The Church in America is moving toward becoming a people
in exile rather than the majority faith that is often little
more than cultural Christianity.
When I am not working with the Lausanne Movement, part of my “day” job is to direct InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s twenty thousand strong Urbana missions conferences. Although I have lived most of my life outside the United States, for the last six years I have been immersed in North American student culture through Urbana.
Values, morality, means of communication, church attendance, spiritual interest, passions, etc., point to a major change taking place in North America today. This affects how Christians engage with those who do not believe and how they perceive the mandate to make disciples of all nations. Some of these changes are negative; others are not. My observations in this brief article are drawn largely from my experience with Urbana and what I read to equip me for my job. My perspective is from working with students.
The Bad News
How Americans think about and participate in church is changing. Mainline denominations and the Catholic Church have been in decline for years, and with that, denominational loyalty is dying. We will be dropping the question of denominational affiliation for Urbana '09 because it no longer produces meaningful data. Most students do not identify with or perhaps even know the denomination of the church they attend.
Attrition is not just an issue for mainline denominations. There is concern among American evangelicals from a broader spectrum that we are losing our young people. High school students who were actively involved in their church youth groups are dropping out of Christian activity (e.g., church attendance or participation in a college Christian fellowship) at an alarming rate. The Youth Transition Network, a group of agencies which have come together to help students transition from high school into adult faith while in college, believes the attrition rate to be somewhere between sixty and eighty-five percent. In some communities, such as Korean American churches, it may even be higher. This phenomenon is relatively new and, unless changed, will have an impact on the established Church in the next twenty years.
On the other hand, the number of mega churches, both charismatic and non-charismatic, and the percentage of overall churchgoers who attend them is increasing. While many of these are “seeker-friendly” churches, reaching out to those who don’t believe or who have lapsed in their faith, the data still shows that the vast majority of influx into these large churches comes as transfers from other churches. These megachurches have resources and programs that meet a wide spectrum of needs. Community can be found in small groups within the churches. Thus, smaller churches suffer and big churches grow; however, the overall percentage of the population who attend church is declining.
One other piece of bad news—evangelicalism has a bad name in America today. We are known primarily for what we do not believe rather than what we do believe. We are known to be against abortion and homosexuality and are seen by those outside the church to be narrow-minded, hateful people. We are racially divided. Grocery stores, schools, etc., are much more multi-cultural than our churches. We are branded as hypocrites professing a morality we do not live up to.
For instance, statistically there is no difference in the divorce rate among those who claim to be evangelicals and the population at large. Outsiders have heard what we are against but are unable to articulate what we are for. The wonderful gospel message is not getting through. The 2007 book Unchristian by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group points this out with fairly stark research data.
The Good News
Now for some good news: the Church in America is moving toward becoming a people in exile rather than the majority faith that is often little more than cultural Christianity. Most things about a church in exile are good. It is a time for purification. A church in exile has more in common with a pilgrim church, a phenomenon we see in much of the Majority World than with the powerful majority culture. The American Church, as a church in exile, can be better connected in the world without being a power source. Finally, the Bible assumes God’s people will be in the minority, as light in the world of darkness. The Church is best when it is a counter-culture in society—either as an exilic church or as a pilgrim church.
We are starting to see signs of how this change is playing out. At Urbana '06, Rev. Oscar Muriu of Nairobi Chapel spoke on how American Christians can contribute to world mission today. He talked about a history of dominance and organizational control. Older people who evaluated it welcomed it as a profound and useful message. The student evaluation, however, was one of puzzlement. They did not understand the issue. They could never dream of relating the way many American missionaries have in the past. Their Christian worldview is much more egalitarian. They do not see themselves in a position of power. Why? Because they now belong to a church in exile where most people around them do not believe or behave as they do.
Despite the bad name evangelicals have, there is an openness to the gospel among this post-modern generation. But the expression of that openness is different. While young people are ever more attracted to Jesus, they are simultaneously leaving the church. In InterVarsity chapters across the US, almost thirty percent of the members are self-professed non-Christians.
They have joined the fellowships because they are attracted to the community and to Christians. For three successive years now, conversions in InterVarsity have been all-time annual highs. At Urbana '06, I was astonished to see more than four hundred students stand to indicate a first-time decision for Christ when an invitation was given by a speaker teaching about evangelism. Urbana is a conference for Christians about missions. However, next time we will be better prepared for those who are not yet believers.
Although the exclusive claims of the gospel are hard for the younger generation to accept, they are being drawn to the Christian faith and the person of Jesus in large numbers. With this attraction comes a social activism that is part and parcel of what they believe. There is a new breed of evangelicals growing up among young people today. They do not call themselves evangelicals. In fact, they often do not want to be categorized at all. They are highly committed to justice issues.
There is a movement that calls its adherents to sacrificial, incarnational living among the poor in order to communicate and live the gospel. This movement is strong and growing. This kind of commitment is attractive to people who are not believers. For years, InterVarsity has run campus missions whose purpose is to proclaim the gospel and invite students to put their faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, however, these missions are often set up in such a way as to involve non-Christians in activities that focus on current human problems such as slavery or AIDS. From that platform, the gospel is presented. The response has been significant. I participated in a “Jesus, Justice, and Poverty” conference in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco (USA), where many of the homeless stay. Of the more than three hundred students participating, twenty percent were self-professed non-believers. They objected to some of the “Christianese” language, but responded strongly in their desire to know more about the Jesus who cared for the poor.
Young Catholics in North America
In closing, I want to say something about young people in the Catholic Church. Relatively recently there has been a resurgence of spirituality among young Catholics in North America. For instance, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which is active mostly on Catholic university campuses, was founded by Curtis Martin. When I met Martin, he told me about his conversion experience through Campus Crusade for Christ and his call to minister within the Catholic Church. Their mission is “to know Christ Jesus, and to fulfill his Great Commission, by first living and then communicating the fullness of life within the family of God, the Church.”
God is raising up a generation of Christians whose ministry gifts and organizational perspective will be what is needed in our ever-changing world. For those of us who are older, it is our job to be attuned to God’s work, step into his agenda, and facilitate the ministry of a new generation of Christians in whom God is at work.