Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Christians in America

Is the United States of America truly a "Christian nation?" A research project was conducted over two years ago in partnership between Zondervan Publishers, Christianity Today International and Knowledge Networks to find out how many Americans identify themselves as Christians and how this affects their daily behavior and spiritual life.

As a result of the study, the researchers saw five distinct groups of Christians emerge: Active, Professing, Liturgical, Private, and Cultural Christians. As well, the following three findings presented themselves:

1. The traditional local church is no longer considered the only place for spiritual growth and nourishment.

2. In order to effectively reach out to evolving communities, churches need to develop more relational and community-outreach based connections.

3. Laypeople need to become much more involved in the work of ministry.

For those of us actively involved in ministries that are reaching out to non-Christians, these findings come as no surprise. For many of my generation (Gen X) and younger, the local church is perceived as hypocritical, too judgmental, irrelevant and stuck in the past. Whether those perceptions are true depends on the church. But this attitude is held by millions and is not going away any time soon.

Part of the challenge that the local church faces is the consumerism mentality that exists among most Americans. Look at what Bryan Wilkerson, pastor of Grace Chapel (outside of Boston) has to say:
"These days, people can get good teaching, wonderful music, and excellent writing, whether through iPods, TV, or online," says Wilkerson. "They learn to shop around and pick and choose. Then they expect the same high quality in their local church. A generation ago, the average person learned to accept his home pastor and was faithful to his local church. But now, people's appetites for excellence have been heightened."
In addition the comfort that many feel with getting their spiritual input apart from Christian community is increasing. This means that millions are getting spiritual input without necessarily having someone to process that information with. Many are advocating more of a "go" approach rather than asking others to "come." More thoughts from the study:
"Instead of trying to win underchurched people back to a traditional church context, leaders say the approach to bringing Private, Cultural, and non-Christians into the church is relational and outward-looking rather than programmatic and inward-focused. Lindsay notes many Christians who are not involved in traditional churches are "much, much more interested in personal connection. The ways in which they nourish their faith are through home churches or one-on-one Bible study or non-church related small groups."
In fact, house churches have recently become a noteworthy trend in the United States. Time magazine in March 2007 quoted pollster George Barna as saying that house churches were evidence of a "seminal transition that may be akin to a third spiritual awakening in the U.S." and that in two decades, "only about one-third of the population" will attend traditional churches."
Also, there is a pressing need for the laity of the church (non-credentialed members) to grow in their biblical proficiency and ability to lead effectively in ministry. Over the years I have met scores of young people that grew up active in their church but have very limited understanding of the teachings of the Bible and the implications of those teachings. I'm not the only one who has seen this:
"The current level of biblical and theological teaching in the church may not be meeting the challenge of preparing people in the pews to explain the power and significance of the Scriptures to those who rarely read them. "I do think there is decline and unbelievable degrees of biblical illiteracy that we haven't seen in previous generations, among all five of these categories of Christians," says D. Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University and former consultant with the Gallup Institute. "People used to know their Bible, but now they can go week-in and week-out and not even know the order of the books. Many churches feed their congregants a steady diet of messages that do not require intellectual engagement or an understanding of the biblical narrative. And that is a huge problem."
Lastly, their needs to be more of a focus on the person of Jesus Christ. We can teach people financial principles, how to have a good marriage and how to have a stress-free life, but if we don't point them to Jesus, we've simply missed the boat. The emphasis that is placed on tolerance also contributes to this:
"Leith Anderson, senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, believes that the high value placed on tolerance in this country is partly to blame. "'God' as a term is transferable amongst different religious sects, but 'Christ' is not. It seems intolerant. What we need to do is reintroduce people to Jesus, his story, his life and his teachings. Not by forcing people to agree with us, but by giving them adequate examples and reasons to believe in Christ."
As Joel Hunter, pastor of Northwood, a Church Distributed near my home in Orlando, says,
"Christianity is about Christ, and it is about that personal relationship. We have to not focus on explaining Pauline theology, but on the person and ministry of Christ. We have to be people who live out the life of Christ. People aren't generally interested in theological teaching. But everyone has a heart for the one who had a heart for us."

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