Why Churches are Losing Influence
Plain Truth Magazine
June 1971
Volume: Vol XXXVI, No.6
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Why Churches are Losing Influence
Lester L Grabbe  

Churchgoers and pastors alike admit that traditional religion is on the skids. In an age of insecurity and few moral guidelines, the churches' failure to provide spiritual leadership has been a crushing blow to Western society.

   "WE CHURCHMEN are gifted at changing wine into water — watering down religion," Yale's Chaplain William S. Coffin, Jr., has been quoted as saying.
   Never has church attendance been so high and church influence so low. Only a few smaller denominations — who still vigorously practice their beliefs — are holding the allegiance of their membership. But most churches are hollow religious shells. And the problem is not limited to the United States.
   The Archbishop of Canterbury has said: "The churches aren't reaching people as much as they ought to." The Bishop of Woolwich wrote: "The sanctions of Sinai have lost their terror, and people no longer accept the authority of Jesus even as a great moral teacher."
   But why? What is wrong? Are the churches meeting their responsibility for providing spiritual guidance to their flocks? When Senior Editor J. Robert Moskin posed this question to late theologian Paul Tillich, he got the following answer: "Simply, NO! But I know the struggle of many ministers who try it and are defeated and almost go to pieces by this defeat" (Morality in America; p. 167).

A Minister Quits

   For one minister — an example of many — it meant the end of the line. "I still believe in Jesus Christ," he said. "I still want to serve Him.... This is why I quit the ministry."
   These paradoxical words were spoken by a former minister of a large denomination. This individual "never expected life as a minister to be easy" and fought family and friends to enter the profession. He sacrificed and worked part-time to pay his way through seven years of college and seminary.
   His eyes were wide open from the start. "I knew," he stated, "that the church as an institution was far from perfect. Even as a youngster I had been appalled by the unchristian activities of many who were pillars of the church."
   But this minister decided he still wanted to represent his denomination. The initial and only congregation of this young minister was well above the national average in income and intellect. That, combined with the imposing stone church buildings, large parsonage and good salary, made it the prestige church of the town. In the way some might look at it, what more could a budding young minister ask for?
   Yet, in a short time, this minister became disillusioned, frustrated, confused. He finally quit.
   BUT he was merely one individual of the 25 percent of Roman Catholic priests and 12 percent of Protestant clergymen who said they were thinking of quitting the ministry.

Religious Nations?

   The United States is nominally the most religious country in the world. In 1966, almost three fourths of those interviewed by The Catholic Digest said that religion was "very important" to them. Yet in a given week, a recent Gallup poll shows that only a little over one third of Protestants, hardly more than one half of Roman Catholics, and less than one fifth of Jews will attend church or synagogue services.
   Professor C. C. Goen of the Wesley Theological Seminary highlighted the problem in a recent speech: even though 70 out of 100 Americans belong to a religious body, "we are not at all the 'Christian' nation we like to think we are but essentially a secular one."
   The situation is even more obvious in other countries.
   England: Less than one Church of England member in 10 will darken the parish church door on Easter, not to mention regular weekly services. The Congregational churches in Britain took a survey a few months ago and found that 60 percent of their worshippers were women and 68 percent over age 45.
   Canada: A national magazine, Maclean's, conducted in the 60's a religious survey of a typical Canadian town. Some 70 percent of Protestants interviewed said they attended church at least once a month. Yet only one in five "could remember having done anything within the last year as a direct result of church influence." Catholics were ostensibly more fervent, nine out of 10 going to mass each week. Yet only one in five admitted to following church teachings on birth control.
   France: Something like 18,000 churches have been abandoned or are in danger of being abandoned. This means
"The sanctions of Sinai have lost their terror, and people no longer accept the authority of Jesus even as a great moral teacher."
Bishop of Woolwich
that every second church or chapel is facing decay or "death" in the near future unless drastic action is taken.
   Germany: Der Spiegel found in a detailed analysis that every third West German believes "God is dead." Only one half feel there is a life after death. This in a country in which almost everyone (94%) has some connection with a church.
   As one headline put it, West Germans as a whole find the church "merely useless." About seven out of 10 are convinced they "can be a Christian without a church." Complete indifference is the way to describe the feelings of most.
   Scandinavia: Most Scandinavians are non-churchgoers. Approximately 90 percent staying home on an average Sunday morning.
   South Africa: A leading magazine, Personality, wrote that religion is losing its hold. Many of those who still attend churches do so only out of habit rather than real conviction.

