Once again it's Sunday morning. Pastor Jack Hills of Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in Cincinnati stands before his congregation for another attempt to capture their hearts. He begins with a funny anecdote, attempts to tie it into the day's Scripture passage and weaves amusing or poignant illustrations throughout the sermon, but still his congregation sits before him, yawning, checking their watches or doodling on their church bulletins. Though the pews are full, the life of the congregation seems almost non-existent. Sadly this phenomenon at Fifth Avenue Baptist is not isolated, as fewer and fewer people are showing any interest in the gospel at all these days.
"We've been analyzing the problem of congregational interest for some time now," said Peter Deng, an analyst for the F.E.D.S (Faith Endurance Development Services). "Interests rates are at an all time low right now in American churches. We estimate that roughly 2.3% of people in the pews are actually interested in the sermons. That's down from 4.6% this time last year, and from 8.6% back in 2002. So we're seeing a disturbing trend happening in America."
Ask the reason for the drop in interests rates and one will get many different opinions. But the answers seem to fall into two basic categories, those who argue that the value of preaching is too low, and other's who say that it is inflated and too high. How one acts based upon these two opinions may make or break the future of Christianity in America.
"In my opinion the value of preaching is very inflated right now," said preaching analyst Mark Webinheimer. "We've got way to much invested in preaching out there, and churches are not diversifying enough, a kind of too many eggs in one basket kind of thing. In my opinion the value of preaching needs to drop by about 35-40% and then I think we'll see interest rates rise in our churches. So I think the time has come to invest in more youth programs, praise band equipment and carnivals. Those things are only going to take off more and more in the next 10 years."
But others disagree.
"I would say that preaching is undervalued right now," said Alvin Turnbull, another preaching analyst. "Let's look at the facts, for the last 25 years we've seen a dramatic drop in the value of preaching in America happening anyway. It's become so cheap that fewer and fewer people are taking it seriously so it's no wonder that interests rates have taken a dive. I would say that preaching is valued about 90-95% less in most churches than what it should be. My advice would be for churches to start taking preaching more seriously, investing more into it and then we'll see interest rates increase."
With opinions divided it's left to be seen how churches will deal with the problems of low interests rates in the coming months. But according to Hills the situation appears almost "beyond fixability."
"Every week we're seeing a drop," said Hills. "I think we're beginning to run out of options here, and if we keep going the way we're going we're looking at a possible recession in our membership. But no one's saying that definitely just yet. This is the kind of stuff though that can really make a pastor have depression."