This week I’m at St. Simons Island, which has historical significance for us Methodists. John and Charles Wesley spent some time here when they were in America. Naturally, there is a United Methodist retreat center here, called Epworth-by-the-Sea. It is the setting of our annual Georgia Pastors School, a teaching conference for us United Methodist clergy in Georgia. We have classes in the morning (taught this year by a biblical archaeologist) and worship services in the evening—with camp activities for the kids.
Our preacher during worship this week is the Rev. Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Tennent is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and an expert in the field of missiology.
In last night’s sermon he shared some eye-opening—if not downright shocking—statistics about the number of self-identifying Christians in this post-Christian, post-Christendom culture in which we find ourselves. I don’t have the exact numbers from the sermon, but here’s similar data he’s shared elsewhere:
The white Caucasian peoples, once the standard bearers of global Christianity, are now losing the faith in record numbers (between 4,700 and 7,000 per day). To put this in generational perspective, 65% of the “builder” generation identified themselves as Christian; whereas only 35% of the “baby boomer” generation did. Generation “X” has only 24% who identify themselves as Christian and the millennial generation (born between 1980 and 2000) is only 15% Christian in their self identification. If this trend continues then the next generation will be statistically able to be classified as an “unreached people group” as have quite a few European groups in the current generation.
Bear in mind, these numbers reflect a decline in cultural Christianity—Christendom—which isn’t altogether bad. Living in a so-called “Christian” culture comes at a cost. In this blog post, Dr. Tennent writes,
Christendom always finds ways to sand down all the rough edges of the gospel so its prophetic, radical proclamation gets gradually domesticated. The result is that, over time, Christianity gets quite removed from the proclamation and experience of the New Testament. Gradually, being a “Christian” gets domesticated to little more than “being nice to people.” Sin moves from binding ourselves to the human rebellion against God to an “inconvenient slowing down of our moral development.” The righteous judgment of a holy God is quietly dropped in favor of the proverbial “man upstairs” who is more like Santa Claus than the God of biblical revelation. Preaching, over time, becomes bland moralizing and child-like admonitions. Pastors become endlessly manipulated and coerced into the larger cultural project rather than remembering our prior calling to serve Jesus Christ and to help usher in the Kingdom through the witness of the Church.
The way forward, Dr. Tennent writes, is the way back: to “reclaim biblical Christianity as the Church.” The church itself needs to be re-converted to the gospel.
My greatest concern is that those of us who are pastors and leaders have ourselves forgotten the gospel. The early church didn’t spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the paganism of Rome. They took it for granted and set about evangelizing it. This cannot be done if we are angry (this is not the time to start burning Qur’ans). This also cannot be done if we are too passive (this is not the time for silence and cultural acquiescence). The greatest need for conversion today is not the unbelieving world, but the church itself. After all, doesn’t Scripture teach us that judgment begins in the household of God? (I Peter 4:17). We cannot even begin to effectively respond to the godless drumbeat of this generation until we ourselves learn to listen to the gospel with better ears, better hearts, better feet, and a lot more good old fashioned courage. There are few things more troubling than the quiet surrender of the gospel at every turn while, in the same breath, we blather on endlessly about the importance of making the church more “culturally relevant.”
Last night’s sermon reiterated many of these thoughts. I came away being reminded again (I seem to need constant reminding!) of the urgency of our mission—including the urgency of my task as pastor. I believe the Lord is telling me, “Don’t get complacent, Brent. Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.”