'When God Left the Building' Film Director: The American Church Is Dying

A choir performs one last song for "When God Left the Building" filmmakers in an abandoned church building in Kansas City, MO. | (Photo: Thom Shultz)

A new documentary, "When God Left the Building," slated for release in August, will examine the decline of the American church and the overall deteriorating spiritual condition of the United States.

Thom Schultz, director and president of Group Publishing, set out to examine the fall of several churches and found that in addition to internal issues, external cultural factors are playing a part in the decay of the church.

 "The American church as we know it is dying," said Schultz in a statement. "What was once the heart and soul of the community is going away. The majority of churches across the country are either stuck or in a state of decline …"

Schultz, who also wrote the book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, says about 20 percent of Americans attend church on a given Sunday and notes that each year, over 4,000 churches close their doors compared to approximately 1,000 new churches that start.

He noted that several denominations are in decline, including Mainline, Evangelical and Roman Catholic churches. The most notable is the Southern Baptist, considered the largest Protestant denomination in the country, he said.

The film will also focus on America's megachurch phenomenon with congregations boasting thousands of attendees, with Saddleback Church being among them.

"We will either have a breakthrough or a breakdown. We'll either have a third spiritual awakening or America will continue in the slow decline of spirituality," said Pastor Rick Warren in a statement regarding the film's premise.

During his time filming the documentary, Schultz noticed that the decline in American churches is due to several reasons, including people feeling judged, not wanting to be lectured to, and having opinions such as, "Church people are hypocritical and lack humility" and "I don't experience God at church."

Christy Wareham, pastor of Park Church in Newark, NY, stands before the church's stained glass windows. Wareham's church's attendance declined from 900 to 40 over the span of a few years. | (Photo: Thom Shultz)

One of the churches Schultz followed for the film was Park Church in Newark, New York, whose attendance plunged from 900 to 40 people.

This speaks volumes about the overall state of the church, says Schultz, who also noted that 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity each year, which in part is due to why over 80 percent of American churches report they are stuck or in decline.

"The present trends indicate that, in the future, we will see a very different church in America," Schultz told CP. "It appears that the institutional, denominational, and congregational model of church will continue to decline.

He added, "But we're seeing other iterations of the church that may grow to facilitate people's faith expressions in the future."

Schultz remains hopeful despite the thousands of dying congregations in America, but he notes that in order for the church to flourish, Christians need to reclaim the definition of church.

"While the American culture usually defines 'church' as a membership organization, or a scheduled event on Sunday morning, or a building on First and Main Streets, it is actually the community of believers, the Body of Christ. And that community, including the newer generation – the Millennials, continues to care about pursuing their faith with others, but in different forms," said Schultz.

"When God Left the Building" will be released in select theaters beginning August 5. For tickets and information on screenings, visit When God Left the Building.

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