Madison Avenue Hits Religion

   This real decline in religious interest, whatever the facade of religiosity, is highlighted on the church pages of most large newspapers. Witness such appeals as "Discover the Difference at … " or "Begin the Day at the Top... Chapel, Words and Music in a Casual Atmosphere, 23 Floors above... "or "Five Great Drive-In Walk-In Services Every Sunday."
   These are not tongue-in-cheek spoofs. They are real examples from the church page of a large daily American newspaper.
   This is not far off from the satirical prediction of Methodist minister Norman Deming of Seneca, New York. He sardonically suggested by the year 2040: "Advertising agencies will be employed by churches as they are now by business firms. Technivision ads will be obnoxious to gain attention. … "
   These might include such themes as: "Baptists feel good, like a Christ-i-an should!" "You can be sure — if it's Catholicism!" "Presbyterianism keeps your soul on the go!" Perhaps you would hear that "Christianity will relieve your anxieties and distresses and will not upset your conscience."
   It's not the year 2040, but Pastor Deming's mock prophecies seem already to be coming to pass!

Crisis Is Here!

   Religious lip service is easy to find. There seems to be little root or deep feeling in the avowed faith of the majority. Theologians and laymen alike point out the superficiality in it all.
   Dr. Eugene Nida, a foremost American linguist, told a Mennonite board of missions: "Of course 93 percent of the people in some areas will say they believe in God, but I doubt if 20 percent of those regulate their lives on the basis of believing in God...."
   Dr. Nida pointed out that North Americans are really practical "atheists" on the whole, regardless of their profession of religious beliefs.
   Professor Will Herberg of Drew University told an audience that religion, despite its outward boom, is making little impact: "Those who think religion is important also state that religious beliefs have little relation to their economic and political opinions."
   The chief importance of religion to most is giving them identification, something they can say they belong to.
   A Harvard University study of American business practices found that a person's religion or lack of it seemed to have no bearing on his business ethics.
   No wonder a leading German theologian, Walter Kasper, at an international theological conference in Brussels, viewed Christianity as being in an "extremely precarious situation." The congress president Dutch Catholic Edward Schillebeeck described the situation in the churches as having "reached a crisis."

Falling Down on the Job

   Conservative Rabbi Joseph H. Wagner, in an address before his congregation in Hollywood, concluded that organized religion is to blame for the mess the world is in — because it has failed to do its job properly. He asserted that if "religious people would put into practice the tenets they affirm on Sabbath in their temples and synagogues, or on Sundays in their churches, they could revolutionize society."
   Danish Minister J. v. Sorensen echoed the same thought: "Even from people who regularly attend church, complaints are heard that they do not get anything out of going to church."
   Part of the reason is that many ministers are themselves theologically confused. Today, it is a common view to consider much of the basic textbook of Christianity — the Bible — to be myth. Just how much is myth is hotly debated. Theologians are divided also on whether the Ten Commandments are "relevant" in our modern age.
   Certainly with such confusion concerning the very basic undergirdings of Christianity or Judaism is it any wonder pastors are confused to the point that one minister preaching in the pulpit asked himself: "What am I doing here anyway?" Yet, a vast majority of ministers' disillusionment with the ministry revolves around the attitudes of their flocks.

