Is the neighborhood church becoming a relic of a bygone era that is no longer relevant in the 21st century world? Has it become obsolete? There is a new documentary called “When God Left the Building” that investigates those very questions. Filmmaker Thom Schultz co-wrote the book “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore,” with his wife Joani. The book is the basis for “When God Left the Building.”
“When God Left The Building” suggests that one of America’s most important institutions is in trouble: the Christian church. And the movie has the statistics to prove it.
In America, about 4,000 churches close each year. There are approximately half the number of churches there were 100 years ago. Eighty percent of Protestant churches are either declining in attendance or staying about the same. Young generations are less interested than previous generations in going to church. Much of that decline in interest is a result of the unfavorable opinion the younger people have of the church. Polls show that twenty-somethings associate the church with being anti-gay, hypocritical, and judgmental. They also see the church as lecturing them and too preoccupied with politics.
To illustrate their premise, the producers of the film focus on a small and stagnant church in upstate New York. Some of the congregation are in an ongoing scrap with the pastor. They believe his sermons run too long, his style is too informal, and change is happening a little too rapidly. Apathy reigns, attendance is declining and the church members appear lost and at each other’s throats. A former pastor of the church confesses “I don’t know what God is” — sounding more agnostic than Christian.
The logical point to make here is that one church (little c) does not mean that the church (capital C) is in trouble. While that is a valid point, the film asks some fundamental questions that most churches are either talking about or grappling with today. Can we change with the times? Can we attract new people to the church? Why aren’t young people going to church?
Nor does this documentary limit itself to one small church, but also delves into the larger more successful churches in the country. Rick Warren is interviewed. While many megachurches are growing, they are often seen as being too big and too commercial to be satisfying.
So what is the answer? The producers of the film believe the anecdote to both the declining small church and sprawling and growing megachurch is community spiritual outreach. That means going out to connect rather than waiting for people to walk into a church. One of the most compelling sections of the movie is a Reading, Pennsylvania police officer who believes many churches are driving people away rather than bringing them in. He has given up on asking unchurched people to come to worship with him — they just won’t. So he has an idea. Some of his church members decide to go out to a local pub to hold discussion groups where anyone can come. In a less formal setting, spiritual seekers may come.
The movie shows how his church congregation agrees to a plan to hold regular Monday night spiritual discussions at a pub. Although there’s hesitation from some church members, it turns out to be a success. The film also highlights outreach programs in other parts of the country.
I bring all of this up because I believe this documentary can be a vital conversation starter for every church, including Northstar. This film is a “stop and think” moment for churches of every denomination. It will create some self-examination and I believe it will change some of your perspectives on church.
After working in the ministry, I have come to the realization that change is inevitable. Of course, the reality is that things do change-even in the church-whether we like it or not. And they must. The church is a living organism and living things are constantly growing, changing, and adapting to new realities. That is certainly true of Northstar. We can easily point to small or large changes in our church in the past 10 years and almost weekly. Some of those changes are the natural offshoot of growth, but others are planned as we work to help the whole world find and follow Jesus.
By the end of the film, viewers will experience hope and a refreshing glimpse into how faith may be pursued in the future.