The 20th century, in many ways, represented the climax of Christian influence in the United States as churches established a massive physical footprint, exercised significant social and political power, and sent missionaries to every corner of the map. While there were contributing factors to this rise of Christian influence in the West (mass transportation, telecommunication, urbanization, a strong economy, and a growing sense of American superiority to name a few), at the end of the day, God just seemed to bless this country with fertile spiritual soil.
As the soil hardens in the 21st century (and it is hardening), the church is struggling to identify the problems and adapt to a rapidly changing culture. Throughout church history, we see that as the spiritual soil changes, so do church strategies. In seasons of high fruit, we tend to employ practices that simply don’t work in seasons of low fruit.
As we progress into the harder soil of 2020, we say goodbye to many church tactics we enjoyed in the more fertile 20th century, and we say hello to some much older ones.
A Return to Relationships
In the 20th century, we largely let the organization do the evangelism. We packed stadiums, piped in preachers, and made church ‘relevant’ enough to invite unbelieving friends. Even our attempts at personal evangelism were often organized as we went door to door, gospel tracts in hand, washing our hands of anyone who doesn’t pray to receive Christ on page six.
Now, please don’t hear me say that all of this was wrong. We did this because we could! The cultural distance between the church and the unbelieving world was so small that we didn’t have to bridge that gap with relational equity. Today, however, we are back to the organism doing the evangelism. The average unbeliever is not going to stroll into a church or Christian event the way they did last century and this is where we all get back in the game. Relationships have always been the main vehicle by which the kingdom grows. In much of the world, it is assumed that someone would join the community of believers before they take on the faith of that community. The gospel has always progressed more like a virus than a product to be sold to the masses.
As we return to the heavy lifting of real relationships, it’s easy to see how unbelievers benefit by having people in their lives who know them, pray for them, listen to them, and explain the gospel in the context of their joys, fears, and struggles. What isn’t as easily seen, however, is how believers benefit. We are stretched, sharpened, and sanctified as we embrace the call God has placed on each of us as a priest in His church.
Relationships were Jesus’ strategy and, in the 21st century, they must be ours as well. Church leaders must be equipping all their people to engage the Great Commission.
A Return To Sunday
As the spiritual crops grew high in the 20th century, probably no aspect of our faith was more affected than Sunday. In many evangelical circles, the role of Sunday morning shifted subtly in some churches and not so subtly in others from primarily serving the believer to primarily serving the unbeliever. Cues were taken from concerts, teachings were modified for softer pallets, and membership was traded for anonymity. While in most cases the intentions were good, the cracks in the foundation became clear as the cultural distance between believers and unbelievers grew. As the cultural gap grew, more accommodation was required in the church service and the result was that fewer people, believer or unbeliever, were actually ministered to. Cue the contextualization crisis.
Imagine a continuum with under-contextualized churches on the right and over-contextualized churches on the left. Under-contextualized churches may have great doctrine, but they have chosen to do church in a way that has little regard for the outside culture. The adiaphora of the under-contextualized church will always mirror the dominant culture within, so the accessibility of the gospel decreases and the quantity of fruit suffers. The people in that church may flourish, but their impact on that community will be limited.
An over-contextualized church, on the other hand, allows the context to drive too much of the church service. They usually do a great job of engaging unbelievers, but often stopping short of full gospel engagement. In the over-contextualized church, the context trumps the call and fruit will suffer not in quantity (as they often pack their services), but in quality as the ceiling of sanctification lowers and a promise of mission is never fully realized.
The call of the early church and the 21st century church is appropriate contextualization, a primary focus on the believer, and a strong awareness of the unbeliever among us. Sunday is designed first to fuel the mission by giving believers what we need to reorient our minds and refocus our hearts to God’s glory and His mission and, second, to give unbelievers a truly clear picture of Jesus.
The more our culture changes, the less church primarily for evangelism works because we all get less of what we need. Ironically, studies show that the more our churches look like the world around us, the less younger generations trust it. 21st century fruitfulness will depend on faithfulness to how Sunday is designed to work.
A Return To A Four Chapter Gospel
Somewhere in the radically individualized 20th century, we radically individualized the gospel and reduced it from a four chapter story to a two chapter story. Ask the average conservative Christian to explain the gospel and, depending on their theological vocabulary, you will hear something between penal substitutionary atonement and forgiveness of sin. Certainly the gospel is not less than this, but it is most definitely more.
To say that the gospel is simply the forgiveness of sin is like getting a ticket to Disney and being more excited about the ticket itself than what the ticket gives you access to. Forgiveness of our sin is the how not the what of the gospel. The true gospel takes us past chapter two on the forgiveness of our sin and all the way to chapter four, a new heaven and new earth where Jesus reigns and we enjoy Him without any pain, sin, or strife for eternity.
So, how did we get here? The primary felt need of the 20th century was much more existential than it is today. As a society, we felt our distance from God more than we do now. So, when the average American asked ‘what’s in this for me?,’ the answer was forgiveness of your sin. Now that the felt need has shifted, this modified gospel no longer produces the same fruit.
Where does your gospel finish?
A Return to the Good Fight
A return to these three aspects of historic Christianity is not a defensive retreat, but a truly offensive approach in a new (and old) age. I believe that the church leaders who see this and shepherd others to this end will enjoy true gospel fruit as much of the church still scratches its head.