People Problems

   Both sides have a point. Congregations claim they are not stimulated by their worship services. Pastors indignantly reply that if they did really challenge their flocks and try to stir them up, they would soon be preaching to empty pews or looking for another pulpit. In the words of Presbyterian minister Donald F. Campbell of Stamford,
   Connecticut: "You don't try to moralize anymore because these people would just walk out on you."
   The problem is brilliantly highlighted by the tongue-in-cheek pastoral "success" book How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious by Methodist minister Charles Merrill Smith.
   Pastor Smith's book is ostensibly a handbook to the minister whose only goal is material and professional success, who wants the quickest way to the top. His real object is, of course, quite different, as he explains in the "Benediction" at the end of the book.
   By poking fun and satire at those less-enviable aspects of modern religion, he hopes to help eliminate them. His "expose" points up in humor what many other theologians have said in more serious tones.
   For example, the chapter "How to Be Impressive in the Pulpit" demonstrates that the way to be a popular and successful minister is to preach what everyone wants to hear. People like "soothing words" rather than the pointed message of the Bible: "The first rule for the popular preacher to remember as he prepares a sermon is that style is of enormous importance while content makes little ultimate difference" (p. 31, emphasis ours throughout the article).
   Ministers are urged to preach about sin-without getting specific, of course — because "people will never connect the words with anything that middleclass white Protestants do, so you can flail away at sin and sinners to your heart's content" (p. 37).
   Author Smith is at pains to distinguish the "pious image" — a put-on front of what people expect in a clergyman — from the truly religious attitude of the sincere and dedicated minister: "It can be demonstrated with astonishing ease that the one thing the church cannot abide is a genuinely religious man, and that it takes a generous endowment of other qualities to offset this handicap if a man is to become a successful clergyman" (pp. x-xi).

The Idols Worshipped by Society

   Other ministers have discussed the "suburban church" attitude derided by How to Become a Bishop. A Presbyterian minister in Southern California described his parishioners: "By living in suburbia, it appears to them as if they've 'made it,' so they look to the church simply as a pious club to soothe their wounds and bless the status quo and not disturb anything."
   This may explain why an Episcopal pastor in Virginia complained: "These people just use the church for what they think they can get out of it." A fellow
"If religious people would put into practice the tenets they affix on Sabbath in their temples and synagogues, or on Sundays in their church, they could revolutionize society." Conservative
Rabbi Joseph H. Wagner
pastor in the same denomination added: "God is in the background, usually.... When a real problem comes up they forget the church and say, 'What's the quickest way to buy myself out of this?' "
   Parishioners on the whole do not know what their churches teach and do not care. But if they did know, what purpose would it serve? Would they allow their churches' beliefs to interfere with their daily lives, anyway?
   One of Pastor Smith's colleagues, Dr. Dow Kirkpatrick, agreed: "Any time a minister makes it clear that he takes seriously the Gospel and, intends that it shall result in decisions in individual and community life, he's in trouble. He's going to be the target of people who want to get rid of him. That's an occupational hazard among preachers."
   Is it any wonder that ministers and priests are leaving their chosen profession in such numbers?
   Some have thought that the cause has been mainly the generally low pay or the requirement of celibacy (among Catholics). But studies show surprisingly different reasons.

Why Pastors Leave the Parish

   The United Church of Christ sponsored a comparative study of ministers and ex-ministers recently. The results have appeared in the book Ex-Pastors, Why Men Leave the Parish Ministry by Jud, Mills, and Burch.
   In the majority of cases, money has nothing to do with the decision. As one of the book's authors, Dr. Edgar Mills, put it: "Money is a straw on the camel's back, but not the one that breaks it."
   The study showed there was no simple answer since most left for a number of reasons. But two out of five said that being "disillusioned with the church's relevance to problems of the modern world" was of "high" importance.
   Some of the problems described by the anonymous minister at the beginning of this article will illustrate the frustrations felt by many.
I had won a preaching award as a student, and 400 persons (half his congregation) were there for my first sermon. Except at Christmas and Easter, the members never came in such numbers again. As one woman … put it: "The people would rather hear about their idea of Christianity than Christ's.
   Not only didn't they want to hear about it; they didn't want to talk about it. On my first round of calling on members I did little more than joke, make small talk and otherwise get acquainted. This approach of the religious ward heeler, I found made me a big hit....
   On the next round of visits, I began to talk religion as part of each call. It was a low-pressure approach, mainly telling members what I thought were the main doctrines of our church and asking if they had any questions. Almost every time they would cough, hesitate, smile shyly, try to change the subject and as soon as possible rush me to the door. Soon it became difficult to find members at home. When they were home, many preferred talking at the door to inviting me in.
   After fighting with himself and the church's problems for two or three years, this minister, who has chosen to remain anonymous, finally decided: "This was not the ministry to which I had felt a call." He saw his life "would be wasted as a recreation director for what essentially seemed to me to be little more than a U.S.O. for civilians or a Sunday-morning mutual-admiration society."
   Strong words, perhaps! But can anyone argue that, in this case, they weren't justified? As he concluded:
   "The majority of today's church members refuse to care. In this refusal, most remaining members and much of their chosen church hierarchy blandly acquiesce. How then can a minister rationalize devoting his life to the organization which results, a superficial extension of society?"

