Church Burn Out

Church Burn Out

on December 2, 2019

The Crown deserves credit for treating religion and the royal family seriously. In one episode of season three, Prince Philip becomes impatient with and almost hostile to the church. The dean at Windsor Castle’s chapel has become elderly and boring in the pulpit. But more broadly, Philip hankers for men of action over men of contemplation. He idealizes the astronauts who land on the moon in 1969. But upon meeting them he discovers with disappointment they lack deep spiritual insights. So he reluctantly turns again to the church.

At the Queen’s request, there’s an energetic new dean at Windsor, Robin Woods, who asks Philip for permission to create a retreat center at Windsor for spiritually exhausted clergy, known as St. George’s House. Philip reluctantly accedes, but when asked to join a group of clergy, he denounces them as introspective weaklings, urging them to be more like the action prone astronauts. Later, he apologizes, asking for their help with his own spiritual longing. Dean Woods becomes a close confidante.

In real life, apparently Philip supported St. George’s House from the start, and several years before the moon landings, which The Crown conflates into simultaneous events. But the larger story, of Philip’s rediscovery of faith, seems to be true. Another influence at this time was the return to London of his troubled and aged mother, who had found solace years earlier by becoming a Greek Orthodox nun devoted to the poor

The Royal Family has remained actively committed to the church, beyond just their ceremonial obligations. But the Church of England, of which the Queen is head, is in steep decline. Immigrant churches and evangelical urban congregations offer rare vitality in the otherwise somnolent state church. Britain as a whole has become religiously indifferent, as Prince Philip in the 1960s evidently had become. Liberal theology plays a role. But the laxity and privilege of being a state church also undermine the capacity for initiative.

Mainline Protestantism in America has often been the close equivalent of a state religion in America. Its denominations were the pillars of American public life for centuries. Some of them actually were state churches in colonial times. Their own privilege and presumption helped fuel their decline.

When I was growing up there was a large United Methodist congregation in my community that was the prestige church. It was the largest Methodist church in the area, and persons of influence attended there. But its pastors never seemed to remain for long. I knew some of them, and several of them were evangelical and orthodox. But they always seemed to clash with the congregation, or at least its leaders.

The congregation dwindled across decades and finally in recent years it died altogether. The large building remains, now rented to several non-Methodist congregations, including Anglicans, Reformed Baptists, plus African and Hispanic Pentecostals. Within a few blocks there are other thriving evangelical church plants, in a socially and politically very progressive community.

So there were need and desire in the neighborhood for Christian community, but the United Methodists, having become insular, could not provide it. So they died. At least the building continues in service to the Gospel, through congregations of other traditions. This story is writ large across America. Old Mainline buildings are emptied of their own congregations but often house new congregations. New branches are grafted into old ones, sort of.

Liberal theology has been destructive to Mainline Protestantism. But it’s not the whole story. These once great denominations became exhausted and stopped trying very hard. Their wealth, status, and historical trajectory took away their initiative. They are fragments of their former selves. Their leaders and clergy are still mostly in denial. But some within them, perhaps a new generation, will, like Prince Philip, realize their condition and try a new path, which is really the old and true path.

  1. Comment by jeff Allen on December 2, 2019 at 11:38 am

    I read somewhere that pretty most all young people going to church anymore were those that believed Christ was the Son of God and the only path to God. It makes sense that the mainline would wither. Churches want a commitment of time and money. Younger people ask Why ?
    Liberal churches don’t have a good answer for this.

  2. Comment by David on December 2, 2019 at 1:55 pm

    You may be interested in what the Pew Survey people reported back in October. A majority of young people, born 1981 to 1996, do not even considered themselves Christian at this point.

  3. Comment by Pudentiana on December 2, 2019 at 11:58 am

    Privilege must come with a purpose. If none materializes, both disappear. We need to pray for lost clergy, especially bishops.

  4. Comment by Jim on December 2, 2019 at 8:13 pm

    Better perhaps that we pray that God would raise a new generation of young men who will fulfill the call of preaching the truth.

  5. Comment by Joanne Hilton on December 4, 2019 at 12:26 pm

    Also young women. Perhaps more women in the pulpit will be the saving of the traditional church.

  6. Comment by Rachel Culker on December 6, 2019 at 9:40 pm

    Women won’t be the saving of the church. The Bible calls men to be pastors and elders.

  7. Comment by Kevin on December 2, 2019 at 2:21 pm

    “I read somewhere that pretty most all young people going to church anymore were those that believed Christ was the Son of God and the only path to God.”
    Uh, who would endure crappy music, insipid preaching, scorched coffee, and then return week after week with money for the collection plate in order to endure dry-rot atrocities if they DIDN’T believe Jesus was the only begotten Son of God?!?

