The Cultural Divide

Navigating the Cultural Divide

In Decline or Not?

I can’t remember the source of the quote, but I heard someone say, “It used to feel like Christianity was the home team. Now it feels more like we are the away team.” It’s true, isn’t it?

In his book, Christians in the Age of Outrage, Ed Stetzer gives some interesting perspectives on what is going on in the state of North American Christianity. I wanted to share some of his framework.

I’ve been following Stetzer’s thoughts on this for a few years. A May 2015 article of his first grabbed my attention with the claim that Christianity isn’t in decline, but instead “fakers who don’t go to church are just giving up the pretense.” I’ll say more about this below.

Fast-forwarding to January of 2019, Stetzer states more openly that he believes the church is “in decline” in North America. While I don’t know that Stetzer would say he has actually changed his mind, or if these different articles are merely more nuanced for the points he is making, I do think Stetzer offers some productive insights for how Christians can understand our situation in American culture.

Cultural Forking

Ed Stetzer Cultural Forking

Stetzer makes some helpful distinctions between types of Christians and non-Christians, rather than operating in only binary terms. It is the changes in these categories that Stetzer believes are creating our current scenario.

Non-Christians

These would be people who are purely secular, claiming “none” as their religious affiliation, or for Stetzer’s purposes, possibly claiming a religion other than Christianity.

Cultural Christians

Cultural Christians are the type of people who would say they are “Christian” much in the sense that they would say they are “American.” It is to them what normal, “good” people ought to be. Even though they do not have any affiliation with a church, they would still say Christianity is their default option if they need to pick one.

Congregational Christians

In Nashville, Tennessee–the buckle of the Bible belt–I grew up in a sea of these. Congregational Christians have some sort of local congregation with which they identify. They probably at least know the pastor’s name, and attend once or twice per year on holidays. Even so, were you to ask the church leaders, they would describe this kind of person as “uninvolved.” They do claim the Christian faith as well as a tie to a local church, but their real connection is minimal.

Convictional Christians

From a church leader’s perspective, Convictional Christians are the people you can count on. They attend worship regularly. They try to develop their own interior life with God. They try to allow their Christian worldview to shape their life decisions. When they say they are “Christian”, it isn’t just their weekend hobby, it’s their identity.

The Big Shift

Referring to the image above, what Stetzer believes is that there has been a shift over time. It used to be the case that the general cultural consensus was the Judea-Christian worldview. The majority of people held this worldview, which encompassed the Convictional Christians, as well as the Congregational and Cultural ones. The outsiders were the purely secular people who were “non-Christian”.

But now the consensus has shifted into a secular worldview. The non-Christians have lived out of this framework for some time, but the shift has mostly occurred among Cultural Christians and Congregational Christians. Even though they still claim the Christian faith, the worldview from which they live is much more aligned with the secular view than it is with that of the Convictional Christians.

Techtonic Shift

Symptoms of this would be some of the radically changing views on social issues among “Christians” that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. One in particular I’ve dealt with a lot is Christian people who are cohabitating before they are married. It’s become pretty normal for me to encounter a couple living together who starts attending church regularly and wanting to place membership, but who seem a bit surprised at our encouragement that they really ought to get married before we would want to grant them full inclusion. Why? Because in America it’s totally normal now to be fully sexually active before marriage, to the point that it seems odd to many young people that anyone believes otherwise. The average young adult’s views on sexuality have been shaped a lot more by Friends or Modern Familythan they have been by Scripture. The Convictional Christians’ Judeo-Christian values are no longer the norm. In fact, to modern ears they sound strange and almost unimaginable. (“Sure that’s what you teach, but you can’t possibly expect anyone to actually live like that…”)

The Real Story

In some of Stetzer’s opining, I believe he has been overly optimistic, but he does offer an interpretive angle that I find helpful. Stetzer (who has much credibility as a statistician through his work at LifeWay Research and now at Wheaton College) believes that the number of Convictional Christians has actually remained consistent. Not growing, but consistent. Those who try to base their life on the teachings of Jesus as part of the community of faith have largely continued honoring that commitment.

The problem with many surveys who claim the rapidly approaching demise of Christianity is that they simply have two categories. “Are you a Christian or not?” Stetzer says the real story is that for the many Cultural and Congregational Christians who formerly claimed Christianity, largely out of cultural pressure, there is no longer that pressure, so they have stopped claiming it. It isn’t that their actual lives or believes have shifted. It’s that now they can openly claim what they’ve always practiced anyway. Stetzer believes that in many cases, what we’re seeing is not an abandonment of faith, because they never really practiced it to begin with.

Opportunities for Convictional Christians

I’m going to share a few ideas about what implications all of this has for practicing Christians.

  • We have to stop assuming that people share our worldview. Gone are the times that you could say, “Everyone knows that _____ is the case!” Everyone doesn’t. You won’t win anyone to your faith by appealing to what you believe ought to be obvious to everyone, because it isn’t.
  • We need to quit wasting our influence with angry social media rants about how we need to “take back America.” The Gospel has never intended to be spread through coercive force. Jesus told Peter to put the sword away. In conquering his foes, the only blood Jesus ever spilled was his own. The defining mark of Jesus’ followers is their demonstrable love for each other. If evil is to be overcome, we will have to do it with good. Bellyaching about the culture and pining for the “good old days” accomplishes nothing. But love can conquer all. You should practice the same principles on your digital platforms that you do interpersonally.
  • We have an opportunity to distinguish ourselves. Paul speaks to the Philippians about how we ought to be people who act in unity, working together without arguing, so that in contrast to the world around us, we shine like stars as we extend to them the Word of Life. When the cultural tide is contrary to the Christian worldview, then the contrast should become more evident. And if we are on the side of truth, as we claim to be, we should have nothing to fear, because the truth doesn’t have to be afraid of hard questions or examination. When there are fewer of us who will openly claim our Christian faith, it should be helpful in sorting out who merely claims it versus who sincerely practices it.
  • We need to think like missionaries in our own communities. I’ve made a few comments before along these lines in response to the normal fretting and quick fixes about the problem of “losing millennials.” During much of the 20th century, it was popular to hold revival-type gatherings. To revive something means to breath new life into something that was dying or dead. Because people are increasingly unchurched, there is no Christian faith within them to revive. Instead, they’ll need to be taught for the first time. It won’t work simpy to invite them to do what we think “common sense” would dictate they do in response to God. They’ll need to learn the alternate world that Scripture imagines; one that may be completely new to them. We need to be creative about how the culture of our churches help someone (a) feel like they belong, (b) find a place for first steps of understanding and practice, and (c) have peers and role models who walk beside them intentionally.

As I write this, I am still in the process of reading Stetzer’s book. I appreciate that he has not only made an effort to diagnose the problem, but to go the next step in suggesting solutions. (That second part is what I’m currently beginning to read.)

  • What have you found to be fruitful practices in engaging the culture around you?
  • What have you found to be unfruitful in your efforts?
  • What other implications do you see from Stetzer’s suggested model for what is happening?

3 comments

  1. Great current thoughts about our history along with reaching those in our culture to create a more sustainable history.

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