Where Is American Civilization Going? The Challenge For The Church

Nov 3rd, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Globally speaking, the church is at a significant crossroads right now. The geographical epicenter of our faith is shifting from its centuries-old epicenter in the northern hemisphere (e.g., Western Europe, the United States, Canada) to the southern hemisphere (e.g., Latin America, Africa, South Asia), where it continues to grow at astonishing rates.  In his book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global SouthPhillip Jenkins argues that 60% of the world’s population of Christians right now live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  By 2050, we’ll see these numbers shift even further; estimates indicated that there will be approximately 3 billion Christians in the world, 75% of whom will live in the Global South.  Ed Stetzer, the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission at Wheaton College and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, argues that, although incorrect, many have considered “Christianity a western religion—it’s been associated with American culture, ideals, and practices for many generations. Alexis de Tocqueville, upon his visit to the United States, observed in his famed work Democracy in America ‘that there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.’”  But this is radically changing as we move deeper into the 21st century.

 

In light of this geographical shift, what challenges does the Church of Jesus Christ face in America?  Can the Church remain viable and thrive in this increasingly antagonistic culture?   To begin, Stetzer observes that two primary forces are at work in American culture, each of which provides profound challenges for the church:

  1. Few would doubt that America is becoming increasingly secular. In the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, the Pew Research Center found that the number of adults who consider themselves religiously affiliated shrank 6% between 2007 and 2014.  Most notably, younger generations—the infamous ‘Millennials’—aren’t praying or attending church with the same frequency as older generations. Based on survey data, their acceptance of traditional Christian doctrine—belief in God, heaven, hell, etc.—is also lower.  What does this say about what American society will look like down the road? This rise in secularism will likely make it harder for followers of Jesus to engage the culture. In short, the culture will continue to look more and more post-Christian as the years progress.  “There will be fewer people who self-identify as Christians, of course, likely making it more challenging for believers to maintain ‘lukewarm’ faith convictions. Those who claim to follow Jesus are going to have to answer some hard questions about what they believe and how much they really believe it.  For this reason, apologetics will likely come in to play as believers and church leaders who choose to share their faith will likely have to address hard topics and questions. If anything, this will force individuals to think critically about their commitment to Christ which, in some ways, should produce a more grounded, less flip-floppy culture within the church.  [Hopefully,] Christians will surely represent a smaller but more serious part of the population; this, I would argue, is not such a bad thing.  Like Christians living in more heavily contentious regions around the globe now, believers living in America ten years down the road are going to have to consider the cost of following Jesus. The culture will only become farther removed from the tenets of our faith; because of this, pressures to conform, as Paul writes in Romans 12, ‘to the pattern of this world’ will be at an all-time high.”

 

  1. Changing church demographics: The Public Religion Research Institute released a report in 2017 entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity based on findings from their 2016 American Values Atlas . . .   Some of the core findings: White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public. On a broader scale, the number of white evangelical Protestants in America is on the decline.  Data from Pew Research Center also corroborates these findings in their 2014 Religious Landscape Study. While 70% of white Americans would call themselves Christians, 79% of black Americans and 77% of Latinos would call themselves the same.  “The face of Christianity isn’t just changing globally—it’s changing even within America. Demographics are clearly shifting and the church is beginning to look more and more ethnically diverse with each passing year.  What does this mean for us in the next decade? Primarily, it means that we must begin to reassess what it looks like to live and worship in unity as the body of Christ.  Christians living in America are going to have to deal with the root cause of some of their deepest sins and divisions. We’re going to have to confront the evils of racism, prejudice, and other dividing walls preventing us from living as one body in Christ Jesus.  Going forward, are we (the church) going to revel in familiarity or celebrate diversity? Are we going to focus on what divides us, or instead on what unites us? Will we keep our doors closed or instead choose to welcome people from a wide range of cultures into our places of worship?”

 

What are several “take-aways” from these two trends so evident in American culture?  How should an understanding of these trends impact the church?  What perceptions of the church widely held in American culture could be damaging to the Gospel message of the church?  Permit me a few thoughts here:

Renowned writer, pastor and theologian, Timothy Keller, offers this engaging premise:  “Christians don’t fit in political boxes.”  This charming title should cause the church to seriously consider the widely held perception that to be an evangelical Christian, one must be a Republican, and, in 2018, an uncompromising supporter of Donald Trump.  But Keller counsels, “While believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.”  There are a number of reasons to insist on this, Keller argues:

  1. It gives those considering the Christian faith the strong impression that to be converted, they need not only believe in Jesus but also to become members of the (fill in the blank) Party. It confirms what many skeptics want to believe about religion—that it is merely one more voting bloc aiming for power.
  2. Most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom. “This does not mean that the church can never speak on social, economic and political realities, because the Bible often does.  Racism is a sin, violating the second of the two great commandments of Jesus, to ‘love your neighbor.’  The biblical commands to lift up the poor and to defend the rights of the oppressed are moral imperatives.  For individual Christians to speak out against egregious violations of these moral requirements is not optional.  However, there are many possible ways to help the poor.  Should we shrink government and let private capital markets allocate resources, or should we expand the government and give the state more of the power to redistribute wealth?  Or is the right path one of the many possibilities in between?  The Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.
  3. To identify the church firmly with one political party raises the danger of what British ethicist James Munford calls “package-deal ethics.” “Increasingly, political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.”  Such an emphasis on package deals places undue pressure on the church.  “For example, following both the Bible and the early church, Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family.  One of these views seems liberal and the other conservative.  The historical [and biblical] Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.  So Christians are pushed toward two main options.  One is to withdraw and try to be apolitical.  The second is to assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table.  Neither of these options is valid.”

As the early portion of this Perspective argued, the astounding shift in the epicenter of the church is a profound development in the 21st century.  Further, the triumph of secularism combined with the growing diversity of the evangelical Christian church must force the American church to re-examine its priorities.  Among those priorities is the often passionate commitment to cultural, not biblical Christianity.  This cultural Christianity often has the detrimental effect of total alignment with one political party, such that those outside the church conclude that to become a Christian means we must become a Republican.  Keller offers thoughtful reasons why this is dangerous and really harmful to the Gospel message.  To engage a culture that is increasingly secular and at the same time amazingly diverse demands an emphasis on the simplicity of the transformational nature of the Gospel, not the “package-deal” agenda of a political party.

See Ed Stetzer, “Ten Years from Now, How Secularism and Church Diversity Intersect,” www.christianitytoday.com (24 October 2018); Timothy Keller’s op-ed essay in the New York Times (30 September 2018) and his book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy, pp. 163-170.

One Comment to “Where Is American Civilization Going? The Challenge For The Church”

  1. Jim Roberts says:

    I don’t believe racial justice and helping the poor are liberal positions but it is how you deal with those issues where it becomes divisive. I don’t believe converative’s are any more racist than liberals and are probably more generous when it comes to personal giving to the poor. The real issue is what should be the governments role in dealing with these issues. I believe the bible also would admonish us to be responsible citizens and that often times when the government gets involved there is no personal accountability from those who are deemed to be victims.

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