  8. Comment by David on December 2, 2019 at 5:00 pm

    I am glad someone brought up the subject of music. I suspect this is more important to attendees than doctrine. The Anglican cathedral-style service with boy choirs is not what most people want to hear at this point. They prefer something closer to current popular music—no more organs, choirs (except as vocal backup), or congregational singing.

    Feel good sermons are probably more popular than those requiring serious thought. Threatening people with fire and brimstone does not work anymore.

    The Methodist Church is famous for itinerancy and changing pastors is the norm.

  9. Comment by Steve on December 4, 2019 at 9:18 pm

    Regarding music, studies suggest its far from the most important thing:
    “A previous study from LifeWay Research found 5% of Protestant churchgoers say they would find a new church if the music style changed at their current congregation, far behind issues like the church making a doctrinal shift (54%) or the preaching style changing (19%).
    Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship, believes this is evidence of a worship war peace treaty. “The distance between what used to be traditional and contemporary are much closer than what they were 20 years ago,” he said. “Disagreement has begun to wain in most churches, and what a wonderful thing that is.””
    Like any other music, some people like one genre, some another. Some cathedrals with traditional music have high attendance, benefiting from people that are willing to travel long distances for quality. Megachurches with contemporary can have great attendance also. Different services for different crowds. One need not exclude the other. Regarding current popular music, that covers a lot of ground; Beyonce, Kanye, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, rappers, it goes on and on. Kanye just came out with an album called Jesus is King. There was a Beyonce mass. Beyond a few novel experiments true contemporary pop doesn’t appear to be catching on. Instead, many clergy are pushing simpler folky participatory music that is neither traditional nor contemporary: see Taize and Music that Builds Communities. Ultimately, in the mainlines at least, the trend seems to be for both traditional and contemporary music de-emphasized towards simpler forms of music, to reduce expense, increase participation, and to give clergy more control over messaging.

  10. Comment by James Stone on December 9, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    Regarding music, I admit I am no doubt in the minority. To me, music is an essential part of worship and by music I mean that which is inspirational and uplifting. To me, much of the so-called “contemporary” music is spiritually uninspiring and musically and lyrically repetitious and downright boring.
    I was particularly struck by the statement, “Ultimately, in the mainlines at least, the trend seems to be for both traditional and contemporary music de-emphasized towards simpler forms of music, to reduce expense, increase participation, and to give clergy more control over messaging.”

    Churches that limit their music ministry to a so-called “praise band” with few participants are essentially ignoring those members who would like to be involved in a more traditional music ministry (such as a choir) but are not given the opportunity. In my area of the country, I am finding it almost impossible to find a non-Mormon Bible-believing church that provides such an opportunity.

  11. Comment by Gary Smith on December 10, 2019 at 3:00 am

    I’m 61 and nothing puts me off more than happy-clappy, seven-eleven (The same seven words repeated eleven times), “Jesus is my buddy” songs. I had my fill of that stuff in Young Life back in the 70s. Interestingly at my church (UMC) the contemporary service is mainly attended by an older crowd and the praise band is a bunch of old fogies like myself.

    I’ve talked with some of the youth at my church and a surprising number say they like traditional music, so I have to wonder if the leaders just assume that they like contemporary just because, you know, it’s contemporary.

  12. Comment by Mark Wesley on December 10, 2019 at 11:29 pm

    James, you are very observant. Most have no concept of what proper music ministry should look like and what it can do. They just argue contemporary vs traditional. It is SO much more than that. And near the heart of it is the involvement of as many members of the congregation in music ministry as possible. I have experienced firsthand what a thriving, diverse music program can do, not just for the worship service, but for the overall life of a congregation and surrounding community. Sadly, the ability to lead such a ministry is a dying art. And both the contemporaries and traditionalists are killing it.

  13. Comment by John Smith on December 8, 2019 at 5:40 am

    Curious about this comment: “Threatening people with fire and brimstone does not work anymore.” I’m not interested so much in what does work but what constitutes “work”? Traditionally (the last several decades-we’ve such short memories now) in the UMC and its ilk, “work” means bottoms in the pew and dollars in the plate. Everything else was nice but unimportant. Perhaps its time to reexamine the basics?

  14. Comment by jeff Allen on December 2, 2019 at 3:11 pm

    David, yes your statistics are true and sad.
    As I said before there is really no reason to hang on to waterdowned Christianity lite. This also pertains to entertainment Christianity offered by some evangelicals too.

  15. Comment by JR on December 2, 2019 at 5:31 pm

    “These once great [families] became exhausted and stopped trying very hard. Their wealth, status, and historical trajectory took away their initiative. They are fragments of their former selves.”

