The Writing is on the Wall, We Can See What Lies Ahead
The North American Church is in decline, perhaps even dying, and denominations are shrinking, but there are ten things every leader can do personally to prepare for a better future. | by Ed Stetzer
In the movie Lonesome Dove, Danny Glover portrays Joshua Deets, a cattle-drive scout whose job is to ride ahead of the drive and survey the terrain. Largely responsible for the success and safety of the drive, Deets would inform the team of any obstacles, dangers, enemies, or resources that lay ahead. By assessing the upcoming path, he could help the trail boss make an informed decision about how to navigate the way to the trail drive’s destination.
We must act as scouts, fervently asking the Lord for discernment
Deets’ role is reminiscent of the tribe of Issachar—men who “understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take” (1 Chronicles 12:32 NLT). Today, church leaders must act as scouts, fervently asking the Lord for discernment into how they can best practice biblically faithful ministry in their cultures and contexts.
Here are the facts: North America is the only continent in the world where the church is not growing. In North America, the church is in decline. Some even claim it is dying. Most denominations — including evangelical denominations — are shrinking.
We must ask ourselves this question
While the global spread of Christianity and its explosion in the Global South needs to encourage us, our leaders must ask themselves: What must the North American church become and do in this season of decline? The answers all revolve around the gospel.
I spent several years in full-time research and observation of the North American church. I conclude that the church has lost its influence because it has forgotten its mission. I have seen churches across North America fighting over preferences and drawing battle lines over issues that do not matter while the world and the surrounding communities are dying without Christ.
If we are to witness a genuine move of the Spirit, we cannot spend our time pining for the past and for methods that no longer work. Neither should we spend our time frantically looking for ways to innovate and keep up with the times. Some evangelical leaders are in panic mode as they search for new methods to fix the problem. Solutions abound—whether it is the emerging church; the missional-incarnational movement; a renewal of polity or biblical preaching; or groups that reemphasize certain gifts, actions, or ministries. Everyone seems to have an answer.
Many of their concerns are legitimate and worthy of consideration. But the Spirit can only begin working in our churches when we repent of the unbelieving attitudes that have repelled the lost. At times our hearts are hard, fallow ground that will not allow a Kingdom harvest to germinate.
We must hold more firmly than ever to the gospel
Nevertheless, pastors and leaders must find comfort in the fact—despite the church’s decline—the gospel is still faithful and true. To reach the lost, they must hold more firmly than ever to the gospel, find stability on its rock-solid ground, and move forward engaging the culture.
Remember, Jesus said He would build His church. This promise should calm our fears and allow us to rest in God’s mighty power to work out His purposes.
Unfortunately, many evangelicals have lost confidence in the gospel. Since society has marginalized the church, it seems people are saying: “Maybe this gospel is not all we thought it would be.” Since the church cannot be trusted, they think, “Maybe the gospel cannot be trusted either.”
Our loss of confidence in the gospel is evidenced by the fact believers are sharing their faith less and less. The seeker movement has unintentionally disempowered evangelism by training people to bring their friends to church services so professionals can take over and seal the deal.
In addition, churches have become dispensers of practical advice. During the 1980s and ’90s, pastors told church members to bring their non-Christian friends to hear insight on everything from how to have a better life to how to overcome stress.
Leaders spent 20 to 30 years reshaping their churches around this new vision. Churches focused on practical advice—moral, biblically based, practical advice—and made inviting friends to hear such advice the church’s evangelism strategy. In the process, the church unintentionally de-emphasized teaching people to share their faith. As a result, laypeople lost confidence in the power of their faith. Now, like a bear fed by the tourists, the church is unable to fend for herself. She has lost her natural ability to evangelize.
One cannot read Scripture and miss the fact it focuses on a bloody cross and an empty tomb. The gospel is about a Savior who died on a cross in our place. These are facts—not just interesting things to think or talk about—and they are usually unpalatable to our neighbors. If we do not have confidence in them, then we do not have true faith and we reduce the gospel to a 12-step program for inner peace.
The gospel states, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47 EHV). When believers lose confidence in the gospel, Christ’s evangelistic mandate withers away. But those who are confident in the gospel become living epistles, God’s love letters to individuals and communities, and messages that carry the gospel’s prophetic edge.
We must remove any roadblocks that keep people from getting to Jesus
If we fail to regain confidence in the gospel, subsequent generations will continue to walk away from it. Staying culturally relevant is important, and it is beneficial to minister in fresh, new ways. After all, we must remove any roadblocks that keep people from getting to Jesus. But, in the end, if strategies and systems replace the core of the gospel, its meaning and power will be lost.
We must hold firmly to our best understanding of Scripture
How do you know what to hold tightly in your right hand and what to hold loosely in your left? Granted, this is no minor task, and we need the wisdom of God to discern the difference. Essentially, you must hold firmly to your best understanding of Scripture.
We must contend for certain things, even if we differ on what they are
As we have lost confidence in the gospel, we have also lost confidence in our denominational distinctives until we tend to act as if they do not exist. There are, however, certain things we must contend for, even if we differ on what they are.
For example, I believe in certain things that not every Christian believes in, such as the autonomy of the church, regenerate church membership, congregationalism, and believer’s baptism. I would earnestly contend for any of these beliefs, just as Assemblies of God churchgoers would and should earnestly defend some of their unique beliefs. I hold believer’s baptism in my right hand while an Assemblies of God believer may also hold initial physical evidence in his right hand.
The answer to reaching a lost world is not to create a “bland evangelicalism.” The church has tried this before and the results were problematic at best. Instead, we need movements that are deeply committed to their scripturally formed distinctives. We need to see God at work in movements with different distinctives. We also need to work together as much as we can without violating each other’s conscience or beliefs.
We must realize that Jesus sends, and He sends us to people in cultures
Looking to the future of evangelicalism, I expect the major issues in the next 10 years will revolve around issues of ecclesiology and missiology. Our understanding of Jesus—our Christology—will influence both of these. We must realize that Jesus sends, and He sends us to people in cultures. If we are to have biblically faithful churches living out the gospel in different contexts, we must acknowledge the different cultures around us. We must do this while still faithfully contending for the faith.
We must be hopeful
When we look at the future of the Church and its mission, we must be hopeful. Many people are longing for the past, but they forget that no one is there anymore. Those people are living in a different time and place.
What does the future hold for the church? Although I believe there will be a great reordering of evangelicalism over the next 20 to 30 years, I am hopeful. I believe mainline denominations will continue to decline—particularly those rushing away from their theology. I think evangelicals will spend the next 10 years figuring out how to regain confidence in the gospel. From that gospel, evangelicals will birth a new confidence in the church.
We must desire that the gospel be reborn in every culture and community
We must desire that the gospel be reborn in every culture and community that needs a biblically faithful witness. We will not accomplish this by abandoning the authority of Scripture and a gospel focus. We must, instead, hold on tightly to the right-hand issues. But when we address the diversities of the cultures to which we minister, we must hold the left hand loosely.
We must teach pastors and church members to help one another
We must teach pastors and church members to help one another hold on tightly to the right-hand issues. Even as we hold the left hand open, as men and women go into different cultures and contexts, we rejoice in the fact we have an unchanging gospel and an unchanging God. We must recognize that we will continue to be a church in the margins, sent and led by Jesus Christ, whose birth and crucifixion in the margins changed the world and continues to turn lives upside down.
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