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Empty Churches - by Thomas C. Reeves

Empty Churches

Thomas C. Reeves

A few weeks ago I noticed a newspaper story about a large and historic Presbyterian church in Milwaukee preparing to close its doors for the last time. There were few families left, and only three children. The parish had no doubt been living off its endowment for many years. Milwaukee is a city of churches, and many of them, especially of the liberal Protestant variety, are fading away and closing.

Nine years ago I published a book on this general subject: The Empty Church, The Suicide of Liberal Christianity. It is packed with data showing a strong correlation between prosperity and growth and undiluted Christianity. By undiluted I mean the authentic faith as gauged by Scripture and tradition, largely free from the modern tendency to dismiss the miraculous, demand little of worshippers, and reject solid moral teaching.

With a couple of thousand years of history to learn from, Christians don't have to quibble about what is and isn't the historic, revealed faith. The issue is whether or not we accept it. Those churches preferring to base their religion and morality on current fads, social work, liberal politics, and the latest issue of the New York Times are disappearing.

People who have spiritual needs want more. As George Will put it recently, "In America, a market-driven society, there is a religion market in which the most successful competitors for congregations are churches with clear doctrinal and strict moral positions. For these churches, the 'crisis of Christianity' is congestion in their parking lots."

The March, 2005 issue of Touchstone, A Journal of Mere Christianity (a splendid magazine, by the way) contains information about the Episcopal Church (ECUSA). This American branch of the Anglican Communion fell victim to the trends of the 1960s and has now fallen so far into the mainstream of our rotting culture that it has condoned the consecration of a bishop who divorced his wife, left his family, and is proudly living with another man in a homosexual relationship. Other branches of the Anglican Communion, whose mother church is the Church of England, are threatening schism. But ECUSA has diluted the historic faith and conducted itself in a way that is by no means unusual; it is solidly in fellowship with the other major liberal Protestant denominations. Which means that its future is decidedly bleak.

According to Touchstone, the Episcopal Church has 7,220 parishes in this country. About a third of the churches grew last year, and about half declined. The average Sunday attendance in a parish is 77; 247 of the parishes have Sunday attendance of fewer than ten. (A single Roman Catholic parish in Milwaukee I know of serves 7,500 families, and children abound. That is not at all unusual.) The median age of the clergy is 53, and half are between 50 and 60. Long being the church of the upper class, ECUSA parishes hold $3.6 billion in investments. That will assure the survival of many buildings and keep clerical salaries coming, but to what purpose if the pews are empty? The denomination stands on no solid theological base, it demands little or nothing of parishioners, its evangelical outreach is practically nonexistent, and its morality is almost wholly permissive. Why go to church on Sunday morning to listen to what can be heard at home on NPR? [That last sentence is very witty and most apposite -WCHS+]

The Church of England, like the other Protestant state churches of Western Europe, is almost dead. A recent study of 14,000 British churchgoers and those who have left the Church show that the trend described in my book is still at work, for the same reasons. Church attendance in 1968 was a mere 1.6 million. By 1998 the figure was 900,000 and is in freefall. Liberal and weak clergy are responsible for empty pews, the study reports. Watered-down theology "has resulted in a growing number of people being left with the false impression that there are no strong reasons for Christian belief." Silly services contribute to the public malaise. Said one interviewee, "I've seen balloons rising from the pulpit, fake moustaches and all manner of audience appeal...but with no real message behind it." Lack of solid moral teaching plays a role in the decline as well. Churchgoers, the report states, want to be told how to live a Christian life and how to win others to Christ in a world gone mad with materialism. Receiving little or nothing worth having, they drop out. Why go to the State Church on Sunday morning to listen to what can be heard at home on the BBC? (See www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1511237,00.html.)

Check out the comparative data for what is left of the Lutheran state churches in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, or the remnant of the Calvinist churches in Holland and Scotland. And then there is the Anglican Church in Canada. Liberal, Protestant Christianity is dying. [And not too soon, either]

The Roman Catholic Church was badly damaged, at least in the short run, by the concessions to the modern world that followed Vatican II in the 1960s. But it remains the largest Christian church in America (65 million) and in the world (over a billion), and renewal and outreach are visible everywhere. (Ironically, it is healthier in the United States, despite clergy scandals, than in historically Catholic Ireland.) A new generation of Catholics is emerging, loyal to the faith, to historic authority, and to a morality that stands firmly opposed to what John Paul II has called the Culture of Death. The Catholic Church is united in its diversity above all by the Sacrament of the Eucharist. No wonder it has so many enemies. Pope Benedict XVI, whose brilliant writings I have enjoyed for years, promises to be a formidable leader.

