Practical Divinity: Cultural changes bring challenges for churches

Andrew C. Thompson

Andrew C. Thompson

By Andrew C. Thompson

The most recent data about religious trends in the United States gives the church a snapshot of the challenges it is currently facing.

The Pew Research Center’s most recent survey on the religious landscape in the U.S. reveals two particularly troubling findings: a drop in the number of Christians as a share of the overall population and a sharply rising number of people indifferent to organized religion. The latter group is often termed the “nones” in reference to their response when asked which religious category they identify with.

Within the American population, the Pew survey shows that “each successive age group is less connected than that group’s parents,” according to Cathy Lynn Grossman of Religion News Service (“Christians lost ground, ‘nones’ soar in new portrait of U.S. religion,” May 12, 2015).

The nones stand at 22.8 percent of the U.S. population. When Pew Research conducted its first survey of the U.S. religious landscape, that number was at 16 percent. While there has also been an increase in the number of people who claim to be atheist or agnostic, these are not the same as what the nones represent. Nones may be believers in God, but simply refuse to affiliate with any organized religion, much less a Christian church.

Evangelism, outreach

What we face is a dual challenge related to both our evangelism and our discipleship formation. When it comes to adults in the “none” category, we need to begin strategizing about how effective evangelism can bring them to a living faith in Jesus Christ.

We know that hellfire-and-damnation preaching will not be a good strategy. But otherwise, the church should use any means necessary. A task force within my congregation is having an extended conversation about “vision and visibility” relating to how we reach the unchurched and dechurched in our area. We are examining our deeply held vision about Wesleyan ministry for our city, then asking how we can make it visible to the community in a compelling way.

When we asked how people around the table in that group were attracted to our congregation, the answers were fascinating.

A number of them grew up in the church, were effectively formed as disciples and have remained into adulthood. Others were attracted by children’s and youth ministries. Essentially, they began attending because there were strong Christian formation programs for kids, and the parents got hooked along the way.

A couple of people were personally invited by members of the congregation to attend a worship service or some other activity of the church (what is sometimes called “relational evangelism”).

And one person said that her family began attending because our church popped up on a Google search one Sunday morning when they were looking for worship services in the area.

Because people expend time and energy in widely varied ways, having a multipoint and flexible strategy for evangelism is crucial. It must include effective interpersonal outreach, as well as effective use of both print and digital media. And every congregation needs to be intentional about how to develop and implement its strategy. For some churches, a whole culture change will be required.

Disciple formation

Then there is the question of how we form children and youth to be committed disciples of Jesus Christ as adults. Because it’s not just that unbelievers are failing to be converted; it’s also that Christian kids raised in the church are falling away when they reach adulthood.

Here I think it is time for us to face a hard truth: The world will not make our children into Christians.

For so long, we were able to assume that Christian children would become Christian adults as a matter of course. But just think about this illustration I often used in the classroom when trying to get across the profound challenge we have today in discipling our children:

Imagine walking into the home of your great-great-great-great-grandparents. Let’s say they lived in a one- or two-room log house somewhere on the American frontier. The year is about 1840.

What do you think you would see when you walk into that home? What would make it different from your home today?

It would be a much smaller dwelling, of course, with fewer household furnishings. Also missing would be a ubiquitous feature in contemporary American life: things with screens. No TVs, computers, iPads or smartphones.

Your ancestors wouldn’t have had a whole lot in the way of books, probably not more than a single shelf full. But there’s one book they would have almost certainly had: a King James Bible.

Now imagine what things were like after supper, with family gathered and a fire in the fireplace. If family time involved some kind of technology, the only technology really available was that single Bible. So people read it, to themselves and to each other. The most advanced technology of the day that engaged people’s minds (a printed book) and the Christian faith overlapped perfectly.

That isn’t the case now. The devices with screens that fill our homes today give us access to wonderful worlds. You can find the Bible there, but you can find a whole lot else, too. People have options, and the world is always going to offer things that are more enticing on a superficial level than is the Christian faith.

So if the culture isn’t going to make our kids into Christians, who will?

It must start in the home, and extend into the local congregation. Only if we pattern our children’s lives by the means of grace—as opposed to the consumerist whims the world will impress upon them—will they be formed as disciples who stick.

Church programs geared toward discipleship formation are often a mile wide and an inch deep. That has to change. Families must be equipped in a serious way to practice their faith inside church and out. If we focus on that now, we will be taking the first step toward a more vital church.

The Rev. Dr. Thompson serves as senior pastor of First UMC Springdale. He can be reached at