Apathy: A Major Problem Confronting Christians

By Mike Willis

The May 1979 issue of Bible Truth contained the results of a survey taken by the paper among members of the church (predominantly, if not exclusively, among liberal brethren). In response to the survey regarding what brethren thought were “major problems facing Christians today,” the following six problems were listed in their order of importance as follows: (1) apathy/indifference; (2) divorce/remarriage; (3) liberalism/modernism; (4) church as social club; (5) evangelism; (6) legalism. Though it is interesting to see that the liberals have themselves become concerned about the liberalism which they spot among themselves (two out of the first six major problems confronting these brethren pertain to liberalism), one cannot seriously doubt that one of the major problems confronting all Christians in the 1980’s is apathy.

The Stark Statistics

Recent-studies have shown that church attendance in general is declining. The Dayton Journal Herald (29 December 1979) reported the results of a Gallup Poll which showed that, on a national average, only four out of ten Americans attend a church or synagogue in a given week. Not surprisingly, the percentage is even lower among our youth. The survey is given in more detail below:

Results of the study


National 40%

Protestants 40

Catholics 52

Jews 20

New England 35

Mid Atlantic 39

East Central 44

West Central 49

Southeast 40

Southwest 44

Rocky Mountain 32

Pacific 33


East 38

Midwest 46

South 41

West 33


18 34

19 34

20 35

21-24 26

25-29 20

30-34 38

35-39 41

40-44 42

45-49 47

50-59 46

60-69 48

70 and up 46


18-29 29

30-49 42

50 and older 47



Complete 43

Incomplete 40

Technical, trade, business school 42

12th grade 40

9-11 33

8th 43

5-7 47

Less than 5 43


College 41

High school 38

Grade school 44

Men 35

Women 45

White 40

Non-white 45

Married 43

Single 28

Divorced 29

Separated 29

Widowed 49

Parents 42

Non-parents 39


1955 49

1956 46

1957 47

1958 49

1959 47

1960 47

1961 47

1962 46

1963 46

1964 45

1965 44

1966 44

1967 43

1968 43

1969 42

1970 42

1971 40

1972 40

1973 40

1974 40

1975 40

1976 42

1977 41

1978 41

1979 40

The problem of lack of interest in religion has been felt in almost every section of the country. After having a socalled “revival of religion” in the 1950s and 1960s (I lived through both of these periods and did not even know that we had one), since the mid 1960s, things have taken a rather abrupt turn downward.

. . . For example, in 1958, approximately 49 per cent of the population reported having attended church during an average week. For Catholics, the percentage attending reached 74 per cent, and Protestant attendance was 44 per cent. Giving to the churches rose considerably, and new church development had high priority in an attempt to minister to the growing suburban population.

Since the mid 1960s, beginning about 1964 or 1965, things have taken a rather abrupt downturn. Membership declines that are unprecedented in the religious history of the United States has beset mainline Protestant denominations . . . . Catholicism did not lose members during this period; however, there were sharp declines in Catholic church attendance. From the 74 per cent in 1958, Catholic attendance was down to 56 per cent by 1975. Protestant attendance began to decline from its 44 per cent high in the late SOs, and has hovered around 37 per cent since 1964. Giving has also declined in mainline churches, though not so sharply as has membership. And new church development has slowed almost to a halt (Jackson W. Carroll, “The Church in the World: Understanding Church Growth and Decline,” Theology Today XXXV:70-80, April 1978).

Certainly the trends toward religious apathy can be seen in the following chart reflecting membership in selected denominations from this same article:

Inclusive Membership In Selected Denominations, 1965-1975

  1965 1975 Percentage Change
American Baptist 1,538,988 *a 1,603,033 4.2
Assemblies of God 572,123 785,148 37.3
Church of the Nazarene 343,380 441,093 28.4
Episcopal 3429153 *a 2,857,513 -16.7
Lutheran Church of America 3,106,844 2,986,078 -3.9
Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod 2,692,889 2,763,545 2.6
Presbyterian, U.S. 950,139 878,126 -8.6
Roman Catholic Church 46,246,175 48,881,872 5.7
Seventh Day Adventist 364,666 495,699 35.9
Southern Baptist Convention 10,770,573 12,733,124 18.2
United Church of Christ 2,070,413 1,818,762 -12.1
United Methodist Church 11082024 *b 9,975,710 -10.0
United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. 3,034,321 2,657,699 -12.4
*a 1966


* b 1965 figure includes Evangelical United Brethren members who merged with the Methodist Church in 1968.

Source: Yearbook of American Canadian Churches, 1977.

The one bright spot in these reports is the statistic which indicated’ that churches which are theologically conservative are growing in contrast with churches which are theologically liberal which are declining. In most cases, the rate of growth has not kept up with the population increase; however, they have not actually been losing members through these years.

In a religious poll conducted by Gallup for Christianity Today (21 December 1979), the following rather astounding results were found to be true:

Almost half – 69 million people 18 and over – are hoping to go to heaven only because of their personal faith in Jesus Christ.

More than eight of every ten persons believe Jesus Christ is divine. A whopping 84 percent – more than eight of every ten people believe the Ten Commandments are valid today.

What one might expect from these statistics is that Americans are a Bible believing and Bible reading people. However, these statistics were also a part of Gallup’s survey:

Only 11 percent read the Bible every day, compared to 10 percent who read it weekly and 7 percent monthly. Thirty-seven million adults never read the Bible.

Fewer than half (42 per cent) can name at least five of the Ten Commandments.

This basically says that a number of Americans know what the truth is or have some basic idea that the Bible contains the truth but do not care enough to search the Bible to find out what it says! That, my dear brethren, is religious apathy!

It is not only a major problem in religious denominations in America, it is also a major problem in the local church. If you doubt my word, compare your Sunday morning attendance with your mid-week attendance. In most cases, my point will have been ,proven by this simple comparison. If you would like more evidence, check to see how many students are attending their Bible classes unprepared; check to see how many students act interested in their Bible classes. How long has it been since someone other than the preacher conducted a home Bible study in your congregation? How many families are trying to have some kind of Bible instruction at home each night? These and a number of other similar questions testify to the tremendous problem of apathy which is presently facing us.

In this issue of Truth Magazine, I would like to consider the problem of apathy as it affects the local church. Let us face the temptation which the adversary is putting in front of us and overcome his subtle attempts to lead us to Hell. With the hope that these articles will help us overcome these problems, this material is presented.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 17, pp. 274-275
April 24, 1980