The sky is falling. Secularization is on the rise, or so it seems. Positions long held by Christians as central to our faith are now massively unpopular and Christians are increasingly marginalized because of it. What is more, there seems to be a growing movement away from identification with Christ and his church and towards an embrace of no religious affiliation at all. This of course is leading to an increasing pessimism among churches that are being marginalized, and this pessimism is understandable. I want to suggest however, that this encroaching secularization may, in fact, lead to the dawn of a new era for the church, an era in which the church may actually prosper and grow like it has not in America in some time.
Same-sex marriage is coming. As of this moment it has not been recognized by the Supreme Court, but I have little doubt that it is coming. While it may not ultimately be determined by the Supreme Court, it will certainly be determined by the court of public opinion and in that domain, those of us who would advocate for a traditional understanding of marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman have lost. 58% of all Americans now believe the legalization of same-sex marriage is inevitable. 70% of all Millennials support same-sex marriage. Half of all US Senators have now publicly announced support for same-sex marriage and even prominent Republicans are joining that chorus. The verdict may not have been announced yet but, apart from an act of God, the verdict is now in. Same-sex marriage will be the law of the land, and it will happen soon.
With that said, I think the ramifications run deep. The increasing marginalization for those who support traditional marriage will only pick up speed as these decisions are ratified in the public square. It would not surprise me to see Christians who embrace traditional marriage, within my lifetime, viewed with much the same disdain as those who embrace white supremacy are currently viewed. Obviously this will increasingly diminish a conservative Christian ethic from the general acceptance in the marketplace and serve to push conservative Christianity to the margins.
Another troublesome trend that seems to be discouraging many within contemporary Christianity is oft-reported, and regularly referred to as “the rise of the nones.” This phenomenon is the movement of significant numbers of Americans who previously identified with Christianity and who now identify as having no religious preference. This scares a lot of Christians, and the fear has been fueled by many in the media who may struggle to understand the nuances behind it and are reporting that Christianity is in substantial decline. Thankfully Ed Stetzer, who I work for, has been at the forefront of researchers who have identified that committed Christianity is not actually disappearing, but nominal Christianity is. In other words, what is actually happening is that those who have not really expressed any tangible commitment to their faith, but have previously identified as a follower of Christ, are now acknowledging what has probably been true all along, that is they are not actually believers.
The new dawn of the church
In spite of these incredibly fast-changing realities for the American church, I am not nearly as discouraged as one might assume. These changes, among others, would seem to indicate doom for the church, and yet I am convinced that there are reasons for hope.
1. Christianity is strongest as a counter-cultural movement, rather than as a form of civil religion.
In America we have long been told that America was founded on a “Judeo-Christian ethic.” While this may be true, it has unfortunately led to an unintended problem, namely that Christianity long ago began to be assumed by many inside and outside of the Christianity community. Anytime something is so broadly “known” that it begins to be assumed, or taken for granted, any attempts to learn about it will be subtly, but surely, diminished. Why learn about something that everyone already knows? This has certainly become the position of Christianity in the USA. Our churches are full of Christians who are extraordinarily unfamiliar with their bible, and as a result, they are unfamiliar with their faith. Of course, this is to say nothing about those outside of the church who are increasingly unfamiliar with the claims of our faith. Beyond this, assuming the faith has led to a diluted faith which is not a clear picture of the faith of Jesus at all.
As Christianity continues to be marginalized, and as those who claim the faith are reduced to only those who are most committed to the faith, this naturally leads us to a place where Christianity is no longer assumed. When it is no longer assumed, it becomes more and more difficult for it to be misunderstood, though it may often be dismissed, allowing the church a unique opportunity to declare and display the unique story of God to the world. This is a good thing.
2. Christianity is strongest when Christianity means something more than nominal identification.
This should be seen as one of the great blessings of “the rise of the nones” across the country. As we find fewer and fewer people who willingly assume the title “Christian” without any tangible commitment to the faith, a substantial barrier to effective evangelism comes down, namely the barrier of false belief. Those who have spent any time in areas cloaked with an aura of Christianity understand how difficult it is to share our faith with people who are far from God, and yet are convinced that they are in the faith.
Another wonderful consequence of the changing moral norms, and the decreasing identification with Christianity, is the number of those who are convinced of their eternal security because of their ability to adhere to a moral code is also reduced. In other words, those who have embraced a sort of moralism as their faith, and interpreted that moralism as Christianity, are going to disappear. This dilution of authentic faith is problematic to gospel expansion, and as it disappears, the growth of the gospel seems more likely. Again, these are good things.
3. Christianity is strongest when we assume a missional posture.
Missional activity occurs most naturally in an environment where Christianity is not regularly seen or understood. I know this is true for me, personally. For instance, when I find myself in a foreign country that is unfriendly to the gospel I find myself more intentional in my behavior and my conversations. I find myself more accommodating, relationally, to those who disagree with me. This is often not true when I am in the majority.
Sadly, my story has too often been the story of the church in America. The church has assumed a position that could be considered anything but missional. Far too regularly we have talked down to those who disagree with us. We speak using verbiage that most do not understand, and we expect them to modify their behavior if they want in our “club.”
As Christianity is marginalized in America; as most are not only non-believers, but are aggressively opposed to our faith, I think the church will find itself increasingly forced into a missional posture. This, of course, is a good thing.
4. Christianity has historically thrived when it is the minority.
History tells us that Christianity is most sharp; it is most clear and it is most aggressive, when it is in the minority. It is when the faith becomes generally accepted as normative that the church begins to function lazily, when lethargic, and even lapsed faith often becomes the norm and the church begins to decline. We have seen this over and over throughout the millennia.
So the decline of the church’s supposed influence may, in fact, be the spark that leads to a renaissance of our faith. Even, potentially, the persecution of those who identify with Jesus could be a blessing. It was early church father Tertullian, after all, who reminds is that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. While I do not foresee martyrdom coming in the US, his point stands. The isolation and marginization of the church may end up being the fuel that drives her growth. This is a good thing.
To be fair, it should also be noted that history does not always indicate the best future for post-Christian corners of the world. The middle east and western Europe are not exactly shining examples of our faith on display after Christianity has moved off the scene as a dominant force.
In light of all of the above, I think the church should approach the future with some level of brevity. We should be aware of the challenges that are ahead of us, but we should not run in fear. The future can be bright, for all the reasons I laid out, and even more. Most of all, the future is bright because God is good, He is still sovereign and He loves his bride, the church. And this is a great thing!