For the last year for which we have reliable records, over 200 churches were closed in Ohio. In the same year, only 75 new churches were started for a net loss of 125—that is an average of two less churches in Ohio every week. One could speculate this is because smaller churches are closing as people flow toward mega churches (churches with more than 2,000 attendees) but that is not the case. Unlike most of the rest of the nation, the majority of Ohio mega churches are static or declining in attendance. The percentage of professing Christians in Ohio has been declining steadily for decades.
You can find a similar pattern in Europe in the last half of the twentieth century as they slowly became what historians call a Post-Christian society. Post-Christian societies are societies where Christianity was once the dominant faith but now is marginalized. Usually, militant secularism keeps the voice of the church muted in education, government and other public circles. Additionally, other religions and alternative forms of spirituality become equal and no longer unequal competitors with Christianity for the hearts and minds of those few who are spiritually curious.
And here is the hardest thing for the church to face—society didn’t do this to us. We did this to ourselves. There still are regions of our country that are not rapidly slipping into a Post-Christian culture. In those regions, churches are multiplying and carrying out innovative ministry. It is the worst sort of prejudice to pretend that those areas are backward and unsophisticated. And, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus are moving to those states just like they are moving into ours. The difference is in the churches—and, unfortunately, many of those are beginning to falter.
The prescription is simple but difficult. In a word, it is substance. The church must shape substantial disciples of Jesus Christ and send them into the meeting places of our society. We must NOT do this in order to turn back cultural change. That is a self-serving and unworthy motivation. We must do this because this is ALWAYS what God has called His church to do. It is tempting to wish for a return to the days when a flabby, attractionally-oriented church could maintain a privileged position in society. But it is that very lack of substance that has made the church irrelevant.
The movie industry did not become extinct when VCR’s and DVD players moved into people’s homes. Drive-in theaters did. Cultural change is an opportunity for the church to step up our game and to recover substance lost along the way. If we do that here in Ohio, the results will be surprising. That is why Agora Church and the church planting movement of which we are part (MissioOhio/MissioChurch) exists—to shape substantial disciples of Jesus Christ and to send then into the meeting places of our society.
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on a stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”
Jesus, in Matthew 5:14-15