Churches That Transform Post-Christian Places

In spite of the fact that a number of American Evangelical churches are growing numerically, the credibility of the church at large and the prominence of religious life in America is on the decline. In recent a study entitled The Most Post-Christian Cities in America: 2017[1], Barna Research found that there are currently ten US cities that contain more than 50% Post-Christian Adults. Furthermore, there are thirty-four additional cities that contain more than 40% Post Christian adults. Notable among them is the Phoenix metro area. Although this city boasts thirty-two mega churches, it also currently resides 22nd in the list of the most Post-Christian cities in the US, with 45% Post-Christian adults. To be considered a “Post-Christian” adult, one must meet a robust set or criteria such as “Do not believe in God,” “Identify as atheist or agnostic,” “Disagree that faith is important in their lives,” and “Disagree the Bible is accurate.”

Although America is becoming increasingly Post-Christian, the ministry strategies of many American churches are still designed to attract people who perceive the church as a credible source for the answers to life’s questions. Since most Post-Christian people do not, the result of our current approach is that we are largely shuffling existing Christians around from church to church as we woo them with better worship bands, more dynamic speakers, improved youth and children’s ministries, or by emphasizing a particular niche in theology. So, at best, churches are competing with each other to attract people from 52% of the American population, since according to Barna, 48% of adults in America are Post-Christian.

In this Post-Christian era, it is time for American church leaders to once again think like missionaries of old, who packed their belongings in their own caskets and were sent into unreached places. They worked tirelessly to relate to the people, learn their language, serve their needs, and find ways to contextualize the gospel in cultures that were previously untouched by the message. It may be difficult for some who dwell in the shadows of megachurches to accept that the America is becoming a Post-Christian place. I believe, however, that continuing to operate according to the status quo will only hasten the pace. Therefore, it is imperative that we see ourselves as missionaries who are called to this culture.

As our church plant team began our work on Post-Christian Long Island, which is estimated at 3% Evangelical, we determined to not grow primarily through “transfer growth.” We instead set out to be innovative and find new expressions of ministry that will reach the other 97%. It has not been easy, but we have had successes while learning a few things along the way. Although we are still in process, here are some principles that we have come to understand as essential in transforming Post-Christian places with the gospel:

Emphasize a More Holistic View of The Gospel: The American church has been highly influenced by Dispensational theology, which has tended to disconnect the kingdom from the here and now and emphasize the gospel’s legal effect of forgiveness. The result has been a reduction of the gospel message to having an immaterial nature which elicits a correspondingly disembodied response: “Jesus died for your sins, so accept him, and your sins will be forgiven and you will go to heaven when you die (or be taken away from this earth in the Rapture).” If the resurrection is at all mentioned, it is usually presented as evidence which proves Jesus was qualified to die for our sins. The result is that many Post-Christian people perceive our faith as judgmental (since the gospel relates only to them, who need forgiveness, and not to us, who do not) and disconnected and irrelevant to life in the here and now (since it is all about getting away from this earth, either by death or the Rapture).[2]

We must deepen our biblical understanding and communication of the gospel in this Post-Christian world. When Peter first preached the gospel as recorded in Acts 2, he included five distinct elements of the good news: The incarnation, or Jesus came (22); Jesus died (23); Jesus rose from the dead (24-32); Jesus reigns (33-34); and Jesus will return (35). All of these elements have profound implications: The incarnation affirms the goodness of the material world and makes Jesus knowable in the flesh; Jesus’ death not only provides a substitute for the wrath we deserve, but breaks the chains of sin and sets the captives free; the resurrection releases the life transforming power of the Holy Spirit which works to rid his people of sin and brokenness, and to empower and transform us daily; his reign means that Jesus is currently ruling from a throne and calling his people to join him in his mission to restore all things; and the promise of his return and making his enemies “a footstool” gives us hope that he will finish what he started and reign with his people on a restored earth.

When we emphasize all elements and implications of the gospel, it brings a new perspective to our Post-Christian friends. First, a holistic message demonstrates humility because it no longer elevates us as the forgiven ones above them as the unforgiven. Rather, our daily dependence on the resurrection power of Jesus to transform our brokenness demonstrates that we need the gospel as much as, or even more than, they do. Also, a holistic communication of the gospel shows that our faith is connected to the earth, because Jesus’ rule is working to renew all things through his life. So, as we apply the gospel not only to forgive sinners, but to also restore sinful systems and structures that keep people impoverished, enslaved, and the earth endangered, we invite Post-Christian people into a full life in the here and now rather than a disembodied existence after death.

Create “Belong Before Believe” Environments: In times past, most Americans understood God to be personal, holy, and Trinitarian, and Jesus to be divine. So, when attending church upon a friend’s invitation, all they needed to come to faith was a pastor’s invitation to accept, or reject, the implications of those truths. Today, however, most non-believers do not hold to even the most basic and necessary assumptions that precede faith. For example, many Long Islanders do not view God as personal and holy, but rather as an impersonal energy force that envelops all life. In fact, in a study published in Christianity Today last week[3], almost half of Americans said they do not believe in God as the Bible describes. Many people who we know here on Long Island have almost no understanding of the person and work of Jesus, who they understand more to be analogous to Buddha or Muhammed.

