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Are we witnessing the demise of America’s church?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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This 200-year-old building was once a Methodist church slated for demolition, but it was rescued from the wrecking ball. The building was converted to a mosque and community center by Bosnian Muslim immigrants in 2008. Photo taken on August 16, 2012 (Credit: Utica Observer-Dispatch / William P Cannon)

Will the American church exist in 100 years?  You know about our nation’s atheists and agnostics.  Now we have “ignostics,” people who are ignorant of basic biblical truths.  Fewer than half of Americans can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible; only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; only one half can name even one of the Gospels.

We have “apatheists,” those who are apathetic about spirituality.  Some 46 percent of Americans say they never wonder whether they will go to heaven; 44 percent spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom.”  And we have “exitists”—almost 60 percent of young people ages 15-29 have left active church involvement.  If their children follow their example, what will happen to American Christianity?  This decline is not only among mainline denominations: Southern Baptist Convention membership will fall nearly 50 percent by 2050 if current trends continue.

This decline is on my heart as I write today’s Cultural Commentary from Rome, where our study tour of Italy is concluding.  We have spent nearly two weeks in this remarkable country, marveling at cathedrals that have been standing for 800 years and art that changed the world.  The simplicity of Assisi and the beauty of Tuscany are beyond description; the people of Italy have impressed us with their vitality and hospitality.  And yet I’m leaving with a profound heaviness of heart.

The magnificent cathedrals of this land, built to the glory of God for the advancement of his Church, are largely museums today.  In one, a group of priests was holding Mass while tourists walked in and out of the sanctuary, marveling at the art on the walls and ignoring completely the One whom the art was meant to honor.  We experienced the Vatican more as an art gallery than a place of worship.  In Assisi, long lines waited to see the tomb of St. Francis, but few stopped to consider his significance today.

Some 94 percent of Italy’s children are enrolled in Catholic religious instruction in elementary school; 84 percent of high school students voluntarily take such courses.  Yet those born after 1981 are attending Mass and self-identifying as Catholics in lower numbers than ever before.  One researcher called this trend a “collapse” of Catholicism here and predicts a near future when the Church holds “minority status in Italy.”

Will the same be true in America?  It will if we don’t think it can.  It will if we trust our buildings and clergy more than our Lord.  It will if we don’t pray passionately for the spiritual awakening we so desperately need.  How can the Holy Spirit use unholy vessels?  How can a holy God bless an unholy people?

I am returning to America with a greater passion for moral and spiritual renewal in our land than ever before.  What is the Spirit saying to your heart?