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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.)