LLESSONS FROM THE EMPTY CHURCH
One of the most insightful books of 1996 is The Empty Church by Thomas C. Reeves. A historian and an Episcopalian, Reeves analyzes why seven major "mainline" denominations in the United States are declining in membership: American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, Methodists, and United Church of Christ. Since the 1960ís, these churches have been in a "serious and unprecedented numerical decline, losing between a fifth and a third of their membership" (10). Reeves cites a 1995 report that the Methodist Church, for example, lost a thousand members every week for the last 30 years (11).
In this carefully documented work, Reeves says these churches are losing their children, their morale is low, and missionary zeal is waning (11, 13). Their seminaries have emphasized "the therapeutic, the trendy, and the easy assimilation of leftist views" (18).
According to Reeves, these churches, once the backbone of Protestantism in America, have declined primarily because the leaders, often without agreement of their members, have compromised to accommodate current culture (67, 94). They accept the theory of evolution (96) but no longer believe in Bible miracles, even denying the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus (86). They no longer hold the inerrancy of scripture and have adopted relativism (2-3).
In addition to doctrinal changes, these churches have also changed moral views to match our secular society. Leaders no longer consider adultery as wrong and accept homosexuality, feminism, and abortion (19). In 1993, for example, a woman, Episcopal priest "displayed a condom during an Easter season service and said that if Jesus were to return he would want everyone to be free to enjoy sex, in whatever form that might be" (27).
These "mainline" churches have also declined because they are not evangelistic. Their support of missionaries is down and they make little effort to gain new members (13). They have, in fact, so blended into the culture, they have lost "their distinctiveness and much of their reason for being" (130).
Reeves believes these churches are headed for eventual oblivion if they do not change (174). His formula for their revival is threefold. "The first and most critical step in halting the slide of the mainline churches is the restoration of their commitment to orthodox theology" (175). By this he means a return to belief in the trinity, the miraculous, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and other fundamental elements of the faith (175-176). "Above all, sermons should teach the faith" (199).
The second step for recovery, Reeves says, is a return to a belief in absolutes and high moral standards. He quotes George Gallup as saying people "want their churches to help them learn how to put their faith into practice; to shed light on the important moral issues of the day; to help them learn how to serve others better and to be better parents" (187).
Reeves third step for these churches is a return to evangelism (188) by door-knocking, telephoning, media, educational programs, outreach to families and youth (188-194).
Referencing Dean Kellyís book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing , Reeves says these churches should become both exclusive and strict. In strong churches, members must give "absolute and unswerving allegiance; be willing to work, suffer, and die for it; abandon all competing activities, allegiances, and responsibilities in its favor; tell its Good News tirelessly and unself-consciously to strangers" (185).
The lessons are quite obvious for churches of Christ. We must stand firm on biblical truth in doctrine and morality both because that is right and because it will eventually win more members. We must teach firmly what we believe and why. We must increase evangelistic outreach within our communities.
According to information Reeves presents, churches of Christ should be in position to reach many in our communities. He quotes Gallup as finding that nine of ten Americans believe in the existence of God and that eight of ten believe they will be called before God in judgment (50). Most do not go to church because, they say, they do not have time, do not find churches relevant to their lives, (171) or had a bad experience with a preacher (200). With our strong biblical stand, firm position on morals, clear application of scripture to life, and kind, supportive attitude toward those needing help, churches of Christ should find many open to our message.