By Carolyn Curtis
The sun shines on this January day in Oregon. Pastor Tom senses lightness in his step.
The New Year or my new normal? he wonders, checking his niece’s text: “Five inches of partly cloudy.” He laughs, texts back and gets a sunny response about Chloe’s study of The Gospel Project: “Weighty, relevant, applicable.”
Pastor Tom is thrilled that across the continent his 20-something niece, once ready to bolt from the church, is now a strong believer. Her Vermont congregation meets in a white steepled church on the verge of becoming a museum before a visionary pastor moved in and began preaching, to use Chloe’s words, “the unvarnished Truth.”
“He’s not dangling promises to be everything to everybody,” she told her uncle at Christmas. “He’s not pleading and cajoling.”
No stunts, no grubbing for members or money. No labels either. In Oregon, that’s become Pastor Tom’s new reality too, and he loves it. Thanks God for it daily.
No compromising. No more framing the gospel to appeal to people with nominal faith at the expense of people who get it, who are happy – hungry – for depth.
Pastor Tom ponders the process he sees in his flock. As their faith flourishes, his well fed sheep experience radical life changes. Family and friends, who long ago abandoned any pretense of belief, take notice from their positions well outside the church. A few suddenly glimpse the forest, no longer blinded by the trees … as if their absolute separation from “religion” shook out their mental cobwebs, allowing them to see the effects of “relationship” with Christ.
A funny thing is happening. Pastor Tom’s small church is growing – albeit slowly – and the people are staying. No more piling through the front door and out the back months later.
Pastor Tom no longer hears the death knell of impending failure. On this January day he senses the wellspring of success.
The present future
An Oregon pastor with a growing congregation and a vibrant believer in Vermont. Characters in a science fiction movie? It’s a scenario representing what Ed Stetzer borrows from Reggie McNeal to call “the present future.”
The president of Lifeway Research is responding to a statistic: The percentage of U.S. Protestant adults has dropped to minority status at 48 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. And the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has increased to just less than 20 percent. People who had loose religious affiliations are finally admitting they don’t have one at all.
But Stetzer sees good news in bad numbers.
With the collapse of the squishy middle, he believes the future of the American church looks much like today’s Pacific Northwest and New England, dichotomies where believers are not a majority but often more serious about living out their faith in Christ.
In those regions, people who were nominally Christian have dropped out, no longer projecting a façade through church membership nor willing to pay the price where it’s culturally unpopular. The church in North America is quickly losing its influence in society and culture.
“Fifty years ago being an active member of a robust church was almost necessary to get on the school board,” says Stetzer. “Today it might keep you off.”
Stetzer says the culture has pushed the church to the margins of society, and the popular media, literature, arts, and politics reflect the results; secular spirituality is on the rise. However, Stetzer assures: “No serious scholar believes Christianity in America is on a trajectory of extinction.”
Instead, he sees clarification that devout faith is what will last.
“With cultural Christianity in a freefall, I see a rise in robust believers and healthy churches. I’m not discouraged. Effective churches will attract and keep strong believers who are motivated by their faith and not by cultural norms.”
Today Stetzer is in a mood. He’s threatening to name troublemakers.
It’s this week’s edition of his webcast, The Exchange. Stetzer is talking (loyal viewers might say ranting) about the Pew report, not that he disagrees with it.
America has been polarized – not just politically but religiously – and he welcomes what some see as carnage. He wishes more people would stop self-identifying as Christians, if they’re clinging to the label but aren’t really devout.
Today he’s vexed about people using bad numbers “to drive people to conferences, which don’t necessarily fix problems … and people putting out bad information that actually discourages Christians and churches. We need to be careful that we don’t abuse statistics to make points with the end result being that we demoralize the very people we’re trying to mobilize for God’s mission.”
Stetzer uses The Exchange webcast to unpack the facts with his brand of no-nonsense analysis that’s sharp, relevant, often witty, and appealing to an audience of church leaders and culture watchers.
For starters, he’s not amused by people who hear statistics from reputable researchers – he counts Pew among them – and conclude the sky is falling. He calls it “hype, breathless reporting.” Stetzer says Pew’s study did not catch his Lifeway Research team by surprise.
“We know Christian influence is on the wane. We know many denominations are declining, along with the percentage of self-identified Christians. But I’m not discouraged, because we’ve known for a while there need to be changes … a missional emphasis … a passion for lostness … more theological consideration.”
Stetzer on statistics
A native New Yorker who holds his Tuesday viewers’ attention with rapid-fire ideas, Stetzer is not a silver-lining-in-the-clouds sort of guy. He’s more likely to drive home the good news that God is calling the world to Himself and not abandoning America.
Pastors and leaders tune in from North America and far-flung places like the Middle East and South America. Viewers include laypeople with hearts for evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and other ministry efforts they know demand excellence.
They also tune in for a few laughs.
The colorful head of Lifeway Research is not above throwing in some humor. That’s because Stetzer loves research but knows many think it’s boring. For him it is not. It’s beneficial, even fun. He knows that research, if properly done and interpreted, is as useful for the kingdom of God as for medicine.
“Facts are our friends,” he says. And viewers see why. He explains their relevance with a bit of showmanship that’s engaging and educational.
Today Stetzer moves to a whiteboard to draw trend lines, explaining the decades-long decline of mainline churches. He draws the intersection of immigrants’ massive increase in recent years to demonstrate how people coming with religions such as Hinduism and Islam mathematically drive down America’s percentage of Christians.
Then good news: “While mainline denominations have been hemorrhaging and there’s been an increase in those who identify as having no religion, the percentage of people who identify as born again has increased during this time.”
He draws the upward trend using a green marker, then gives his audience a look. “Green for new life. Get it?”