The Empty Church. Europe is full of them. Empty churches, a sign of the times in Europe, has long been studied by missiologists far smarter than I am. There was a rise in Christianity and at the height of it’s growth, something happened. Experts cannot quite put their finger on exactly what happened in Europe to trigger the empty church but there are several leading opinions and hypotheses that guide us down the road of understanding.
Some would say that the decline was brought about because of a lack of repentance
Others argue that it was the professionalization of leadership in those churches.
For many, there is a general apathy to the decline of the church in Europe.
There are many other opinions and arguments as to what has happened and Europe and they are more extensive than is considered helpful to a blog post.
The writing and reading that you can absorb on this topic are arduous and have been well parsed through the annals of Christian thought, but there are few certain facts; The church in Europe is absent. The buildings that were once regularly inhabited by well-meaning Christianity enthusiasts are now inhabited by eager and zealous tourists with very little spirituality to gain other than a good history lesson and some beautiful art to visually be stimulated with.
For years, I have argued that Christianity, as we know it in the United States, would one day follow similar patterns. The point of my argument was not to scare the churches that I served in toward avoiding utter disengagement, but rather to subtly move us in a different direction. Alas, we continue to move toward total disengagement. The only difference might be that our church buildings in America are not nearly as precisely designed or intricately thought-through and so rather than becoming historical and tourism hotspots, they would simply become another place of business or a gathering spot for city administrations. The buildings themselves, million-dollar homes to once-thriving congregations, would become a desolate innuendo to the days of old when Christianity in America was at its climax in American history. The days of revival, conversions, and megachurch would be diminished into a bleak dot in the American historical society.
In January of 2020, something happened in the United States that will forever shake American Christianity as we know it, to the very core. COVID 19 was announced as a threat to every aspect of American life. No longer would going out to eat, shopping freely, or even finding a roll of toilet paper be a part of ‘normal’ life. In fact, all of these subtleties of life would be pulled from the clutches of the American people as the virus seeped its way into middle America. And for the church, this has and will have far-reaching effects. In one single month in American history, million-dollar epicenters of Christianity have been abandoned as meeting places for those that carry the name “Christian.” They are closed until further notice. They are no longer ‘doing business as usual’ and they have had to quickly remake themselves into a sustainable entity that will be able to recover from the fear-driven monster that has encompassed each rote action of every American. COVID 19 has and will change the way that churches in America function from this moment, and dare I say, in the future.
I believe that many of the larger congregations in America will recover after the fear-induced pandemic has passed. They will once again gather in the halls of the multi-million dollar complexes to observe the personality, absorb the promotion, receive the education, and experience the spiritual well being of themselves once again. And many small churches may do the same. My hope and my prayer to some degree are that they re-converge in a new kind of way. I have significant doubt and reservation that this will actually be the case as other significant ‘wake up calls’ have not changed the very systemic pillars that have led us to this point as an American church. For too long, the church in America has been rooted in making sure that there is enough money flowing into the general fund, enough people in the seats to produce that money, and plenty of money to pay the professional Christians enough that they can live alongside the parishioners that they serve. When these are the goals of the local church and pandemic strikes, chaos tends to happen, as we have seen across the American Christian subculture. Churches have now been forced to embrace technology where there has been resistance before to ‘live stream’ an event. Churches are forced to implement ‘online giving’ even though before the pandemic, in some circles, online giving was looked down upon for not being worshipful enough. Churches have been forced to completely reorganize staffing structures to try and keep the gifting and talent that they had arranged to power the machine that was, busy, in a time that is. You can see that churches are struggling to find a new normal in an already vastly different landscape of American living.
What if the glory days of Christianity are not behind us as some will say once the pandemic is over? What if filling up church buildings with people and money was really not all that it was cracked up to be? What if the church sustained a new normal after the pandemic? What would it look like? What could it look like?
