Western Christianity is hemorrhaging!
70% of the U.S. population reports a connection with Jesus Christ, yet according to David Olson, on any given Sunday, less than 17.5% of the population actually attends an orthodox worship service. Even more sobering is the reality that American churches would need to plant 2,900 new churches a year, just to keep up with the current pace of population growth (some research states 15,000).
In an interview with a Liberian church planter, he revealed that God called him to come to the United States to plant churches; he’s not the only one among the diaspora missionaries from Africa. With 80 to 85 percent of churches in America either plateauing or in decline, there is an urgent call for church revitalization and planting. For this reason, the church must re-engage the missio Dei, the sending of God, and shift to a missional praxis. The Western world has once again become the mission field.
When relating to Western culture, I understand the ambiguity involved in such terminology; therefore, for the purpose of this article, the term “Western culture” refers to the United States of America. I hope to illustrate our culture’s need for an apostolic movement and a call for a reestablished Trinitarian mission.
First, I’ll address the historical and present reality of the Western church’s decline and imperative nature as a mission field. Second, I’ll explore a biblical and theological reflection on the Western church within culture.
Historical and Present Reality of The Western Church
We don’t need to go too far back into American history to notice that a transformation has occurred. Just one hundred years ago, back to the 1920’s, Christianity was once was so enmeshed within its culture that capitalism and faith were nearly inseparable—it was virtually improbable to receive a bank loan without church membership. John D. Rockefeller, who organized the Interchurch World Mission (IWM) once proclaimed, “A Christian is a Christian no matter what church he belongs to…What nobler aim can a man have in life than to be Christlike?”
Studying Rockefeller’s business practices, it would not be against popular opinion to question his biblical faith, but as many Americans, Rockefeller assumed that everyone in American society were automatically Christian. Alan Hirsch clarifies, “In the American expression, Christianity was not married to the state but is nonetheless seen to be an inextricable part of American culture and identity; until the last thirty years or so, if you were American, you were a Christian.” Church membership was more about being a part of the social norms and values than it was conviction of the heart.
An interesting statistic from the North American Mission Board (NAMB) shows research concerning American churches. NAMB found that in 1900 there were twenty-eight churches for every ten thousand people; by 1950 that number declined to seventeen; by the year 2000 it declined even more to twelve, and by 2004, it was down to eleven.! There are no current numbers, at least that I have discovered.
As stated, Olson’s statistics display that only 17.5% of the population in North America is attending Sunday services, but Doug Murren of the Murren Group, declares that number to be too high and suggested Olson’s 2008 numbers were lagging a bit behind—his ghastly number of only 12% is staggering. Furthermore, Murren’s research indicates “20% of people leave their church every year, which would require a visitor rate of at least 30% of a church’s size per year, just to grow.”
The Western church is surely in decline and hemorrhaging, as the culture pulls away from Christianity. The Barna Group assesses that “more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice.” With a population of roughly two hundred forty million Americans, one hundred seventy million of them (71%), either consider themselves as having no religious affiliation at all or Christian in name only. As JR Woodward observed, “Functional Christendom has given way to a ‘spiritual,’ secular and pluralist society where a growing number view the church with suspicion and some with downright disdain.” The Western world is officially a mission field and is in dire need of apostolic movement.
However, while it’s good to recognize numbers and statistics, the church should not become depressed—only motivated. As the culture shifts, the contemporary church must be reminded that it’s not in the first-century. As early church historian Michael Green notes, “They lived in a world more relativist and far more pluralist that our own.” Of course, to some, like Ted Turnau, who projects in his book, Popologetics, that “each idolatrous cultural act inspires another that is darker and more deceptive,” this would place humanity into a more darker culture than ever before.
