Missional Leaders for the Church

Demographics don’t lie, you just have to be willing to listen to them. For example, if China has 90 million believers, but the vast majority of those believers are under 30 years old and the United States has 90 million evangelicals and the majority of those are over 50, then there is a demographic story that is not “heard” when one is looking at the raw statistics of Christian affiliation.

The USA is one of the fastest emerging mission fields in the world, but Christians probably won’t “feel” it for another 20 years.  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA the more likely one will question the knowability of truth.  This means a likely rejection of anything that might be described as divine, objective revelation.  The loss of confidence in human reason is almost palatable.  The language of “I think” has moved to the language of “I feel” which is quickly moving to the language of“whatever.”  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA, the more likely you are to discover a distrust of authority, institutions and, indeed, of all hierarchies. This includes a deep distrust in government, in churches and in church structures, including clergy. It also includes a rejection of any kind of metaphysical hierarchy which posits God as the sovereign Lord over His created order.

The younger the person, especially if they are white, the more likely one will find a growing skepticism about the reliability and trustworthiness of historical narratives. History is viewed as hopelessly mired in flawed and biased, agenda pushing perspectives which cloud any possibility of objectivity. Thus, all historical accounts  – whether the iconic account of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, or St. Luke writing his gospel, now lay beneath a new layer of skepticism and historical cynicism. According to quite a few Millennials, Bart Erhman and Dan Brown may have as much a bead on historicity as St. Luke and St. Paul.

On top of all this, we should not forget the gnawing loss of confidence in the inevitability of human progress, a belief cherished since the Enlightenment. The generation now in their twenties is the first in the modern period to not end their careers “better off” than their parents.  They will have less purchasing power, less post-retirement security and a shorter life expectancy (by as much as five years) than their parents.  This is the first backwards shift in life expectancy in the modern period. If you are under 25 years old you will almost surely live to see the day when the most Christian countries in the world will be China and India, whereas it will be quite difficult to find Anglo Christians in the pacific northwest. By 2050 the United States will probably have 329 million Christians (more than any country on earth) but the demographic of that Christian will be increasingly Hispanic, Korean, Chinese or India, and far less white Anglos of European descent.

These demographic facts are not easy to accept.  It is much easier to turn up the volume on our latest Christian CD, point to the hundreds of cars in mega-church parking lots, or pick up the latest Christian romance novel, rather than soberly face the fact that we are not passing the faith down to the next generation.   What should we do?  Here are three suggestions.

1.  Your church should plant at least two ethnic, non-Anglo churches in the next decade.  If you are in a major urban center, you will need to plant four.  This does not necessarily imply purchasing land and building buildings.  It may be as simple as starting a new service at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday focused on a nearby Korean or Hispanic populations.

2.  You must introduce rigorous catechesis for all members, young and old, enquiring and established.  We must re-teach the historic faith to this generation with a special eye to interacting with key objections and misunderstandings which are prevalent in our society.   Every pastor should insist on a course no less than six weeks long which introduces the candidate to the faith (historically, doctrinally and experientially).  After baptism, even more instruction, discipleship, and mentoring should follow, which brings people more fully into what it means to be a member of the church.  Incorporating members into small group discipleship settings must be the norm, not the exception.

3.  Evangelism must be at the heart of the church’s life.  The church must regain confidence in the gospel and the clarity of the good news.  I will let others speak for their own denomination, but one of the most striking observations I have made of my own denomination (United Methodism) is how confused and inconsistent and muddled the whole thing is.  Enormous energy is spent just trying to remember or recapture the gospel and fighting heresies at every turn. In the process, tens of thousands go unevangelized. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble and important struggle and every soldier in this struggle deserves our support and prayers.  But, I do long for the day when United Methodism gets refocused on our historic message and witness.  I see signs this is happening, but we’ve got at least twelve years before we see the tide turned. Like the famous frog in the pot of water slowing coming to a boil, the church has slowly taken on the skepticism and doubts of the world regarding the power of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. But, the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation.   Let me say it as clear as I can:  There are not multiple paths to salvation.  Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.   Jesus Christ really and truly and bodily and historically rose from the dead.  This good news is for the world. Jesus Christ is building the community of the redeemed, which is His body, the church.  We are called to live out all the realities of the coming New Creation in the present age.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, shall we?

