Two interesting surveys I want to point out to you.
First comes from research conducted by Lifeway and Ed Stetzer that was featured in a USA Today article, More Protestant churches feel economic pain. From the article:
The recession is dipping into church collection plates.
A growing number of Protestant congregations have seen their Sunday collections drop this year, according to a survey by LifeWay Research on the economic health of churches. Pastors blame high unemployment and a drop-off in giving by members.
To make ends meet, churches have laid off staff and frozen salaries, put off major capital projects and cut back on programs. At the same time, more of their congregation members and neighbors are asking for help with basic needs like paying the rent and buying groceries, the study found.
Notice what pastors don't blame: Fixed costs that cripple the ministry of local churches, including their own salaries. I made this comment on Ed Stetzers blog:
Frankly much of this is the sign of a self-inflicted wound. Churches have ensnared themselves with fixed costs, primarily the cost of vocational clerical salaries and benefits and the costs purchasing and maintaining buildings that sit empty most of the week. Handcuffed by these fixed expenses churches are crippled when giving is down, meaning less money is available to care for those who are most in need and for spreading the Gospel. A budget crunch means the local church becomes obsessed with sustaining itself, a problem gatherings of the church without clergy and buildings are not faced with.
Times of economic stress should be times for increased ministry, not times to batten down the hatches and turn inward. The mindset that local churches are like Egypt under the administration of Joseph where we save in the "fat years" to maintain our local church fiefdom in the "lean years" is lightyears removed from Biblical stewardship.
The other survey is from Barna and looks at major trends in the church: Six Megathemes Emerge from Barna Group Research in 2010. A couple of items on this list grabbed my attention:
1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans--especially young adults.
2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
Despite technological advances that make communications instant and far-reaching, Christians are becoming more spiritually isolated from non-Christians than was true a decade ago.
and the third...
6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.
Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people.
Those are troubling. If Barna is right, the church is becoming less literate of the basic truths of the faith, turning inward and losing any influence on the world. A church that doesn't know what it believes, doesn't leave its buildings and is indistinguishable from the world is many things but it is not even a pale shadow of the church that the Bible describes. Fixing one of these would be great but not enough. A Christian group chock full of knowledge but lacking any sense of urgency for evangelism and service is merely puffed up with knowledge and pride (and there are plenty of those already). An eager group of young Christians who want to serve their neighbor but have no idea what the Gospel is might just do more harm than good (and there are also plenty of these!).
Stuff like this would depress the heck out of me if I wasn't unshakably convicted of God's sovereignty. I am quite comfortable that God will accomplish His purposes and more convinced each day that He is and will do so outside of the religious traditions we associate with Christianity.