The evangelical Protestant churches in America are vibrant and growing. Their impressive numbers won media attention during the last two presidential races. While watching, listening to, and reading some of the best of the evangelicals, I've been impressed by the zeal, knowledge, and commitment of the clergy and by the rapt attention of the huge congregations. These Christians are committed to the essentials of what is a supernatural, revealed faith, and they believe in a living God of love who can be reached through prayer, providing guidance, consolation, and purpose. The evangelical Protestant churches, moreover, ask something of people, including giving and witness to others. These churches have a future because they still have the faith and are committed to sharing it.

While the major media and other denizens of the Left despise orthodox Christians, Catholic and Protestant, the churches of the faithful should prosper and be fruitful. God seems to reward those who trust the most in Him. That's as it should be.


The Empty Church; The Suicide of Liberal Christianity by Thomas C. Reeves, The Free Press, $25.00.

A Review by The Rev Dr Peter Toon, President, Prayer Book Society and Editor of The Mandate

We commend this book to all surfers who want to know what is happening to the older Protestant Churches of America.

Specifically this is a book about the demise and decline of the mainline denominations of North America (Baptist, Congregational, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran). It also has suggestions as to how they can recover the orthodoxy and growth which they once enjoyed. However, it needs to be made clear that Mr. Reeves is much more believable in terms of the reasons for and the nature of the demise, than are his suggestions to stop and reverse this decline. This is probably because he is a historian rather than a pastor.

In fact, it is difficult to find any evidence in history for a major U-turn by any of the mainline churches during the last century. There has been a succession of secessions from them to create new denominations claiming to recover that orthodox belief and morality which have been given up in the parent body. However, there have been no major moves in which traditional biblical faith and morality were recovered for the whole denomination. Reformation and renewal have only come to small parts of, or groups within, the main-line churches.

Mr. Reeves is an experienced writer and has an attractive flowing style. Further, since he uses an abundance of illustrations it is relatively easy to follow his presentation and his general arguments. The fifty pages of endnotes (one fifth of the whole book) reveal the wide reading of the author and offer the possibility for follow up by his readers on the themes he addresses.

The book is most useful for concerned church members who have tended to focus only on their own parish or local church and have paid little attention to what has been going on in the larger scene and context. Such people will be deeply shocked by what they read and hopefully they will be motivated to resist the tide of secularist theology and ethics and stand for biblical faith and morality.

We need to recall that the main-line denominations were the natural recipients of the classic Liberal Christianity and Theology which developed in Germany in the nineteenth century. Their colleges and seminaries gradually absorbed much of this classic Liberalism and taught it to generations of future ministers. Mr. Reeves concentrates more on what has happened to these churches since the 1960s. they have become increasingly welcoming to the new revisionist Liberalism, which is often no better than an acute form of modern secularist teaching and practice, and which (as it were) sits on the back of the old liberalism. This post-1960s liberationist teaching (including the feminist and lesbigay agendas and the use of politically correct speech) has led in all the denominations to a tension between the traditional clergy and laity on the one hand and the liberal leadership and national bureaucracy on the other.

Regrettably but understandably, the majority of the laity have been passive and have tended either to go with the flow or just leave the church. Their children have thus not been given a good example of committed Christian faith and church membership. So it is not surprising that the membership of the main-line denominations has steeply decreased over the last fifty years and it continues to go down.

The Episcopal Church, while developing a revisionist liberal bureauocracy based in New York, has consistently lost members since the late 1960s. Furthermore, it has become the home for a significant lobby for gay rights in terms of the ordination of active homosexuals and the blessing of the parternships of gay couples. The orthodox, who want to recover the traditional faith and morality for a modern world, are very much in a minority. Further, because they belong to a hierarchical church where bishops have great power, the task of the orthodox is made the more difficult as more bishops accept the feminist and lesbigay agendas.

However much the main-line churches have declined in spiritual power and in members, there is in their midst thousands of those who have not yet "bowed the knee to Baal." In a sense Mr. Reeves sees himself as speaking for them. In all these denominations there remain active renewal groups and societies. The CCLEC is one such society in the Episcopal Church.

Before the medicine for a cure can be administered, we need to know the disease. Mr. Reeves book will most certainly teach us the nature of the disease and it may also give us some hints as to where is the cure.


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