Another Empty Pew

We have more empty pews at church than we used to.  It didn’t happen suddenly or under the leadership of any one pastor or group of leaders.  It’s been a gradual thing over several decades.

My wife and I joined First Baptist Church shortly after moving to Vienna in December of 1975.  We’ve been worshipping there ever since.  Reverend J. W. Wallis was our pastor for a few of those early years.  He was young and dearly loved by our church family as well as the community.  J.W. was soon called to serve a bigger church.

Another young minister, Al Cadenhead, followed J.W.  Al was good behind the pulpit and great with people.  He was clearly destined to lead much larger congregations.  There were times during both of those pastorates when we needed more seating capacity.  Our goal for high attendance Sunday would be 200 and we’d make it.  It was not unusual to watch people smile as they squeezed into an already crowded pew.

There’s not any one reason for the sparsely occupied pews at First Baptist today.  I wouldn’t mention it in a column except that it’s more than a local problem.  And it’s a concern that’s not limited to Southern Baptists.  Mainline Protestant denominations are dealing with declining numbers.  Congregations that were once vibrant and growing now face uncertain futures.

Part of the issue in rural America is demographics.  My father was one of seven children.  Six of them spent most of their adult life in Dooly County where they faithfully served in local churches.  Four of them remained at Harmony Baptist Church where they were baptized during their youth.  With my generation the families were smaller and more likely to relocate.  With my children’s generation most of them moved away.

But when children leave an area, that’s only critical to the local church.  It’s leaving the faith that is more problematic.  Empty pews across America give evidence of a transition away from organized religion.  Faith and religion are separate matters, but faith without religion often goes unnourished.  In John 15:1-17 Jesus talked about the branches not bearing fruit unless they are connected to the vine.  Religion, when functioning properly, offers a way to strengthen our connection to the vine.

Being connected to the vine seems less urgent today.  Faith seemed more critical when we occasionally heard a message on hell.  I don’t remember ever having a dreadful fear of fiery torment, but hell was occasionally mentioned in the sermons of my youth.  It was depicted as a foreboding place.  That wasn’t just the preacher’s opinion.  He quoted from the Bible.  A one-way ticket had little appeal to any of us.

Not many children today, or even young adults, have ever heard a sermon on hell.  Perhaps it still needs to be brought up once in a while.  Or maybe we’ve quietly decided it’s best to avoid subjects that might be offensive.  In Matthew 22:13 Jesus said, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Since Jesus spoke plainly about hell, it seems we shouldn’t completely ignore it.

Even with decades of pleasant sermons, attendance has faltered in many churches.  Part of that may be due to priorities that have shifted towards convenience.  The earliest family vacations that I remember were for two nights in Jacksonville, Florida, where we stayed at the aqua colored Seahorse Motel.  Daddy made sure that a pleasure trip didn’t cause us to miss church on Sunday.  He wasn’t legalistic about it.  He just felt it was important for his family to worship together each week.  That was a common approach toward Sundays among the church members I knew during childhood.

Sunday worship today has dropped several lines down on the priority list.  Church is often relegated to a backup role.  It’s the place where we go when it won’t interfere with other plans.

There are no easy solutions for filling empty pews.  The problem, I believe, goes far beyond demographics, sermon topics, or misplaced priorities.  It’s possible that the vacant places in our sanctuaries reflect vacant spaces in our hearts.  That’s something worth having an honest discussion about.  But let’s don’t talk about it today.  Let’s wait until some more convenient time.  After all, it’s just another empty pew.

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7 Responses to Another Empty Pew

  1. Judy Daniels says:

    So sad, but true!


  2. Scott Cason says:

    It’s been my observation in attending churches from Albany to Louisville in the 30 years that I’ve left Vienna that churches have gotten away from preaching the gospel….the ENTIRE gospel. Ministers, afraid of turning people off, mostly leave out the bad stuff like going to hell and the reasons behind it. They don’t preach that the ONLY way to heaven and to be able to sit at the right hand of God is to believe in Christ, and accept him as your savior. Churches now preach that if you be a good person, you’ll get to heaven. Watch a Joel Osteen sermon to see an example.

    Many churches have stopped outreach ministries. They no longer participate in the Great Commission from Christ to make us fishers of men. Because they don’t want to “offend” anyone. Christ was not politically correct in his time, neither should the church be.

    There are some churches that are more show. I attended a service at one of the mega churches in Louisville a few years back. I would have sworn I was at a Grand Old Opry show or Garth Brooks concert instead of a church service. The sermon was an incidental part of the show. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you that demographics are playing a part in the small church struggle. I also believe that churches getting away from God is a contributor, too.

    BTW, I remember several FBC services under Bro Cadenhead that y’all deacons had to put folding chairs in the isles for folks. If you didn’t get there early enough, you were banished to sitting in the pews at the very back under the stained glass windows. My fuzzy memory seems to recall having to run audio from the sanctuary into the chapel at times for the over flow.

    My dad used to love to tell the story of such a time as this when Bro Cadenhead was preaching and mentioning Gabriel’s trumpet, I proceeded to roll up a nearby bulletin and commence to demonstrate, in my best 8 year old way, what the trumpet might sound like during the service to a packed sanctuary. That afternoon wasn’t a pleasant one in the Cason household.


  3. Bobby Irwin, Perry GA says:

    The first Preacher I recall was when we moved from Unadilla to Perry, GA was Brother James Teresy. He was the Pastor at the First Baptist Church. Talk about Fire and Brimstone, He did not shy away from letting you know what the Bible said about Sin and what happened to Sinners who did not repent not so much so that I felt like I went home every Sunday with singed eyebrows. Some feared that his sermons could be too gruesome for the younger ones of the Church and He would say “Am I not being your Pastor if I don’t warn you of the punishment that lies ahead of you if your path is not with Jesus?
    I was a small child then and I still get chill bumps when I think of Hell to this very day!
    I remember thinking If Mama and Daddy can’t get you out of there forever that’s a bad place
    Revelation 20:10
    And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever!


  4. Cynthia Couch says:

    Such a sad journey we’re heading down!


  5. George Bailey says:

    Neil, you are right on the mark with this article. Times certainly have changed for whatever reason. It seems that hate has taken the place of love and our country has become divided in so many ways. However, God is still in control and will have his way with the world. As I get older I am reminded just how very short life is and eternity is a very long time. We just may need to take a closer look at our priorities. I grew up on Church Street in Vienna (Methodist Church on one corner and Baptist Church on the other corner) and they were both full most Sundays. As you noted, things have certainly changed over time.


  6. Dan Topolewski says:

    Just read the birth announcements in the Houston Home Journal printed this same day. That will tell you where our society is heading.


  7. Rev. Freddy Hogg says:

    Probably one of the best written articles on a problem that is crippling our nation! Great insight Neil!


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