    Any group that sees success can fall victim to that. Liberal theology is only the boogeyman under the bed here.

    Heck, every Imperial dynasty in the history of man fits that description.

  16. Comment by Torin93 on December 4, 2019 at 6:54 am

    I think it is funny that people like yourself that seek certainty and individuals like my self that question point the finger at each other saying your ideas are the problem. We are both trying to navigate life and as long as we view the other camp as the problem our spiritual traditions will suffer.

  17. Comment by Jon Lindgren on December 4, 2019 at 10:59 am

    Everyone that speculates on why Christian numbers are falling or on why some branches, conservative, are doing better than others, liberal, does not know the complicated cultural change that brought all this about. From what I read conservative numbers are not that good either. It could be that much of society in general just does not believe in invisible beings, or, wants to believe in some invisible beings other than those in Christianity. There have been thousands of invisible beings in our history and each of them had a limited shelf life.

  18. Comment by David Tiffany on December 5, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    “Churches” come and go, but the Church is not the building or the denomination. The Church is the Body of Christ, which is being built up as people believe the Gospel of Grace, which the Apostle Paul said was of first importance. There should be no wonder that “churches” disappear when they had the foundation wrong to begin with.

  19. Comment by Ted R. Weiland on December 6, 2019 at 7:39 pm

    America doesn’t need more churches, regardless whether they’re liberal or alleged conservative. The more churches, the more infanticide clinics, sodomite parades, drag queen library shows, abominable legislation, etc.

    God did not call Christians to church but to ecclesia, that is, to form Christian communities in the fullest sense of the word. In turn, this means dominionizing society, including government, per Romans 12:21, 13:1-7, 1 Corinthians 6:1-6, 2 Corinthians 10:4-6, etc.

    For more, listen to the two-part series entitled “Ecclesia vs. Church,” which you can find at

  20. Comment by Myron Heavin on December 6, 2019 at 7:41 pm

    I agree that the mainline churches are losing members due to being way too liberal. However I suspect that if these same churches suddenly became more conservative, they would still be in decline. One of the best indications of this is the current split in the Presbyterian church where the conservatives split off. Unfortunately the new ECO Presbyterian denomination continues with declining attendance. However they hope to turn this around with better church support and far more new church plants. In short the path to church growth is complex.
    I would suggest IRD do a study of this conservative vs liberal PCUSA split and publish the results. I think the results would be fascinating, especially in trying to identify the key factors in church decline after the split.
    This might help Methodists with what appears to be a possible split. For if this happens, we want to go this with wisdom knowing the main facts.

  21. Comment by Donald on December 7, 2019 at 10:28 am


  22. Comment by John Smith on December 9, 2019 at 6:06 am

    Could the problem be America? Sure liberal denominations don’t really grow anywhere but from within conservatives grown comfortable and complacent but traditional/conservative/1st Century/pick a label, seems to grow in the rest of the world.

  23. Comment by Roger on December 11, 2019 at 4:57 pm

    Question: What makes you think God is going to allow you into his heaven? The answer should be belief in 1 Cor. 15: 1 – 4. Jesus died for my sins, was buried, and arose again. Many Pastors today do not preach this Gospel in full. In Galatians 1: 8, it says if any other Gospel is Preached, you will be accursed. Also note many Pastors will preach Jesus died for your sins, and was buried BUT leave out that he arose again until Easter service. In 1 Corinthians 15:17, if you don’t believe in the Resurrection, you are still in your sins. There are many Church people who are unsaved because the Gospel has not been preached aright. The basis of this is that God changed his Salvation Program (Dispensation) from Law to the Jews, to the Program of Grace to the Gentiles. The Body of Christ, the Church, is only found in the works of Paul, which was kept secret from the foundation of the world; until God revealed it to Paul.. Belief in 1 Cor. 15: 1 – 4, secures your going to heaven, because God has placed a down payment (earnest) on your inheritance. Ephesians 1: 13 – 14.

  24. Comment by Susan on December 13, 2019 at 10:57 am

    And maybe God is doing a new thing and the Church we know as today will look totally different in the future. The Bride of Christ will endure! Maybe not as we know it now.

  25. Comment by Lindsay Madden on December 27, 2019 at 9:38 pm

    -The Episcopal Church teaches the Gospel well. It understands that the face of God is wearing a smile. Its parishioners give thanks to God for His “goodness and loving kindness to us and to all people, everywhere.”
    -Mamie Eisenhower’s favorite hymn is
    often heard there. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
    which is more than liberty.
    -It is sad to see such shallow comments
    on what is a real treasure.

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