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The Great Rebellion: Churches on the Decline
The American church is falling away. The Bible said this would happen at the end.
In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul writes to members of the early church who were worried that Jesus had returned already and they had missed the Rapture. (He had written to them about the Rapture in his first letter.)
Paul’s message is one of encouragement—don’t be deceived, he said, because it hasn’t happened yet—but in trying to lighten the burden of these believers, he mentions something else I believe we shouldn’t ignore.
Here’s the passage in question:
“Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, 2 not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. 3 Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.”—2 Thessalonians 2:1-4
The “man of sin” and “son of perdition” in this paragraph is a reference to the Antichrist. Paul is talking about the “abomination of desolation,” a future event foretold in Daniel 9:27 and mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 24 in which the Antichrist desecrates the rebuilt temple by demanding he be worshipped.
But before that event and before the “day of Christ,” something else must happen: the “falling away.”
This original phrase, written by Paul, comes from the Greek word apostasia and has been translated into English a number of different ways. The NIV describes it as “the rebellion.” The NASB says “the apostasy.” The New Living Translation mentions “a great rebellion against God.”
This world is already separated from God due to sin. But before the abomination of desolation, it will get even worse.
Notice the language: You can’t fall unless you have reached a place of elevation. Atheists or nonbelievers don’t “fall away” from the faith. Only the faithful can fall, or renounce the faith of their upbringing or which they had previously chosen. The apostasy Paul is writing about is an echo of what Jesus said in Matthew 24:
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”—Matthew 24:9-13, NIV
Jesus says, “many will turn away from the faith.” This is not describing an evil world that continues to reject God, but a rebellion against God by believers within the Church. The “falling away” is referencing the decline of the Christian Church.
We are already seeing it happen.
Several new survey results show that church attendance in the United States continues to decline in troubling ways:
Before the pandemic, 75 percent of Americans reported attending church at least once a year. In spring of 2022, only 67 percent said they had gone to church.
Typical church attendance, reported by Protestant pastors, is only 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
In 2019, 4,500 Protestant churches closed, compared to 3,000 new churches opening. That’s a net loss of 1,500 American churches—and that’s before COVID.
A 2017 Lifeway survey of young adults found that 7 out of 10 who had attended church regularly in high school stopped attending during their college years.
A quarter of the young adults who dropped out of church have said they disagree with their church’s stance on political and social issues.
A 2020 Pew Research study found that 30 percent of the U.S. population now describe themselves as “religiously unaffiliated.”
I could go on. There are a lot of surveys telling us that church attendance is declining, young people are leaving the Christian faith of their upbringing, and large sections of society no longer trust the Church because of social and political issues.
This was one of the major takeaways of that 2020 Pew study:
“Since the 1990s, large numbers of Americans have left Christianity to join the growing ranks of US adults who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’,” Pew wrote.
“This accelerating trend is reshaping the US religious landscape.”
Fifty years ago, in 1972, nine out of every 10 Americans claimed to be Christian. By 2070, in another five decades, Pew estimates that less than 50 percent of Americans will make the same claim.
(Of course, I will be very surprised if any of us are still here in 2070.)
A Post-Christian Culture
But we need to pay attention to these trends. One author, who has written a book called Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, says the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic church may have driven away a generation of young Catholics.
I imagine that is true. With large Protestant denominations like Southern Baptists going through abuse scandals of their own, we are on the cusp of seeing another lost generation.
As I have written before, we are now living in a post-Christian culture. Christianity has already lost influence in Europe and is losing influence in the United States. This is one of the reasons I and other teachers, including Mark Hitchcock, think America is not mentioned in Bible prophecy—our decline is already underway.
The great “falling away” mentioned by Jesus and Paul is in process, right now. What does this mean for us?
First, it means changing our mindset. Churches like to travel overseas to share the Gospel, but we need to be realistic: The United States has now become one of the largest mission fields in the world. You may be surrounded by people who don’t know Jesus—or who grew up in the Church, but have abandoned that faith.
Your life is a testimony to them. What is it teaching them about the Jesus they may have abandoned?
Second, it means we are experiencing a worldwide shift toward apostasy and the rejection of God’s Word, along with biblical morality. The decline of faith is a clear, obvious sign that we are getting closer to the Rapture and the events of the end times.
Our culture is abandoning the truth of the Gospel and falling away from the faith. As Paul writes, don’t be “shaken in mind or troubled,” but look up, for your redemption is near.