by Matt Erickson
One of the most familiar, recurring stories in the business world traces how thriving companies enter decline through lack of focus. As a successful company expands and explores new arenas of innovation, sometimes the company loses sight of the original mission which brought the success in the first place. Many a company has floundered and lost its way through aimless innovation that failed to connect to its core strengths and mission. This same sort of thing can happen in our life as a church.
In our changing world, there are all sorts of models put forward for what we should be about as a church:
- The seeker-sensitive church
- The missional church
- The ancient-future church
- The organic church
- The house church
- The small group church
- The storefront church
- The megachurch
- The multisite church
The list could go on and on. I know because I’m a pastor and all of these models are marketed my way. Many of them are helpful because they highlight our need to adjust in these changing times. However, in the midst of all this thinking about what we should be doing as church, we may easily lose sight of what our primary purpose is as God’s people.
The primary purpose of God in this world is seeing His kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt.6:10). The primary purpose of the church is making disciples who are active witnesses to Jesus wherever He places them. We see this in Jesus’ strong declarations of purpose in Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:7-8.
Recently, the Pew Research Center released a study entitled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The headline news on this study highlighted the decline in Christianity in the United States, but we need to dig deeper to see what is really going on in our country. This study indicated that over the last seven years there has been a 7.8% decline in Christianity in the United States, from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Now, there are a lot of things we can say about this study, but let me share three reflections that I think are critical for us as we talk about evangelism.
1. People are finally getting honest about where they stand, and this is incredibly helpful. We are seeing people move away from nominal or cultural Christianity. There are many people around our nation who call themselves Christian for no other reason than they grew up in church, had Christian parents, or were baptized as children. As Ed Stetzer writes in his assessment of the study, “Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways From Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey”: “For those who have only ever considered themselves ‘Christian’” because they’ve been to church before, or because they aren’t Muslim or Hindu, it is starting to make more sense to check “none” on religious identification surveys.” I believe it is really good to see a decline in this sort of nominal Christian affiliation.
2. We should now readily acknowledge that we are living in a post-Christian America. While the study indicates that around 70% of the nation affiliates with Christianity, the trend in the younger generations is much different. For Millennials, those born in 1981 and after, Christian affiliation charts at 56% with about 35% claiming no religious affiliation at all. This trend shows us that there is increasingly less social value in Christian affiliation, which will have an impact on the culture in which we live.
3. This study should serve as a wake-up call to the Church in the United States. As people in our nation become increasingly honest about where they stand, we must come back to our core purpose for existence as followers of Jesus Christ. We may, in fact, be in danger of failing to live out our mission in the world to make disciples of Jesus who are active witnesses to Him wherever God places us. If we really believe that Jesus is the life-changing Savior we sing about and worship, then we should live like it as huge opportunities rise up around us.
A church that is activated by the Holy Spirit leans into the purposes of God to make disciples of Jesus by the Holy Spirit’s power. This is why the Book of Acts is sometimes referred to as the Acts of the Apostles and at other times is referred to as the Acts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit intends to fill up the church with His presence and power for the purposes of God in this world. Let’s do it.