Why Stetzer’s predictions about the church aren’t scary at all

love them in cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward

I read an interesting post by Ed Stetzer, 4 Trends in Christianity That Could Scare You.

It’s good to see people thinking and theorizing about the future of the church. This is an important project to be engaged in. But I suggest that these 4 trends are not scary at all. Or, that they are scary but not in the way Stetzer intended. Stetzer’s concern is missiology… how churches relate to their culture. He predicts:

  1. The word Christian will no longer apply to cultural (Christian by birth) or congregational Christians (go to church on special occasions), but only to convictional Christians. That is, nominal Christians will no longer be called Christians, only true believers will.
  2. Nominal Christians will all eventually become nones. That is, those who are just nominal are coming out and stating their honest position that they aren’t true believers. The fallout of this will be that the true believers will become a more marginalized minority.
  3. As the nones rise in number, true Christian influence will wane. In the face of this, true Christians will return to a more serious commitment to Scripture and the Gospel and live accordingly. True Christians will “go down fighting”.
  4. True churches composed of true believers will become more robust and more clearly distinct from the surrounding culture.

My response to this theory is that it isn’t scary at all, but totally predictable. Scary is when it surprises us in striking ways. I’ve heard this ideology from the beginning of my church life. It’s old news. Here’s some questions I would like to ask:

  1. Isn’t this what church leaders have always wanted? Church leaders or leaders of any religious community have always struggled with the commitment of their members. The problematic 80/20 principal has always confounded religious communities, where 20% of the members carry 80% of the weight. How many sermons have we heard on the dead wood that plagues congregations, or the constant frustration of trying to light wet wood with holy fire? Stetzer’s vision is that the church would finally be relieved of this perplexing problem because uncommitted members will abandon ship and the true believers who remain would be fully committed ones. Is this what the church really wants to aim for? No matter how pure the membership is, won’t the demands for purity of commitment only become more exacting?
  2. Isn’t this purity doctrine? The purification of the church is an end-times ideology that has plagued the church from the beginning because of its belief in the imminent return of Christ. Christ will return to collect his church that is without spot or wrinkle, his holy, pure, virgin bride. Isn’t this why we are seeing major segments of the church closing its ranks and securing its borders against post-modern sexual, political, spiritual and economic developments? The fanatical cry to return to a dogmatic biblical hermeneutic will ensure that it not only maintains but restores and refines its ultra-conservative positions on such issues a sexuality, gender and morality. Won’t this definition of commitment become more stringent and therefore more selective?
  3. Won’t this ideology actually achieve the opposite of what it hopes? Instead of mission it will achieve the ghettoization of believers. The church will become more isolated, divorced and distinct from its surrounding culture rather than engaged with it as a sanctifying community. Instead of the church being a subversive agent of change, it will become a segregated bastion of elite zealots waging war on its neighbors. Instead of being like yeast that leavens, it will be more like Westboro Baptist, launching assaults on all it disagrees with, which will be almost everything. Rather than being salt that goes out of the salt shaker and into the world, permeating it and flavoring the world with compassion and justice, it will require people to come into the salt shaker in order to enjoy its benefits. By distinguishing itself against the surrounding culture it will actually invoke its contempt, thereby inviting the persecution it prophesied for itself. By making itself adversarial to culture, why would we be surprised when the culture is in turn adversarial?

So, unless I misunderstand Stetzer’s argument, his predictions aren’t scary at all. Doesn’t this outline a religious cleansing that we hear fundamentalists call for and demand all the time? On the other hand, maybe it is scary because if he’s right, the church will become an elite elect that resembles an eccentric cult. Rather than diverse it will be a homogeneous refuge of religious fundamentalists.

Can’t we determine what we want to become?

(update: Stetzer didn’t use the word “scary” in his original post.)