One of my early supervisors and mentors was resolute that “The church is not the building. We are the church.” (In fact, he reiterated this in his message, just a week ago.) My last supervisor when working for a church lived on the mantra of asking his congregation, “Who is the church?” to which people would respond with “We are!” If only the church would actually understand this and live out the truth that is in these emotional pleas. If the church was more than an empty church building where people gathered, more than a pastoral personality who was a good preacher, was more than the general fund balance, there might have been very little reason to restructure everything in the midst of a global pandemic. If the church was defined as a group of people who gathered together for the purposes of eating together, praying together, finding life together, and caring for those around them, the church might actually be a backbone of our current reality instead of a subculture relegated away just as the foodservice industry has been relegated. Had the church been in the place where it could move and act quickly with access to the resource instead of hoarding it inside the walls of the church building, the government may not be handing out billions of dollars of stimulus checks because the church would be able to rise to the top of caring for those in need.
The pandemic has caused an utter stillness within the walls of church buildings across America. Other than the weekly video production (Because the show must go on), there is very little happening within the walls of the local church. But on the outside of those empty church buildings, I believe that there is a groundswell of those that are followers of Jesus who are forming an entirely new identity outside of the confines of the walls of the church. This will threaten the existence of professional pastors (I used to be one and so I desire the best for each of them). This will threaten the existence of mortgages, general funds, and building projects. It will threaten the tax exemption status that is granted by our federal government for churches. But it will do so much more like those that are committed to their faith are able to rise upon the wings of eagles (Isaiah 40:31) and not be held back by the constraints of a building or professional to tell them how to do ‘Christianity.’ They will begin to live within the confines of their own spiritual reality, and maybe, just maybe see a distinct reality of what it means to be the church in their own backyard. Groups of 10 can still gather during this pandemic. They can gather for prayer, encouragement, eating together, finding life together so that they can experience all that Isaiah 40:31 has to offer. “But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” When a group of people gathers around the idea of trusting the Lord together, they will have the gallant nature to do what is required in a world that is void of spiritual goodness. Maybe the shedding of the weekly show will allow Christians to experience what James calls for in his book Chapter 1 verse 27 that says “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
Maybe. One day, when history buffs look back at this time history, they will see one of two outcomes. They will either see an entire subculture of people who decided to live out the faith that they came to grips with and become the church impacting life and culture in a sustainable and profound way OR they will see a group of people huddle in front of their screens when the pandemic hit, only to find their way back to the potential future museums of the building that we currently call ‘the church’. The Empty Church will continue. It is in a moment such as this that I hope and pray that the church can sustain as it was intended. The church is a living and breathing organism, not a collection of brick and mortar buildings across our nation.
In discussing these ideas and convictions with a friend of mine (Kermit), he wrote the following words, “I also think there will be an attempt by the Church to go back to what it is called“ normal” which is not a good thing. I hope there will be a great deal of pushback to continue what we’re doing in response to the crisis and not a great deal of emphasis on what we used to do. I am not saying we should close down the churches. I am saying that we must find better ways to utilize our assets and ways to spend our money focused on ministry.”
Is there hope? I don’t know. That’s for the ‘professionals’ to figure out and navigate. Or maybe it was the ‘professionals’ (myself included) who led us here in the first place? For now, I’ll take it one day at a time and grow in my spiritual understanding. I’ll keep serving those around me and gaining trust in the Lord through the encouragement of the people that are closest to me and hold similar values in the area of spiritual growth.
European churches who experienced a massive decline did so over many years only to find themselves with an empty church. American churches, in a single moment, experienced jaw-dropping exodus. And now, it is up to those that call themselves believers to determine a new path forward in the tunnels of a pandemic. Church buildings won’t last forever, and they may not last the next decade. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Some Extra Reading
Bee Thomas – Brian Humek – Are Empty Church Buildings a Thing of the Past?
Catholic Standard – Charles Pope –The Decline of the Church in Europe
NCBI – Philip Brenner – Cross-National Trends in Religious Service Attendance
The Atlantic – Peter Beinert – American’s Empty Church Problem
Christianity Today – Jeremy Weber – Why Americans Go to Church or Stay Home
Pew Research Center – In US, Decline of Christianity continues at Rapid Pace