Equipped for Mission 2011: Ed Stetzter, Session 1

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Observations on Current Trends

Is Christianity, in fact, in decline in the west? This is the report among those who are far too loose and sloppy with statistics. "Christianity in America won't survive another decade unless we do something now." This was one recent statement. Crises may sell books and conferences, but they don't sell hope. Many who promote bad news already have a program to fix it. Therefore, be cynical of programs which claim to fix Christianity. There are trends we can and should watch...trends which impact the church and culture. Here are the ones we must address now.

1. Economic Realities: The Great Recession. The country will come out of the recession eventually, but your church will lag behind for a long time. Church history, however, along with some recent research shows that historically, Protestant churches grow when the economy is bad. That's because scarcity brings clarity.

This recession is going to bring structural changes in the way we do church. It matters less about how the stock market trends, and more how employment does. This impacts people which impacts the church. HOW that impact affects the church is where we must focus our attention.

2. Sexual Realities: Sexual Confusion & Brokenness. The view that God intends marriage to be about one man plus one woman for one lifetime, is actually the controversial view today. A recent survey showed that 83% of regularly unchurched people and 52% of infrequently unchurched people would be disturbed by a church opposing homosexuality.

Much of the problem is that most of our people are "pornified." That is, they've been SO exposed to pornography that their minds have been shaped by it. It has redefined the issue so that we are pointed to wherever the sex is good, since that's all that matters in that world.

3. Gender Realties. The world doesn't get the view of complimentarianism, the view that men and women are different, while each has important roles and responsibilities. Years ago the church responded to the world's discomfort by not talking about it at all. Now, we've moved to a postmodern era where we MUST talk about gender. We can't keep it secret any longer. People wanna know what we believe, why we believe it, and why it matters.

The church cannot respond any longer with "this is what we've always believed and this is how we do things," that is a bad answer. Instead, the response should be, "this is what the Scriptures teach, and this is how we glorify God." Some of the culture will not like that. Some will, and will follow Jesus. Ultimately however, we don't want people to reject our view because it's MY view, but because it's the Scriptural view.

4. Intolerance. We will find increasing intolerance because of the last two views, in particular. The culture is wrestling with and tearing down sexual and gender barriers. For our culture it's not simply that we disagree, on issues of gender for example. Instead, they feel we are being unjust. 48% of Americans believe that homosexuality is sinful, and 52% don't. But at the end of the day, the increasing metanarrative is that the biblical view is unjust and must be resisted so that justice can be dealt. This WILL lead to intolerance toward Christians.

Summary Thoughts

There's going to come a clear distinction in coming days between what a Christian IS and what a Christian is NOT. The population who define themselves as "Christian" has declined greatly over the last 20 years. This is a GOOD thing, because "Christian" has become a demographic box to check on a census or application. Since the 1950's mainline Protestantism is heading towards extinction.

But what about Evangelicals? How much in decline is that? The General Social Survey reveals that there are 2% MORE evangelicals since 1972. Around the world, evangelicalism is exploding. What is declining in America is nominal Christianity, and I say "Thank God!" What is growing in America today is robust Christianity. Charismatic groups are among those growing the fastest in American evangelicalism.

When people ask me what I think what the future of the American church looks like, it doesn't look like Europe. It looks like the Pacific Northwest. There we find a society that is largely post-Christian. There is a spiritual emphasis, but largely built around an echo of an echo of an echo of the gospel. Yet evangelical Christians there are living a life of clarity with respect to what it looks like to follow Jesus.

What Does This Mean For Us Today

If this is where we are, what is the church dealing with?

1. We are navigating a post-seeker context. The Bill Hybels and Rick Warren combination formed a "Willowback" seeker-sensitive culture within the church. However the seekers who are coming back to church are either not coming back, or else they are not coming back in the same way. In short, this paradigm worked for Boomers in the 80's and 90's, just like bus ministries worked in the 60's and 70's.

But in the new millenium, everyone in pretty much everytown that would have gone back to church is either in or out. In other words, people who WERE seeking in the 80's and 90's have already made their decision about what they will find. Incarnational Christianity is the best tool to use today...being like Jesus at work, at play, at school, etc.

2. Regaining confidence in the gospel. Many people want to redefine the gospel today. One of the greatest movements today is one that attempts to redefine the gospel. This is good, because it forces us to identify bibical dissatisfactions with the gospel. One version of the gospel is simplisticism: reducing the gospel down to a few statements that if believed make one good with God. Another version of the gospel is found in Reformed theology: it creates multiple cubbyholes which align themselves with the gospel, but which end up distracting.

Right now in the church today, people are lacking confidence in the gospel, and their confidence has to be regained.

3. Evangelical confusion. How do we find a center of who we are and what we believe?

4. Rethinking discipleship. One fact today is that discipleship just isn't really happening today in the church. Discipleship is just not taking root the way it should. One survey revealed that over half the respondents feel they are growing spiritually, though they cannot seem to define any measurables.

5. Translocal cooperation. So many churches and ministries are linking together and locking arms in order to get the mission done. The idea of partnering together for a common mission is exciting. What Newfrontiers is doing is a great reflection of this.

Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. For five years before that, Stetzer served as Director of Research and Missiologist-In-Residence for the North American Mission Board.

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