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17 Responses

  1. Doug says:

    I had to look up Ed Stetzer. As I let my subscription to CHRISTIANITY TODAY lapse a long time ago, I had no idea who he is. He’s apparently a Southern Baptist. The Southern Baptist Convention experienced a fundamentalist coup thirty years ago and has, since then, successfully managed to alienate itself from the mainstream of Baptist life worldwide. Its leadership announced, a few days ago, a proposal to enforce the denomination’s statement of faith (the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message Statement) as a creed, essentially saying to the member churches, “If you don’t agree with all of this, get out” — a position totally antithetical to everything for which Baptists have historically stood.
    It’s no surprise that the SBC has begun bleeding members and is in trouble financially. You’re so right, David — the more a church or denomination wraps itself up in its own cocoon and isolates itself, the more it becomes marginalized both within the Christian world and within the wider society. Sad.

  2. Jeff P says:

    My view is that there are some significant foundational theological aspects to Christianity that the majority of “cultural Christians” simply cannot totally believe anymore. The old creeds and statements of belief just ring hollow for an increasing number of people. This is causing a splintering and flourishing of non-denominational and alternative Christian-like churches as well as a recent social acceptance of simply not involving oneself in church at all as a “None”. There is also a “circling of the wagons” going on among the more conservative churches… These social movements are always hard to predict where they will end up. It is hard to say whether there will be a single coalescing theological re-interpretation of scripture that is more palatable and catches on or a continued diversification and splintering of belief. Historians would probably say that Christendom has been through this a few times already and is nothing new.

  3. Cecilia Davidson says:

    My dad’s involved with the ACTS Missions and retreats and I can’t help but think that it is also a pulling together of rank and file. Just from the Mission and Value Statement on the official page:

    “Through the ACTS retreat, ACTS Missions provides the spark that ignites Catholics, worldwide, with the true eternal flame of the Holy Spirit. As an instrument of God, ACTS is the light that will bring about the New Evangelization to the entire world by fostering love and true discipleship, leading others to a commitment and obedience to Our Lord Jesus Christ by our every word, action and thought.”

    While love is a good thing, I’m unnerved b the whole “true discipleship” part and that’s what this post reminds me of.

  4. T E Hanna says:

    I often enjoy your articles, David, but I was a bit disturbed at this one. This is a pretty gross misrepresentation of Stetzer’s article specifically and faithful Christianity generally.

    For starters, Stetzer never refers to “true Christians”, “true believers”, or “the true church” anywhere in his article. He identifies and clearly articulates three subcategories: cultural Christians (those who identify themselves as Christian because they view it as synonymous with being American), congregational Christians (those who identify themselves as Christian because they or a family member have some loose connection to a church), and convictional Christians (those who identify as Christian because of the fervency of their religious conviction). At no point does he create a false dichotomy between “true” and “false” Christians. You did that, not Stetzer.

    Nor did Stetzer inject the LGBT discussion into the mix, even distancing Christianity from the political region explicitly. In fact, to quote from the article, Stetzer stated: “As I see it, some Christians will go down fighting. Other Christians, will go on loving. But either way, convictional Christians will increasingly see they are not the moral majority and will advocate less for the legislation or traditional values and be more focused on protecting religious liberty.”

    Furthermore, as a deeply committed Christian that supports LGBT equality, I’m offended at your implication that Christians must abandon the faith or become WestBoro. That’s a pessimistic stretch of the imagination, it’s blatantly false, and it has nothing to do with Stetzer’s article.

    You wrote: “Instead of the church being a subversive agent of change, it will become a segregated bastion of elite zealots waging war on its neighbors. Instead of being like yeast that leavens, it will be more like Westboro Baptist, launching assaults on all it disagrees with, which will be almost everything.”

    It saddens me that this is your image of what Biblical faithfulness will look like if played out. That’s not the God I love, nor the general image of those of His children that I know.

