If you’re on social media for any length of time, you inevitably come across a Christian marketing expert promising that he can help your church grow by using Facebook ads, websites with “plan your visit” buttons, canned sermon outlines, strategies to make your church lobby attractive, and more.
Alongside of marketing, there are others who promise if you just practice the methods used in other parts of the world then the church in the US will become a movement. Countless people have learned Four Fields, T4T, Discovery Bible Studies, and other methods that apparently God blesses to catalyze more movements around the globe than we have ever witnessed in the history of humanity. Maybe they all work – marketing and ministry strategies – and we’ve missed a remarkable opportunity to take advantage of ideas that ensure growth.
The reality seems to be that our attempts to make disciples is actually reducing the size of Christianity in the United States. In the 1990s, nearly 90 percent of the adult population identified as Christian. Today, in the Pew Research Center’s most recent data, only 65 percent of US adults identify as Christian (Pew Research Center). Some look at the data and see a winnowing of the wheat from the chaff, or separating the sheep from the goats. That could certainly be the case. Others look at it and see an ineffective church that is out of touch with culture. No doubt, there is truth to this. Still, some recognize the secularization of a modern society that no longer needs the spiritual, which is plausible. Some even speculate that perhaps God is done with us and is moving on.
Will our pontificating and theological gymnastics actually move us to think about how we can connect Jesus’s story to the story of our culture?
For the serious practitioner, those of us committed to the continued proclamation of the gospel in the United States, there is a palpable tension between the on-the-ground reality and our belief in a God who desires all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4). As I look at the US religious landscape, here are four possible answers for us to consider as to why Christianity is shrinking in our country.
- Maybe we don’t know what we are doing. Could be more truth to this than we want to accept. The Bible college and seminary education, seminars, conferences, and think tanks we’ve all attended might confuse the whole situation and cause a paralysis of knowledge that is inept at application.
- Maybe we have so damaged God’s image that people will never respond no matter what we do. Could be that people have had enough of the number of things we have done in the name of God that have contributed to institutional racism, bigotry, misogyny, and hypocrisy.
- Maybe the church is just another social club. Could be that Sunday worship services are a gathering of club members who are satisfied with the communal interactions with weekend friends and not really interested in talking with the majority of US adults who say they are interested in having spiritual conversations.
- Maybe we don’t know how to effectively communicate the gospel. This is serious. Maybe a gospel focused on repenting from sin has overshadowed a gospel focused on belief in Jesus. This gospel of repenting from sin has become more about convincing people they are bad than about a glorious God who desires to be known.
Truth be told, there might be a bit of relevance in all four of these responses to why Christianity is not growing here. Which leads me to the question: What are we going to do about it? Seriously. Will our pontificating and theological gymnastics actually move us to think about how we can connect Jesus’s story to the story of our culture? Something similar to the way in which the Apostle John so brilliantly connected Jesus with the culture of Asia Minor? I love the process he went through to share the good news of the logos become flesh with a culture who had anticipated the logos six hundred years before in the philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus. Here is what Jerome said:
When [John] was in Asia, at the time when the seeds of heresy were springing up . . . he was urged by almost all the bishops of Asia then living, and by deputations from many Churches, to write more profoundly concerning the divinity of the Saviour, and to break through all obstacles so as to attain to the very Word of God (if I may so speak) with a boldness as successful as it appears audacious. Ecclesiastical history relates that, when he was urged by the brethren to write, he replied that he would do so if a general fast were proclaimed and all would offer up prayer to God; and when the fast was over, the narrative goes on to say, being filled with revelation, he burst into the heaven-sent Preface: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: this was in the beginning with God.”Commentary on Matthew, Preface, 2
John’s example might be calling us – the church in America – to fast and pray that God will make it clear how we are to communicate the good news that is for all people in such a way that they’ll understand that Jesus is not simply the Savior of those who are coming to Christ by the thousands in other nations, but He is also the Savior of those in America waiting to hear a gospel that connects with their story. Indeed, He is the Savior of the kosmos (1 John 4:14) who desires us to tell His story so others can know. Sixty-five million Christians and former Christians are done with the church in America (Packard, 2015). The question remains, “Is God done with us?” It will largely depend on how you view your participation in His work in our country.