We face a serious issue in our country. Christianity in the United States is not keeping up with population growth. In 1990, 86.2 percent of the US population identified as Christian. In 2014, that number decreased to 70.6 percent. Perhaps even more alarming 30.5 million US adults have completely left the church, but at least not Christianity, and another 34.5 million have not only left the church but no longer identifying with any faith (Packard, 2015). That amounts to 30 percent of the US adult population who had once associated with a church and now no longer do.
In spite of this, evangelicals continue to grow in sheer numbers, yet less in influence as well as in percentage of the population. The word “evangelical” in our culture, for example, has become associated with political and social institutions that have little to do with sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. If you tell someone you are “evangelical” they will be more inclined to believe you voted for Donald Trump than experienced new life with Christ (Weber 2017). Whatever we are doing in our gospel activity is simply not working. The excessive evangelistic events that draw extreme sports athletes and well-known Christian musicians is not multiplying the numbers of the redeemed. No matter how many billions of dollars we spend each year on church renovations or new buildings – worldwide we spend about $8 billion (Johnson and Barret 2001) – Christianity in this country is regressing.
This regression has caused me to wonder if we have lost the vision of multiplying disciples (2 Tim 2:2) and have focused on our own legacy that borrows believers, constructs buildings, creates programs, and divides churches. In recent years, we have seen the downfall of spiritual leaders who have been placed on a platform that they have not been able to handle. From extra-marital affairs and homosexual relationships to heretical teaching and exploitation of givers, the reputation of the Christian in America is increasingly undesirable and in need of restoration. In fact, I would even say that we have become like the forty-year-old church of Ephesus we meet in Revelation 2:1-7 as she lost her vision for her first love.
This course is not a rant against the Western church. It is not coming from a disillusioned missionary who has reified the persecuted church. As we will see, some of the persecution the church faces overseas is self-afflicted. Neither is this course blind to the institutionalization that occurs shortly after the New Testament. Instead, I agree with the late churchman John R.W. Stott:
Every church in every place at every time is in need of reform and renewal. But we need to beware lest we despise the church of God, and are blind to his work in history. We may safely say that God has not abandoned his church, however displeased with it he may be. He is still building and refining it. And if God has not abandoned it, how can we? It has a central place in his plan. (1979:73)
God continues to use the church in the United States. We still send more missionaries around the world than any country on the planet. However, very few of those missionaries go to places where the gospel has never been. Nevertheless, we still give more money to missions than any other country even though only one percent actually goes to spread the gospel in places it has never been. There are still people coming to Christ every day in the United States (Barrett and Johnson 2010). There are still people being discipled. However, Thom Rainer (2018) estimates that between 6,000 to 10,000 US churches will close their doors this year. That is about one to two hundred every week.