The Experience of Priests

   Now consider the worries that confront the Roman Catholic Church. Time magazine estimated that 4000 priests doff their collars each year in the United States alone. In 1965, the ratio of priests to lay Catholics was 1 to 1390; in 1970 it had dropped 1 to 1435. (Time magazine, February 23, 1970.)
   This crisis gives the incredible picture of one priest out of every four contemplating resignation.
   University of Notre Dame sociologist Dr. John P. Koval recently did a study of 1500 priests. He found that the most serious stresses given by those thinking of leaving were "related to authority, moral and social issues, the slow pace of change, loneliness, lack of support from colleagues and the desire to marry."
   But surprisingly, the desire to marry was, for most, not the prime consideration. The greatest stresses included "a lack of leadership from those in authority (40%), disappointment with the church's stand on certain social and moral issues (such as) race and birth control (38 %) and the slow pace of change after Vatican II (35%)."
   As might be expected, the root for dissatisfaction and frustration of priests and ministers can often be found in their student days — in the seminaries and theological schools which taught them.

What Grows the "Seedbed"?

   The very start of problems is with the types of persons who choose the ministry in the first place. (And, of those who choose the ministry, it is some of the most able who are the first to leave.)
   The secretary of the board of higher education of the United Lutheran Church once commented that far too many of those seeking the ministry are "passive and basically insecure conformists."
   He went on to say: "Most are pleasant, well-meaning, nice, happy, even gregarious, but they have little backbone… But what the church needs is valiant leadership in order to become a potent spiritual force in society rather than a fringe activity of irrelevant concern."
   A country or people is what its educators make it. Church leaders are the products of the seminaries. The faults in the churches can be traced in great degree to the faults of the theological programs which produce the ministers.
   How can a pastor point his parishioners to a faith he no longer believes in? And belief — or lack of belief — most likely stems from his seminary days. Remember, the "death of God" concept came from theologians, not Communists or avowed anti religionists.
   It's rather hard on the credibility gap of a bright young aspirant to the ministry when he hears a theologian give the following reply to the question of whether he believed in God: "Well, actually, I'd prefer not to split hairs about it"! (Look, May 16, 1967.)
   Presbyterian theologian John R. Bodo pointed out that anyone who decided to attend a seminary "should have a shockproof faith." He stated that unless a student is "already deeply committed to the God whom Jesus called Father," he was "not likely to survive this shock treatment."
   UPI correspondent Louis Cassels found that the "more famous the seminary, the more corrosive the atmosphere of skepticism pervading its faculty and student body is apt to be." He was not greatly surprised to find that few students of a prestige-laden Episcopal seminary engaged in private prayer, because most just did not believe in that kind of a personal God.
   The practicality of seminary training has also been questioned by more than one student and minister. This IS emphasized in a gently humorous but pointed manner in How to Become a Bishop: "About the only practical teaching in a seminary consists of lessons (usually bad) on how to write sermons and baptize babies" (p. xii).
   A survey by Dr. Robert E. Mitchell at Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research revealed that a minister uses his specialized training much less than most professionals such as doctors or lawyers.
   One study, in fact, shows that clergymen spend only 1/10 of their time dealing with theology and ritual. The average minister spends 40 percent of his time in administration and an additional 15 percent in organization or parish education. Yet the concentration of courses in seminary is on the academic subjects rather than on the skills most often called upon by the parish minister.
   Many theological training schools and seminaries fail to prepare the young clergy candidate for what actually awaits him in a local church. As one clergyman, who left the ministry, put it:
   "The realization of how things really are in a church, and how different they are from what we have been led to believe, shocks almost every minister. One disheartening discovery comes after another, like a series of blows for which the classical seminary curriculum cannot prepare one."
   No wonder one Protestant minister in eight and one Catholic priest out of four are contemplating resignation!

