By Steve Holt, Opinion Editor
This is a fact which few of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals,” recognized by Time Magazine last month, know, preach or write, and something many leaders in Churches of Christ have not accepted.
The United States is now one of the three most secular countries in the world.
Wait a minute, you say: What about the 2004 election, which highlighted voters advocating traditional, Christian values? And with Christianity blitzing the media, movie theaters, and malls, Christianity just has to be flourishing in the West, right?
Not so fast.
We’re living in what’s being called the “Post-Christian Era.” Christianity in North America has been on a steady decline for the better part of a century, with the most staggering drops occurring in the past 25 years. Christian statistician and church consultant George Barna reported that over the past decade, three million people have been leaving churches every year in the United States.
Closer to home, half of Abilene’s 120,000 residents do not attend one of the roughly 150 churches in town.
You wouldn’t read these stats in Time or hear them on American Family Radio, however.
Christian media organizations talk like the only work to be done on our soil has to do with Constitutional amendments, and Time seems convinced that evangelical Christians are running the country. These are just the kinds of lies the Enemy would have us believe, though.
The actual center of Christianity in the world today is highly debated, but experts agree it lies in one of three places: Latin America, Africa or China. Some have estimated that China, which had only 700,000 Christians at the beginning of the Communist rule in 1949, now has between 60 and 100 million believers, most of them meeting together in large, underground house church networks. Africa now boasts nearly 400 million Christians, but that number is expected to eclipse 600 million by 2025.
This kind of rapid, exponential growth simply is not happening in the United States, which now has the third-largest un-churched population in the world. The rumors are true, by the way: Missionaries from African and Latin American countries are now moving to our continent to work among the lost North Americans.
The question of how we got to this point isn’t nearly as important as how we will get past it. The message and commission Christians have simply is too important to ignore this glaring problem. Many have ignored it, however, to the detriment of their hearts and the faith.
One solution to the problem will need to come in the form of a paradigm shift-a change in methodology or theory-regarding the nature and role of the church. The technical definition of the word “insanity” is repeating the same action and expecting a different result each time. This definition often describes Christ’s church to a T. Churches will need to take a hard look at the Great Commission-“Go and make disciples”-and then formulate strategies to best accomplish this commandment.
Here’s a clue, though: It’s probably not going to look anything like what most churches have been trying in recent decades. “Attractional” Christianity, which attempts to bring in the un-churched with dynamic worship, flashy programs or the best preacher in town, has been the strategy of choice for churches for much too long, and research is indicating that the post-modern unbeliever isn’t falling for it anymore.
If churches take the Great Commission seriously, though, one word ought to stick out: Go. Christ went when he became the incarnation of the living God on earth. The apostles went upon receiving the Holy Spirit, first to their hometown, then to the world. And our responsibility is the same in our neighborhoods and cities in the United States.
The second phrase that should stick out in a fresh reading of the Great Commission is “make disciples.” Baptism certainly is what happens at the initial decision to be a disciple, but it doesn’t magically spawn a disciple. True discipleship literally means “spending time with Jesus” and requires relationship, accountability and lots of latitude. “In-process” disciples make lots of mistakes, but that’s OK-that’s why Christ came. Mature Christians must see that Paul’s vision for growing Christians in his young church plants-sanctification-is carried out in contemporary congregations. Sanctified Christians no longer run back to their old muck and mire but strain forward, pursuing righteousness and nurturing new disciples of their own.
The Western Church does itself and the Kingdom no good in denying that it has a problem. It is hemorrhaging because it has emphasized the phrases “baptizing them” and “all nations” to the detriment of the three most important words in the Great Commission, “go” and “make disciples.” If North America is to see an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and if Christians desire to delight their Creator, the Church will need to wake from its slumber and dive headlong into God’s mission.
All North American disciples of Jesus are missionaries, after all-now more than ever before.
Steve Holt Jr., a 2004 graduate of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department, is currently working on a master’s of arts in missions from ACU. He and Chrissy (White), his wife and 2004 graduate in management, plan to move to Boston upon his graduation to make disciples and plant churches.