There is a huge debate about Christianity these days. Many people thinks it’s an antique ideology, disappearing rapidly. I don’t want to argue, but my recent experience might help.
My home city used to be the Bible belt of Canada. Our provincial premier, similar to a state governor, was also a Baptist radio preacher. My brother once went to a children’s meeting at the Fundamentalist Baptist Church, and a dignified older man said hello. That was him.
We also had a mention in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” for Holy Row, or Church Street, a small area with the highest concentration of churches in the world. That Ripley’s thing might be an urban legend but we all believed it.
Today, that inner city street is crowded with old churches and my personal favourite is the Danish Lutheran building. Some of those churches are still open, but Holy Row not so holy now.
A few years ago my church moved to some place north of the city, into cow and chicken country, and I moved south; so I lost contact. We recently moved northward again, and we searched until we found the old church, just west of Walmart, between some new houses and a freeway. It’s now in remote suburbia, and any livestock has moved on.
The large new building is neat and efficient, and the services have all the right elements; preaching, praying, singing, and reading from the Bible. I like it, but honestly, that church has a problem.
Our first Sunday service was very sparsely attended, and large parts of the auditorium were closed off to keep the people in the middle. When I was a boy, I remember big crowds in Sunday services. This crowd was not so big.
So is Christianity dying?
All that I told you is true, but it’s not all of the truth. That sparsely attended service with empty seats was the third service, the afternoon overflow for stragglers like us. That church fills completely on Sunday, twice, and there was a recent experiment with a live video feed to the gymnasium.
A few weeks ago, I had to drive out of town to visit my son, so I went to an earlier service, alone. The ushers thought they might be able to fit me in, but I just stood by the door. I saw groups of people broken up to squeeze each person in somewhere.
So what is the problem in that church? They have too many people for their large new building. They could not possibly fit the whole group in to one service. People might have to stand in the parking lot if they tried.
I am not making this up. There is no death in that place.
There are some obvious reasons for this success; Pentecostals attract immigrants, hard work gets results, and God is faithful.
The heritage of that suburban church is Pentecostal, and therefore its historical roots are in the Azusa Street revival meetings in Los Angeles California, between 1906 and 1915. The Pentecostal movement is one of the largest and fastest growing communities in the world, and did you know, it was not founded by wealthy white people.
The Azusa Street group were poor African Americans, in the days of extreme prejudice and segregation, and they welcomed others. In my experience, that attitude still predominates, Pentecostal churches tend to be racially mixed, and welcoming.
Also, that suburban church is full because people work hard. The leaders have three services every Sunday, and they may be winded by the third round, but they soldier on. Success for Christians in not about entertainment and dynamic personalities; Jesus simple said “Feed my sheep.” (John 27:17). If you want to cater to sheep, simply introduce them to the grass.
And Jesus promised “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Apparently he meant what he said.
This success story is not unique, I know it’s happening around the world, anywhere that God builds, and Christians work hard for God, and people feel welcome. That mix is possible in any church.
So no, Christianity is not dying. The real thing is just moving to where the people are.
“I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne.” (Revelation 7:9)