Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research surveyed three thousand Americans on their theological beliefs. The results show a great need for godly churches to reach their communities with the gospel.
Many self-professing evangelicals reject foundational evangelical beliefs. The survey results reveal that the biblical worldview of professing evangelicals is fragmenting. Though American evangelicalism arose in the twentieth century around strongly held theological convictions, many of today’s self-identified evangelicals no longer hold those beliefs.
You can browse the findings yourself on their website.
The same percentage of respondents (62 percent) agree or somewhat agree with the statement, “By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven,” as well as “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.” Slightly more of them (64) would say “everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature,” but 73 percent disagree or somewhat disagree that “even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.”
That conviction is fundamentally a conviction about the character of God. If he is perfectly holy and just, he cannot let sin go unpunished. But God is no longer holy—in the minds of six out of ten Americans.
From our earthly perspective, it may not seem to us that the motley assortment of deeply flawed humanity that makes up the church has much to commend it. What kind of a reward is this for Christ’s suffering? Yet Jesus does not hesitate to call us beautiful!
Iain Duguid writes about the hope and security found in Daniel 6. “My salvation rests not on my ability to ‘Dare to be a Daniel,’ but solely on Christ’s perfect obedience in my place.”
How do you react to the claim that what a Christian does at church on Sunday morning is the most important thing he can do that week? I think some pastors have said this as a way of saying worshipping God is our most important act, but if that’s what they intend to say, they aren’t quite saying it. One could easily hear in such a claim that attending church that morning is the most important part of the week. Is that what worship is? Are we only able to worship the Lord in an organized service on one day or can we develop a lifestyle of worship for the whole week? Is the church’s mission to draw people into its organization or to declare the wonders of Christ Jesus?
Jared C. Wilson has experience in churches that put all of their creative energy into making the Sunday morning service exciting, unique, and attractive to the people of their city, and he believes those church leaders have lost the vision for Christ’s church on earth. The manner of the services and the theme of the sermons (or talks) point to good feelings and self-improvement. “But are they the real message of Jesus?” he asks.
Wilson’s argument in The Prodigal Church rests on his belief that what you win people with is what you win them to. “Pragmatic discipleship makes pragmatic Christians. The way the church wins its people shapes its people. So the most effective way to turn your church into a collection of consumers and customers is to treat them like that’s what they are.”
He urges church leaders to question their assumptions about what takes place in their services and programs. If their goal is make clear the claims of Christ or to help others make God of first importance in every part of their lives, then they are on mission regardless their presentation style.
You could walk away from the attractional church’s pattern of teaching and think you needed some more skills, some more enthusiasm, and some more advice, but you’d rarely walk away thinking you need more grace.
Wilson is careful not to overly criticize. He isn’t arguing for his preferred church style or saying that everyone has to agree with him on what makes for a good worship service. He admits we have different styles, but making consumerism a normal part of the American church does not lift up the name of Christ or apply his grace in healthy ways. That’s not a style choice. It’s a problem. It isn’t cultural sensitivity; it’s being co-opted by the culture.
The second part of the book offers many thoughts on how to do church well, including some stories of people who realized their manner of ministry didn’t accomplish their intentions. I heartily agree with and recommend this book.
Many attractional churches still preach that Jesus died for our sins, of course. But too often this message of Christ’s death has become assumed, the thing you build up to rather than focus on. Or, in too many other cases, this message is treated as the “add-on” to other messages, the proposition presented at the end of a message that is more about our personal success than Christ’s personal victory.
A cognitive dissonance can result for those who hear a message all about what they should do to be more successful or victorious or happy or what-have-you, only to then hear the proposition that Jesus died for our sins. To hear a lengthy appeal to our abilities, culminating in an appeal to our utter inability, can cause spiritual whiplash.
But the appeal is easy to see. Attractional is certainly attractive. These kinds of messages, over time, communicate to seeker and believer alike that Christianity is about themselves, making the faith more about self-improvement or life enhancement—which are things we all want deep down. But are they the real message of Jesus?
— From The Prodigal Church:A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo, by Jared C. Wilson
Though I am in no position to challenge Wilson’s assessment here, I want to offer the suggestion that the spiritual whiplash may be negated quite a bit by presenting the gospel with a heavy emphasis on personal choice. These preachers could be summarized as saying that since Christ has done so much for our eternal lives, doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of it. Don’t you see how your life would be improved by declaring yourself a follower of Christ Jesus?
That may be a way to make converts, but it isn’t a way to make actual disciples.
Pastor Joe Thorn said he’s seen many small churches, some being the salt of the earth, some needing a smack upside the head. Last year, he wrote a four part series on what small churches can do in their communities.
- “As I have seen several churches in my area continue to dwindle in size I have watched the leadership of many of these churches settle into into one of three dangerous mentalities: elitism, defeatism, and survivalism. These are mentalities I know well as they have characterized my ministry at one time or another.”
- “Many smaller churches feel extremely limited by their size,” but they don’t have to compete with other churches for market share or apologize to anyone for their size.
- “Smaller churches are no less hindered from doing what God has called his people to do than are larger churches. Having more people does not maker it easier.”
- “My wife and I once attended a Reformed Baptist Church that fits my current definition of a “small” church. There was no worship leader. No choir. No instruments. No overhead projection. No cool lights. The building was plain-Jane. Yet their gathering was powerful. Why?”
Thorn has a “three-book series on the confession, nature, and expression of the Church” coming out this fall from Moody, which will likely cover these themes and much more.
Russell Moore on the church in America and our intersection with public policies in today’s New York Times. We are not a majority white church anymore more nor should we want to be.
The Bible calls on Christians to bear one another’s burdens. White American Christians who respond to cultural tumult with nostalgia fail to do this. They are blinding themselves to the injustices faced by their black and brown brothers and sisters in the supposedly idyllic Mayberry of white Christian America. That world was murder, sometimes literally, for minority evangelicals.
Alan Noble talks about the politicization of our morals and how that has raised fences around our communities.
Politics do not (or at least should not) define us, but cultural values that are traditionally wrapped up in political movements impact our perception of our neighbor. If politicians and the pundits who support them regularly speak about immigrants as threats to our country or view poor minorities as drains on our economy, or if they mock Christian voters as backwards bigots and pro-life advocates as anti-woman, it shapes the way we envision one another. We grow skeptical of one another, hostile, and cynical. In a word, we become less neighborly.
A PASTORAL LETTER
From Bishop Judith Hardanger-Hansen
There has been considerable dissension in our fellowship recently, and a number of hard words have been spoken, causing much pain. I feel it my obligation to address the matter directly, exercising openmindedness and charity, both to the enlightened, Christ-like people who agree with me, and the knuckle-dragging Nazis on the other side.
From its inception, the Merry Pride movement has been like the wind of the Holy Spirit, breathing new life and new ideas into the church. Sadly, however, some people do not welcome change, and run from the challenges of a new day.
In case anyone reading this is unaware of recent history (home-schooled people, perhaps), the term “Merry” was adopted by the oppressed group formerly known as “adulterers,” employing a pun on the word “marry,” to give their lifestyle a more positive public face. They felt it intolerable to be forced to live any longer with a name that bore the weight of centuries of misunderstanding, prejudice, and oppression. Continue reading Pastoral letter from the future