The US church is experiencing a winnowing process. Church attendance and biblical literacy are down, and fewer Americans identify as “Christian.” In many parts of the country—and across the digital landscape—Christians encounter increased skepticism and hostility. As it becomes less socially advantageous to wear the “Christian” label, fewer people are doing so.
What are pastors to make of this shift? We asked four church leaders what they think ministry should look like in post-Christian America. Their answers paint a picture of a church that praises God for its mission field and prepares to engage it with fervor.
A Pre-Christendom Church
What we call post-Christian culture strikingly resembles the pre-Christendom era—before Constantine, when the church was a fringe, marginal, prophetic body. Before it became mainstream, accessible, and synonymous with apple pie and Chevrolet. And a pre-Christendom era demands a pre-Christendom church.
Obligated to go out
A life in Christ is a life under obligation. Paul said, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks” (Rom. 1:14). He didn’t see himself as a volunteer. He was under orders. In church, when we use the term volunteers, we imply that Christian service is a matter of choice. But if you understand the apostolic nature of the church, you understand members are not volunteering; they’re sent out due to the moral imperative of God’s providence. We are under obligation to provide obedient service, to live an evangelistic life. We owe people the gospel because we recognize the danger they’re in, the love God has for them, and the provision God has made for them.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit
If you looked at the followers of Jesus prior to Pentecost and someone asked you to bet that the church would last nearly 2,000 years, would you take that bet? I wouldn’t. But in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit endowed this pivotal group of people with a supernatural ability to surpass the limits of their spirit, their exposure, and their education to fulfill their assignment. Is that not what the Holy Spirit does for us? He empowers us to overcome our fears. He triumphs over every divisive and disruptive attitude to the fulfillment of God’s purpose.
United in community
In Acts 3, we see Peter and John walk in unity together. You couldn’t find two more different people than Peter and John. Both could have claimed primacy in the sight of Jesus. Peter was the one who declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus responded, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:16, 18). But John was the one who laid on Jesus’ breast, who was at the cross, and to whom Jesus entrusted his earthly mother. Both were alpha males who could have claimed, “I am the chief.” But here they are, walking together.
Jesus paired them together because he knew the church would need both. The church would need somebody deep and reflective like John, and the church would need somebody impulsive and active like Peter. The church could not do without either of them. They needed each other. We need each other, too.
Called to suffer
We are called to suffer on behalf of the world and to certify the truth of our message. Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses.” That word for “witness” is also used for “martyr.” It means “one who is willing to confirm the truth by death.” Jesus’ earliest followers rejoiced at the fact that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. Not that they sought it out, but when suffering came their way, they were willing to embrace it.
In these tough political times, many churches are worried about losing their nonprofit status. That’s a matter of losing privilege. Is that something we would be willing to lose for the sake of Jesus Christ? How does that compare to the suffering experienced in the early church? That may be what we’re called to in this age. Yet our faith tells us, if that happens there is resurrection.
Claude Alexander is senior pastor of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
A Courageous Church
Our world is changing. Even in the Dallas area, where there’s a church building on every corner, I can feel the weight of it. Fewer people are claiming Christ. The church is losing its credibility and influence.
We’re on the margins of culture—and where we’re not already there, just give it some time.
Amid the pressures of secularization and marginalization, we convince ourselves that the sky is falling and sound the alarms of the apocalypse. Fear grips us and cripples us. It dictates our lives and our ministries.
So before we start strategizing about what the church might look like in the days ahead, we need to answer this question: “Am I motivated by fear or courage?”
Initially, fear is fine. It’s normal. But it’s what we do with fear that matters. We can allow it to dominate and destroy us—and that won’t lead us into faithfulness and fullness of life—or we can look to the strength and power of the Lord and allow our courage in him to transcend our fear. That’s where we will begin to live faithfully and boldly and effectively in this age of unbelief.
Courage only comes from confidence in God and what he has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. It’s looking to the Scriptures and seeing that we serve a God who is infinitely bigger and better than anything before us. It’s understanding that, even if people say we’re on the wrong side of history, we know history has already been decided—we know how this thing ends.
The Bible tells us again and again that we will go through trials and struggles and sufferings. Believers in the early church lived under the vicious rule of the Roman Empire, where persecution was unlike anything we’ve seen in the present-day West. In spite of their horrific circumstances, Christ told them, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20), Paul told them, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37), and Peter told them, God “has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade” (1 Pet. 1:3–4). Regardless of how hateful and hostile our world becomes, we have nothing to worry about. The gates of hell shall not prevail against Christ’s church. On the contrary, we should count it joy because it’s an opportunity to bear witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
So instead of starting with predictions and strategies for how the church might function in a world where Christians are being ridiculed and we’ve lost much of our social influence, let’s come back to this question: “Am I motivated by fear or courage?” If we’re full of courage, emboldened and empowered by the Lord, we’ve got the hardest part figured out.
Matt Chandler is lead pastor of teaching at The Village Church in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas; president of the Acts 29 Network; and author of Take Heart: Christian Courage in the Age of Unbelief (The Good Book Company, 2018).
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Source: Christianity Today