In the previous blogs I have identified four trends that I see as troubling (even dangerous) for the future of evangelical Christianity:
- The increasing abandonment of biblical authority in terms of practice.
- The surrender of evangelicals to right-wing political agendas.
- The ongoing dominance of systematic theological constructs to define evangelicalism.
- The decline of both the effectiveness of and the demand for evangelical theological education.
This presents a pessimistic outlook for the future, and those who know me will attest that this is not my style. I am the eternal optimist, and I am optimistic about the prospects for evangelical Christianity. Why? Because I find the evangelical church to be amazingly vibrant.
I have had contact with many different evangelical church in the past few years. There is no single way to characterize them, but perhaps they can be divided into two categories: striving or thriving (certainly not buzzwords original to me).
Striving Churches. These are churches that are not growing. They are either plateaued (temporarily) or in decline. This can be for many reasons: declining community, loss of key members, bad reputation, poor facilities, etc. But the number one reason (in my experience) is the lack of effective and committed leadership. By this I mean the church lacks leaders who are:
- Thinking strategically
- Fiscally wise
- Personally committed
- Doctrinally sound
All of these are important, but the most important for the survival of the church is the first, strategic thinking. What I mean by this is the capacity to envision what a church should look like in the near future (2-3 years) and then to craft a reasonable strategy to get there. Many smaller churches are unable to do this, defaulting to plans that seek to restore the past glories of the congregation rather than adjust to the changing situation. Sometimes a church has declined to the point there is no realistic future for it.
When a “striving” church ceases to strive, it will die. This is not a doomsday scenario. Throughout the history of Christianity, churches have been planted, thrived, and died. Paul’s church in Ephesus, perhaps the most important church in early Christianity, no longer exists. Why? Because economic forces shut down the city of Ephesus. This can happen today and the Christian community will be relocated or transferred to other congregations rather than signal the end of the church in totality.
Thriving Churches. The evangelical landscape has many vibrant, dynamic churches. I would characterize a “thriving” church as one that has most or all of these characteristics:
- Growing membership base
- Fiscal health and stability
- Talented, innovative staff
- Dynamic worship services
- Healthy mix of generations
- Observable impact on the community
Here is the good news: there are numerous evangelical churches like this all over America. When I visit a metro area, I often try to find out what the thriving churches are in that city. It is usually not too hard, because people who live there will know. Thriving churches are not candles under a bushel basket. They are cities on a hill, shining the light of Jesus brightly. They are beacons in their communities, guiding people to Jesus and his church.
What will the future hold? Part of the dynamic is that the role of the keepers of the evangelical flame has shifted from schools, societies, magazines, and denominational leaders to the vibrant churches of today. I think this shift is permanent. There are no national, universally accepted spokespersons for the evangelical movement. There are local leaders, some of whom have national reputations. And, for the most part, these are the leaders of the vibrant evangelical churches of our era.
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University
The views in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of his employer.