Admitted Loss of Influence

   Most of the causes of problems in the churches fall into one of three broad categories:
   1. The affluence and prosperity of Western society. The rise of affluence and the decline of religious fervency seem to be almost directly proportional. Down through history, the more opulent and prosperous a people or nation, the more of a sham and show became its religion. "God" is for the poor, the destitute and afflicted, it seems. For those who have "outgrown" it — the well-to-do, wealthy, and well-fed there is the "God concept."
   Instead of a supernatural God in heaven, all sorts of "false gods" are the object of worship today. Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Theological Seminary stated: "The false gods are obvious. The primary one is physical power and comfort." Professor W. S. Reid of McGill University paraphrased today's primary one as America's "standard of living."
   Even Moses is reported to have told the Children of Israel before they were to enter the Promised Land: "When thou hast eaten and art full... beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God" (Deut. 8:10-11). The Western world is no longer really conscious of that God.
   2. Lack of a central religious authority. Traditionally, Protestants and Jews have appealed to the Bible for their authority. But this has been more in theory than in fact, since there is no agreement about what the Bible means or how to understand it.
   Catholics have appealed to Council and Pope for authority. But the admitted schisms and cracks inside the Roman Catholic Church show this no longer holds true for many modern Catholics. The issue of birth control has demonstrated the lack of dominion the church exercises for many Catholics.
   The majority of Protestant churches are founded on the principle of democracy. This often leaves the clergy subservient to the wishes of the laymen. But as has been pointed out, the unconcern and ignorance of the congregation often hamstrings the minister who tries to apply his sincere conviction of right and wrong. Dr. Mitchell's study, reported in Redbook, found that "the successful minister is therefore the one who adapts to his parishioners' prejudices and wishes." (Redbook, January 1964.)
   3. The irrelevance of the church to the modern world and life in general. One religion editor of a newspaper gave a list of words by which many people described their churches. These included "simpering, servile, unctuous and mummified."
   In 1969 the National Observer, a weekly newspaper, conducted a discussion on religion with eight high school leaders from a "typical" high school. Their comments centered on the fact that they found little connection between services on Sunday morning and real everyday life.

Is There a Solution?

   While there are other problems and considerations, most would fall under these three main headings. Until these basic problems are solved, churches will continue to be in a state of crisis.
   The problems in the churches led a major news magazine to entitle an article: "U. S. Protestantism: Time for a Second Reformation."
   More than one minister and theologian has voiced the conviction that the nations need another "Jeremiah" — a modern-day prophet who will really stand up and "tell it like it is."
   Today's typical minister has been described as "no prophet but rather a skilled politician." Dr. John Thompson, chaplain of Hiram College, explains it: "He is leading his people back to the flesh pots of Egypt rather than forward to the Promised Land." (Christianity Today, June 24, 1966.)
   People recognize the need for a leader. But do they want a real leader? Syndicated columnist Sydney J. Harris described a true leader as one who "tells people hard truths, gives them a difficult path to follow, calls upon their highest qualities, not their basest instincts. A true leader does not tell us what we want to hear, but what we ought to hear."
   But would people accept such leadership? Would the people have the sense to distinguish genuine leadership and truth from the false?
   The original Jeremiah was labelled a traitor because, his detractors said, he "bad mouthed" his country. At least one of his colleagues was murdered in cold blood for standing up for the truth. Would a contemporary "Jeremiah" receive anything less from today's society? Time will tell.
   For further reading you are welcome to read these additional free reprint articles: "Why God Is Not Real to Most People," and "What Is a Real Christian?"
   Also, you may have an already paid subscription to the TOMORROW'S WORLD magazine, edited and published by the Ambassador College Graduate School of Theology. These are all given FREE as a public service by Ambassador College.

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Plain Truth MagazineJune 1971Vol XXXVI, No.6