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.