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Local ministers mixed on state of Christianity

By Jared Felkins jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:21 PM

Easter and Christmas are traditionally pew-packing services at churches each year. 

But according to LifeWay Research, a survey conducted two weeks before Easter showed 39 percent planned on attending an Easter worship service while 41 percent planned on going. About 20 percent said they were undecided. 

According to LifeWay, 18 percent who attend only on religious holidays didn’t plan to attend on Easter, as did 92 percent who never go to church. About half (48 percent) of Americans who said they rarely attend church didn’t plan on attending at Easter.

Just over half of self-identified Christians said they would attend Easter services. Protestants (58 percent) and Catholics (57 percent) were most likely to say they planned on attending Easter services, followed by 45 percent of nondenominational Christians, the survey showed.

So what is the current state and future of Christianity? The Democrat posed the question to several Wilson County ministers of different denominations. 

Kevin Owen, minister at College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, said the answer depends on the part of the world. 

“In certain parts of the world, Christianity is thriving, such as in South America, parts of Africa, Eastern Europe and China. In China and India, the church is just thriving,” Owen said. “In Western Europe and North America, it’s not doing as well generally. But there are parts of both where churches are thriving and Christianity is on the move. 

“Affluence tends to inoculate us from the gospel. If you look in the world, the more affluent cultures tend to be more inoculated. God has brought revival to America, and He can certainly do it again.”

Owen said College Hills is doing well.  

“We are growing,” he said. “Our numbers are up. Generally speaking, things are going well. People are finding a community, relationships, health and meaning. The gospel is thriving. There is a Christian underpinning that is refreshing.”

The Rev. Kira Schlesinger with Episcopal Church of the Epiphany said the church is changing with the people. 

“I think clergy and so-called mainline denominations have seen some bad news with people not coming to church. On a national level, I think the church is starting some steps to change those things,” Schlesinger said. “In some ways, I think it’s going to be good for the church to change. I think it’s good for the church to go through a resurrection. It could be where we move into more of a mission-oriented direction. 

“I think in a lot of ways, the church has gotten away from what Jesus has called us to do in feeding and helping the poor and healing the sick. It has instead been more focused on self-preservation. I feel like in the future, there may be fewer numbers of Christians, and those Christians may be more active in acting out their faith as Jesus has called us to do.”

Schlesinger said her church has had a slight increase in membership and attendance in the past two-and-a-half years. She said it helps to be the only Episcopal church between Donelson and Cookeville. 

Pastor Matt Steinhauer with Faith Lutheran Church agreed the church appears to be changing with the times. 

“I think Christianity is alive and well, but it is growing and changing, and in a generation or two that may not look like it does today,” Steinhauer said. “Author and scholar Phyllis Tickle has proposed in her writing and speaking that if you go back every 500 years, there is a major shift in how Christianity is practiced. 

“I really believe the way we do church is changing. Pastors and leaders in the church are challenged to meet the expectations of longstanding traditions, and at the same time be open to the new ways and new forms that worship and faith practices will be done.”

Steinhauer said Faith Lutheran Church has witnessed some growth over the past few years. 

“We are actually growing, but Faith had gone through a period of decline due to natural life patterns,” he said. “Financially we are healthy, and numbers-wise we are growing steadily. If you ask how we are growing, we base that on how we are working in the community. I’d say we are growing quite well.”

Pastor Mike Ripski with First United Methodist Church in Lebanon also referenced Tickle’s book in his observations of Christianity today. 

“Christianity today is in transition,” Ripski said. “Phyllis Tickle in her book, ‘The Great Emergence,’ has popularized Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer’s observation that roughly every 500 years the Christian Church goes through a ‘giant rummage sale.’ 

“In other words, with some regularity the church reaches the tipping point of losing itself in an attempt to preserve itself. The ‘institutional’ church becomes an idol and, as Tony Campolo has pointed out, somebody switched the price tags. The most important has become the least valued and what doesn’t matter is what the Church now spends it time, money and other resources on.

“Today the church is in the process of discerning what to keep and what to discard, what is essential and what once was useful but no longer is, what is treasure and what is rummage.”

Pastor Bruce Grubbs with The Glade Church in Gladeville said there’s a difference between Christianity and cultural Christianity. 

“The state of Christianity is as good as it has ever been, if not better,” Grubbs said.  “However, the state of cultural Christianity is not in good shape. There is a resurgence of genuine belief in Christ as opposed to cultural assent agreement in faith. The Christian faith is always in transition, but truth always survives.”

Grubbs said The Glade has seen significant growth and continues to grow. 

“Glade Church was a small church 25 years ago,” he said. “It has grown to a regional church with about 3,000 members now. It is a future-driven church with a focus on outward ministries. We are driven by a sense of vision, and we reshape our vision every three to five years. We grow at a rate of about 200 people a year.”

Pastor Erik Reed with The Journey Church in Lebanon said it’s tougher for people to show their Christianity these days. 

“I think we live in a day and age where it’s not as easy to be a Christian within our culture,” Reed said. “Some of those hot-button topics, such as marriage, are making it not as easy for people to be Christian. Now it’s not easy to be a convenient Christian. I think that’s going to increase. It’s going to be tough to be a fair-weather Christian. Historically that’s not a bad thing, because that’s when Christianity has thrived the most.”

Reed said the Journey has also grown significantly since it started. 

“The Journey has been growing and has been growing steadily since the church was planted eight years ago,” he said. “The reoccurring theme we are hearing from people who regularly come is they appreciate that we teach from the Bible. They are learning how to read the Bible from when we teach it on Sundays. They are not looking for another self-help. They are looking for something of substance, and that’s encouraging.”

Pastor Kenneth Bowen with Unity Church in Lebanon said Christianity is on the decline. 

“From what I see and people I talk to each and every Sunday, we are going backward instead of forward in terms of Christianity,” Bowen said. “A lot of people who used to go to church don’t go to church anymore. It’s showing in our children and their attitudes. I’ve been in this for about 21 years now, and this is what I’m seeing. We are seeking everything out here today except the kingdom of God. 

“They are declining. It’s something I’m talking to with several churches in the area. They are having the same problems. We are seeing a decline in offerings. There are so many people who are just not interested in church. 

“It’s going to have to improve, not just for us, but also for the entire world. If it doesn’t, I don’t think God is going to put up with it.”

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