It’s probably safe to say that humanity is, well, humanity, and a depraved unregenerate people will not flock to the gospel, but toward sinful tendencies. One cannot fault culture for shifting, nor for humanity in embracing relativism, new age spiritualism, or even atheism. If the church is not spreading the love of the gospel and making disciples within its community then the current culture cannot be faulted for failing to possess a Christian worldview. David Hesslegrave defines, “A worldview is formed by hearing and learning a big story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
The church is failing to present a transformation story in Christ, filled with the Scriptures, and the application from within our current lives. Society is only doing what is expected of it, to live life according to the desires of the heart. Western culture must be a mission field engaged by a missional people with a passionate and harmonious unified church at its core. The culture has shifted from the church to the workplace—hence, the church must engage the marketplace—and engage it as a movement.
The call for an apostolic movement is vital. If as Malphurs stated, “Only five to twenty-five percent of pastors are equipped to turn around churches” then only a paradigm shift in thinking will work. J.D. Payne rightly observes that the American church, which once was filled with missional church planters has developed into a pastoral missiology of “maintenance and conservation of structures and organizations.” Hirsch adds to this line of thinking, “We forgot that it’s not so much that the church has a mission as that the mission has a church…missional church is apostolic church.” To combat the decline of Western culture, the church must reengage its apostolic past, while communally embracing its missional future.
Biblical and Theological Reflection on The Western Church
As Lesslie Newbigin so eloquently, yet blatantly put it, “The Christ who said, “Come unto me and I will give you rest,” also said to those same disciples, “As the Father has sent me so I send you,” and showed them the scars of his battle with the rulers of the world (John 20:20-21). John’s passage reveals the Greatest Commission; the missio Dei, it’s theologically steeped foundation within the Omnibenevolence of God.
To know God is to love him. Jesus told his disciples that they must love their neighbors as they love themselves; this is the second greatest commandment (Matt 22:39). When questioned as to whom was their neighbor (Luke 10:29), Jesus responded with a story pertaining to the Jews’ detested race of people, the Samaritans (Luke 10:30-35).
In connection, the story of the Good Samaritan is an applicable imperative to know and love those within our culture. Christ’s incarnation provides an example of not only understanding culture, but tabernacling within it (John 1:14). In Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Everyday Theology he explains, “Cultural literacy—[is] the ability to understand patterns and products of everyday life—[it] is thus an integral aspect of obeying the law of love.” To effectively engage Western culture, the church must not abandon the ancient faith, striving to embrace secular values to become relevant, but adhere, apply, and act within Trinitarian koinonia.
At the heart of the reconciliation of all things, whether Western culture or otherwise, is the love of the Father, explicitly sending the suffering Son, to vicariously be victorious over sin and death for humanity, “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14). The love of God cannot be disseminated from the three persons of the Trinity, nor divorced from the missio Dei, as the conceptual understanding of homoousis underlies the Christ as the same eternal substance with the Father; so to, Christ is the head of the church.
Robert Webber’s book, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World expresses the church’s role and functions within a changing culture— “Our calling is not to reinvent the Christian faith, but, in keeping with the past, to carry forward what the church has affirmed from its beginning.” The church was given a mandate to make disciples while going about life (Matt 28:19), through the worship of the Father (Matt 4:10; John 4:23), obedience and submission to Christ (John 14:15), by intentionally heeding the Holy Spirit’s voice (John 14:26; Acts 1:8).
Making disciples means that the church expresses,reveals, and manifests to culture the reality of the Trinity’s nature, by the gospel of Christ. As Adam Dodds confirmed, “Jesus cannot rightly be identified without describing the triune nature of God…Although the gospel is the gospel of Jesus Christ, this gospel begins with the Father sending the Son who is conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, for the church to engage the Western culture with the gospel, it is to reveal God’s Omnibenevolence with the missio Trinitas. A call back to understanding that the Godhead propels and sustains the missional church community is at its core. Woodward validates, “since the church is the icon of the Trinity, true personhood is found in community.”