  5. David says:

    T E Hanna: Maybe I should stick to drawing. I’m afraid I wasn’t clear or you’ve misunderstood. I am examining the implications of what these predictions could mean to some people. I’m not saying that biblical faithfulness will look like that, but that some interpretations of what biblical faithfulness is will. The suggestion is that nominal or nones or cultural “Christians” aren’t really Christians. I don’t agree with that. And I’m asking is this the direction we want to go in. I’m not saying Stetzer wants to go this way. But his predictions will be interpreted this way by many. I hope this clarifies what I meant.

  6. Mike says:

    What does that most famous verse say? “For God so loved THE WORLD”….. Withdrawing from the world and circling the wagons as a lot of conservatives wise to do seems counter to scripture wouldn’t you say?

  7. Ed Stetzer says:

    Doug, wow. Hope you read the article rather than discounted everything since you really don’t like Southern Baptists. BTW, I’ve looked at the article again– no reference to any denomination. It’s always best to read articles rather than to read into them.

    T.E., thanks for the kind words about my article.

    David, thanks for the note. You are correct– I did not choose the title you cited. That was a Charisma title when they reran it at their site. My title was the much less exciting, “MissionTrends: 4 Trends for Churches to Consider.” Honestly, David, I think your article would have had a much different tone if you had read my title and not theirs, but that’s just a guess.

    Either way, thanks for the interaction.



  8. David says:

    Thanks Ed. That was an interesting post though… I mean the Charisma post did have that title and you as the author, so that was misleading. Or maybe I’m dense. Well, no, I am dense, but it was misleading I think. However, here’s to more dialog!

  9. Ed Stetzer says:


    Editors always pick titles– never assume the author’s intent based on the title. She/he might hate it as well.

    It’s link bait, I guess.

    Anyway, gotta’ run.


  10. Caryn LeMur says:

    I read the article by Ed. It is ok. He looks at the stats and says, ‘The lab test results show your blood is good, dude. You need a few dietary changes; exercise; add a little more oil in your diet, and you’ll be as good as new. Hey, the reason you are losing hair is ok… it is just hair… let it go. Hair is just a none.’

    I look at the stats (shown in his articles and elsewhere) and say, ‘Your iron count is low… your D3 count is norm for your age, but way below optimal. Your white blood cells are way out of whack. Your insulin is way too low. Sorry, you need to discard this bottle-shell and get a new one, pronto.’

    In a way, Ed and I agree that the true ‘body’ of Christ cannot die. Cool. And, maybe Ed is a better doctor than me… though I taught business majors statistics at a Christian college… and taught how to abuse them… or use them… how to bias a survey … or work with an open one. I recall that the interpretation of the stats can vary… but so can the unspoken paradigm (or model).

    I offer that everyone needs to rethink the assumptions of the paradigm. Ed is using the human body paradigm for the ‘church’… hey, let’s try an octopus.

    So, to me the church analogy is better served by an octopus than by a human body. That is one of my operating paradigms. To me, a church is only a shell and it can and should be discarded. The octopus is the living body of Christ. And, the bottle-shell needs to be discarded and a new one found.

    An octopus is alive and moving… and ever changing to conform, to hide, to reveal, to startle… making a home in bottle, or a shell, or in a crevice or in an old wine jug….

    When we use the analogy of a human body, we are hesitant to radically rethink our tactics, structure, polity, interactions with culture wars, re-labeling… who wants to cut of an arm or leg?

    When Jesus taught on church structures, he used the concept of wineskins. “No one puts new wine in old skins”. No one? Waitaminute…. if Jesus is the wisdom of God incarnate, then when he says ‘No one’, he may even mean it. And then, Jesus said, “… or else both are destroyed.” Gosh… Jesus is soooo radical. Doesn’t he understand that the old wineskin just needs a little more exercise, a little rethought, a little more oil and then… they will be as stretchy and good as new?

