the culture grows darker, the light of the gospel is shining brighter through countless life-giving communities of faith! The movement of which I have been a part has great work yet to do, especially in discipleship; but there is great reason to rejoice that God is at work among us and that he isn’t finished with us yet!
“But as for me, I will always have hope” (Psalm 71:14).
Alan Ahlgrim is author of Soul Strength: Rhythms for Thriving. He served as the founding pastor of Rocky Mountain Christian Church for 29 years and now serves as chief soul care officer of Covenant Connections for Pastors.