When the Apostle Paul was called to go to Macedonia, he first made plans to go to Asia, but as Erwin McManus linked, “The entire Trinity got involved in keeping Paul from going to the wrong place.” Currently, the Western church is not listening and it seems to be going to the wrong place. The church abides in Christ, having its resolve to fulfill the missio Dei, as the Imago Dei. As Christ’s body on earth, the church’s missional DNA (mDNA) exists in Jesus as Lord.
Enculturation occurs when “an existent, prevailing culture influences” a church to “imbibe its accepted norms and values.” By enculturation, the contemporary church has separated itself from the imago Dei. Rather than retaining its innate DNA (2 Cor. 5:17), Western Christianity has lost the power of the cross, the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, and the fear of Almighty God. The church’s enculturation has stripped it of the convicting influence of the Holy Spirit (John 16), causing, in part, the West to become the mission field.
However, all is not lost. As Jesus stated, “I will build my church, and the gates of hellshall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18b). The church, from its earliest inception, faced political, religious, and even internal opposition with councils, proconsuls, governors, kings, and tribunes, but the “powers that be,” hinder as they may attempt, could not and cannot cease a missional movement of God. When the church relinquishes control of all earthly things to God and basks in his presence, it can expect an apostolic Trinitarian movement to occur. During trials, tribulations, and opposition from society, the New Testament (NT) church was in the midst of an expansion explosion, and God was on the move.
The church must re-engage Western culture by relinquishing its boundaries to the missio Trinitas. Rolland Allen expresses this as the church’s primary fear, “There is always something terrifying in the feeling that we are letting loose a force which we cannot control; and when we think of spontaneous expansion in this way, instinctively we begin to be afraid.” As the Apostles Paul and John declared, “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7) and respectively, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a). Therefore, in moving ahead within the cultural divide, the church must relinquish its thoughts of controlling Christ’s body. The church has all the resources, power, vision, people, and God-given authority to reach the West for Christ—may we be so emboldened to do it!
David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based On a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 181.
J.D. Payne, Strangers Next Door: Immigrations, Migration, and Mission(Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2012), 151.
Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 200.
Charles Edward Harvey. 1982. “John D Rockefeller, Jr and the Interchurch World Movement of 1919-1920: a different angle of the ecumenical movement.” Church History51, no. 2: 203. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 7, 2015).
Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson, On the Verge: a Journey Into the Apostolic Future of the Church(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 130.
Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 9.
Olson, The American Church in Crisis,181.
Doug Murren, “De-Churching or Re-Gathering,” themurrengroup.com, March, 2015, accessed March 2, 2015, http://www.themurrengroup.com/de-gathering-or-re-gathering.html.
George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless:Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them(Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2014), 16.
Aubrey Malphurs, Planting Growing Churches For the 21stCentury: A Comprehensive Guide for New Churches and Those Desiring Renewal, 3rdEd. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 12.
JR Woodward, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 30.
Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church. Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 21.
Ted Turnau, Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective(Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2012), 65.
David J. Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 146.
Malphurs, Look Before You Lead,173.
J.D. Payne, Pressure Points: Twelve Global Issues Shaping the Face of the Church(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 24-25.
Hirsch and Ferguson, On the Verge, 130-132.
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 124.
Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelizing the West(Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 19.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, eds. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 19.
Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 17.
Adam Dodds. “Newbigin’s Trinitarian missiology: the doctrine of the Trinity as good news for Western culture.”International Review Of Mission99, no. 390 (April 1, 2010): 17. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 6, 2015).
Woodward, Creating A Missional Culture, 91.
Erwin Raphael McManus, An Unstoppable Force Daring to Become the Church God Had in Mind 2001 Publication(Loveland, CO: Group Pub. Inc., 2000), 77.
Hirsch and Ferguson, On the Verge, 158.
Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church, 18.
Steve Walton. “What Does ‘Mission’ in Acts Mean in Relation to the ‘Powers That Be’?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society55, no. 3 (2012): 546.
Grant Osborne. “Moving Forward On Our Knees: Corporate Prayer in the New Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society53, no. 2 (June 2010): 259.
Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: and the Causes That Hinder It(Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Pub, 1997), 13.