 

Robust Christianity in a Post-Christendom World

One of the great challenges facing this generation of Christians is the successful navigation to a more robust Christianity, finally set free from the domesticating influence of Christendom. Under the sway of “cultural Christianity” difficult theological questions rarely arise, and catechesis declines because people, broadly speaking, see themselves as being “good Christian folk.”  To be an American was to be a Christian.  The longer I live the more I have come to see that the biggest challenge of the church is not the initial evangelization of a culture, but rather remaining Christians once a culture has been evangelized.

From the vantage point of the early decades of the 21st century it is quite evident that the marriage of the Christian gospel to North American culture did not come without serious repercussions.  Christendom always finds ways to sand down all the rough edges of the gospel so its prophetic, radical proclamation gets gradually domesticated.  The result is that, over time, Christianity gets quite removed from the proclamation and experience of the New Testament.  Gradually, being a “Christian” gets domesticated to little more than “being nice to people.”  Sin moves from binding ourselves to the human rebellion against God to an “inconvenient slowing down of our moral development.”  The righteous judgment of a holy God is quietly dropped in favor of the proverbial “man upstairs” who is more like Santa Claus than the God of biblical revelation.  Preaching, over time, becomes bland moralizing and child-like admonitions.  Pastors become endlessly manipulated and coerced into the larger cultural project rather than remembering our prior calling to serve Jesus Christ and to help usher in the Kingdom through the witness of the Church.   Now that Christianity and North America are in divorce court, the underlying issues which were simmering for decades are now openly spewing forth.  It’s not a pretty sight. The signs of this are everywhere. (I will devote another blog to specific examples).

The latest surge of atheism and neo-paganism is not because after 2,000 years someone finally sniffed out the Achilles heel of the Christian message and now our “mask is off.”  Rather, atheism, and half of a dozen other competing world-views, are always prowling around ready to jump into any spiritual void which appears.  We have retreated so far from biblical Christianity you can almost hear the Christian oxygen being sucked out of the culture at every turn.  The church has become one of the most vacuous spaces of all.

The great project of our generation is to reclaim biblical Christianity as the Church.  (Please re-read the last sentence about three times before going on).  This will inevitably involve standing up and articulating with far more precision exactly what Christianity actually is.  It has become almost a trite statement in recent years that our culture has abandoned the Christian faith.  This actually is not my greatest concern.  My greatest concern is that those of us who are pastors and leaders have ourselves forgotten the gospel.  The early church didn’t spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the paganism of Rome.  They took it for granted and set about evangelizing it.  This cannot be done if we are angry (this is not the time to start burning Qur’ans).  This also cannot be done if we are too passive (this is not the time for silence and cultural acquiescence).  The greatest need for conversion today is not the unbelieving world, but the church itself.  After all, doesn’t Scripture teach us that judgment begins in the household of God?  (I Peter 4:17).  We cannot even begin to effectively respond to the godless drumbeat of this generation until we ourselves learn to listen to the gospel with better ears, better hearts, better feet, and a lot more good old fashioned courage.  There are few things more troubling than the quiet surrender of the gospel at every turn while, in the same breath, we blather on endlessly about the importance of making the church more “culturally relevant.”

Christianity in North America has taken quite a few wrong turns.  I am more familiar with the “wrong turns” of mainline and evangelical Protestantism, but my Roman Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal friends assure me that those movements have wandered off the reservation, too.  There is no point in pressing ahead with all of our so called “plans” if we have taken the wrong turn in the road.  We’ve got to go back and get it right.  Progress doesn’t always mean pressing ahead, it means moving closer towards the goal.  In fact, the greatest progress usually starts with repentance.  Repentance means to turn and go a different direction.  I, for one, have quite a bit of repenting to do.  How about you?