    Nope. Wineskins are always temporary and to be discarded. The wine is what matters far more. The wineskin is only a temporary housing. [Now, I hope my octo-paradigm brought a laugh to someone… but octo-in-a-bottle is far closer to the Jesus’ paradigm of wine-in-a-wineskin than using a human body paradigm…. smile…]

    I offer that Ed needs to rethink his base unspoken paradigm. By using the human body of Christ analogy, Ed is blending the paradigm of discardable wineskins with the paradigm of living/valuable wine. Rather, we should ask: What are the stats saying about the future of American wineskins? What are the stats saying about the future of American wine? too very different questions with two very different answers.

    Sincerely; Caryn

  11. R Vogel says:

    They still beating this dead horse? They were talking about this 25 years ago when I was in the church. But of course this won’t happen and we all know why: money. Sure something like the Westboro Asylum can exist in isolation, but the whole Evangelical-Industrial Complex™? No way. Who’s going to pay Franklin Graham’s salary? Who’s going to buy the books? Who’s going to attend the rallies? This is just typical christian apocalyptic fantasy..

  12. David says:

    I like that Caryn.

  13. Caryn LeMur says:

    I wanted to take a moment to add another thought on the interpretation of data: a researcher must force his/her mind into ‘four corners’ arguments: what does this data-scrap say in terms of pro, bi, con, and non. Just draw a diamond shape and label the corners, and you got it.

    So, the ‘nominals’ are willing to mark “None” now on a survey about their religion. What does that say positively about the nominal and/or the church? what does it say negatively about the nominal and/or the church? Is there a combinatorial (“bi”) way of looking at this data-scrap (can it say pro, say con, at the same time, or anything in-between?)? Is there a non-way of looking at this data-scrap (after all, not all data input matters).

    It is tough. It is hard to do. Let’s try it with the data-scrap that says ‘more and more nominal are marking ‘none’ or ‘no religion’ on the surveys’. Let’s try each corner of the diamond shape:

    Pro: the church is losing the chaff, cutting off the dead wood. OR, the nominal are honestly disgusted by the Church’s representation of Jesus and simply want to be honest about their avoidance of such a horrible label.

    Con: the church is failing to reach the nominal and convert him/her. OR, the nominal is failing to reach out to the church during times of searching, crises, human needs.

    Bi: any blend of the above.

    Non: It is simply a point in time for the church, and another great American revival will one day come…. the data-scrap means nothing; OR, it is simply a point in time for the nominal, and when war/economic depression hit, then they will reconsider the church, but at this time the data-scrap means nothing.

    Ed took only half of the ‘pro’ viewpoint, and ran with it. That is ok. That is what his audience wishes to hear – nothing challenging, nothing changing, we are right and the world is wrong, and God loves us in our corner.

    And, I am ok with writers that need to eat, and singers that need to eat, and so forth. And, maybe Ed does not know how to work the four corners arguments. [To learn this, invite friends over to brain-storm the four corners with you… it will shake up your mind….]

    But… you know… I lean towards the second half of the ‘pro’ argument. Here is why:

    Bonnie and I had one son that wanted to be in the Marines. Why would a (then) 15-16 year old want to join them? “Oh!” he would gush, “They are amazing! They do everything so well! They are fantastic!” [Our son never joined… but he wanted too so badly at one time.] The reputation and rumor of the Marines had so caught up our son that, even though he never joined in reality, he joined them in his heart, and studied contact fighting arts and weapons for over a year.

    The reputation and rumor of the Christians is no longer alluring. It is suffocating. It is repulsive to the next generations. Here’s an interesting joke: “Person 1: ‘Hey, you want to be a Christian?” Person 2, “What?!? Do I want to act Amish?!?” My son’s generation wants to be a “Christian” with the same joy they wish to be “Amish”.

    And, here is one reason why:

    “My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but keep my commands in your heart,
    for they will prolong your life many years
    and bring you peace and prosperity.

    Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
    bind them around your neck,
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
    Then you will win favor and a good name
    in the sight of God and man.” [Proverbs 3]

    Here is my analysis of the ‘pro’ position: The American church kept the commands of God, but abandoned love and faithfulness to the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the sick, the homeless, and the naked. Oh, they loved the commands of God, and they loved faithfulness to the commands… but the actual verse is about learning the commands in order to better launch into ‘Love God… and Love your neighbor’.

    The American ‘church’ institution has little to no ‘favor with man’… and even boasts about it. Ouch.

    So, I conclude the Nominals are being rightfully honest in marking “None”, and being very happy with that mark.

    [Incidentally, we buy food from our Amish community a few miles away… so, relax….but the joke makes the point much easier to remember.]

    Cheers! Caryn

  14. R Vogel says:

    To me, a church is only a shell and it can and should be discarded. The octopus is the living body of Christ. And, the bottle-shell needs to be discarded and a new one found.

    @Caryn I have a vision of the ‘body of Christ’ as a hermit crab….. 😉

  15. R Vogel says:

    @ Caryn I like the 4 corners argument, but I think there might be something missing in your anaylsis: To wit, the church may no longer be a relevant institution in post-modern (or whatever we are calling it these days) society.. Like the aristocracy or priesthood it simply no longer provides any useful function. It is a hero system that has waning efficacy in the world we live in. We have evolved, or are evolving, past it.

  16. Caryn LeMur says:

    Vogel: you win! a hermit crab it is… lol. *That* brought a smile to my face this afternoon.

    Good point about questioning the core assumption: is the church institution relevant? and (taking your thought farther): if yes, to what degree? Is the message by Jesus relevant? and if yes, which particular message and to what degree?

    And then, ‘Does the church institution, as currently structured, enhance or carry the message given by Jesus clearly, concisely, and completely?’ If not, why not?

    My personal opinion is that of an adjunct professor that taught business in a bible college.

    There comes a time when IBM or MicroSoft or Google must restructure. Good grief, IBM is over 100 years old as a company, and has radically transformed its institutions multiple times. IBM has discarded tools that were once effective (and world-dominant) and moved to new tools and pardigms of reaching clients with goods and/or services that the clients value now.

    So long as a church institution is willing to ask itself: ‘What does my client value?’ and ‘what tools will best give to my client the goods and services needed?’ – then, in my opinion, the church will continue as a viable institution.

    Remember the Encyclopedia Brittanica? Everyone wanted the ‘message’ of being knowledgable, and having knowledge available for their kids. People still want information… but not on the book shelves. They wanted 8-tracks, VHS, then ArpaNet, then CDs, then User Rooms, then Websites, then Wikipedia…And so, Encylopedia Brittanica is no more…. because their message was great but their vehicle/medium was discarded by the clientel.

    For example, ‘shared leadership’ is something I believe the current clientel values. ‘Dominant controlling leadership’ or ‘Exclusive leadership’ is no longer a valued commodity. The message of Jesus therefore can be more clearly, completely, and concisely given within a ‘Shared Leadership’ model… not because Jesus has changed, but because the clientel have changed from wanting 8-track churches to wanting Wikipedia churches.

    What of ‘facilitated discussions covering different evidences’ vs. ‘preaching the truth as one person that has the insight alone’?

    What of ‘ensuring the hungry have opportunity to work and receive food’ vs ‘give the poor the food from a church pantry’ vs ‘ignore the poor in our neighborhood but send money overseas’ vs ‘privately help the poor among us find work, and help them during their need for groceries’? All of these are arguably messages of Jesus (and his followers)… but What particular message does the current clientel desire more than others? Does that desire change in Detriot Michigan vs the city of South Beach Florida?

    I do agree that we are moving past the current church institutional model. At this time, I find that many people are willing and wanting to hear some of the messages of Jesus. I just lean towards the church’s analysis of the clientel’s needs, customs, and priorities, is greatly lacking.

    Blessings! Caryn

  1. June 12, 2014

    […] Hayward reflected upon Ed Stetzer’s post on current trends around the term Christian and the statistics of the […]