Newbigin wrote that the “only hermeneutic of the gospel is a Christian congregation of men and women who believe the gospel and live by it.”[4] Therefore, in order to truly communicate the whole gospel to our Post-Christian friends, we must first welcome them to belong to our communities. This provides an environment for them to be exposed to the gospel message over time and to see it at work, supernaturally transforming the people of God. This approach recognizes that conversion is a process that requires of us great patience and grace as we welcome non-believers into Christian community, allowing them to go at their own pace without forcing upon them external behavior that complies with a faith they don’t yet possess.

At our Long Island church plant we say in every gathering, “If you are a guest, we are glad you are here, and please know that you are welcome to participate in all that we do. At the same time, you are not obligated at all – you are welcome to sit back and watch if you prefer.” We allow our seeking friends to have doubts, ask questions, and share their points of view. We treat them like family and invite them to the communion table.[5] We invite them to serve by publicly reading scripture, handing out bulletins, playing drums, or setting up the stage. When we serve the surrounding community, whether by helping homeless kids with their homework or cleaning a beach with the local conservation society, we welcome our non-Christians friends to join with us. We trust that over time the Holy Spirit will fulfil Jesus’ promise to convict of sin, make known the truth, and draw people to Jesus.

Redefine Success: All organizations, including churches, operate according to a rubric by which they measure success. This is the “tip of the arrow,” the goal that drives all decisions and around which all activity is centered. For example, some churches consciously or subconsciously operate under the rubric of achieving self-sustainability. This means that attendance is strong enough to produce giving sufficient to meet expenses such as payroll and a mortgage. So, most activity is geared towards attracting attendees to services. Excellence in programming is a high value, since it contributes to this measure of success. This is not at all to say that these churches care only about numbers. Rather, that they gear their efforts towards self-sustainability in order to produce conversions, assuming that as attendance increases, so will exposures to the gospel. The more excellent the programming, the more likely a positive response. Attractive buildings, full-time paid staff, excellent music, well-trained hospitality teams, and cutting-edge graphics are all mobilized toward the rubric of self-sustainability.

Many churches, disenchanted with the above paradigm, have pushed forward and adapted a new rubric that seeks first and foremost to produce disciples. In these churches, mission statements contain phrases such as “fully developed followers of Jesus,” or “disciples who make other disciples,” etc. Many such churches adopt models that employ a network of small groups to encourage spiritual growth and equip members in evangelism. While this is truly admirable, it may also reveal an incomplete understanding of the effects of the gospel. This is because the gospel is working to more than to simply transform people, it is working to transform all things, both people and places.

Churches that transform Post-Christian places recognize that we are not finished when we produce a convert. We are also not finished when that convert becomes a mature disciple, nor are we finished when that disciple makes other disciples. We must measure our success, and therefore gear all our activity, around the goal of sending out groups of disciples to join God in mission to transform people and places – small communities of people who are not only growing spiritually together and leading others to Christ, but also bringing the gospel to bear on systems and structures in need of transformation in their communities.

Let the reader understand, excellence and numerical growth are not necessarily unfitting pursuits. We must, however, be willing to subordinate them to the goal of sending groups of people together on mission to transform people and places through the gospel. This is how one truly knows the measure of success by which one navigates: it is the thing that survives when resources are limited. For example, in our church plant, we have been in need of a person to lead the worship team. All of our best qualified people for that task, however, are leading connect groups. These groups represent our strategy to send out gospel-centered communities of people who are committed both to spiritual growth in community and pursuing transformation in their neighborhoods. Governed by our rubric, we made the decision to accept less consistency in worship music on Sundays in order to keep gifted leaders in connect groups. Although counter-intuitive to most paradigms of church growth, the resultant sense of expectation produced by the amazing things God continues to do in and through our connect groups has more than compensated for the sacrifice we made!

Create Malleable Environments: Visit the average Evangelical church, and you will likely experience a very intentional and well-executed program. The media graphics, the sermon series title, the song selection, video announcements, etc., all planned days or even weeks previous by a program team, present a clear and understandable message to the audience. Although well-intended, the problem with this approach is that most Post-Christian people want to feel that they have had some influence in affecting the outcome of events. Of course, there is no shame in excellence, but it can sometimes produce the reverse of the desired effect. This happens when Post-Christian people attend but realize that their presence did not matter, and that the outcome would have been the same whether they were present or not. Rather than being impressed by top-notch programming, they often perceive the leadership as rigid and inauthentic, intending to persuade the audience to their point of view rather than endeavoring to truly hear and know, and even be shaped by, the thoughts and feelings of attendees.

Post-Christian people value speaking with someone, not being “talked at.” They value an authentic exchange of thoughts and feelings on a topic, not sitting still while someone tries to convince them of something. They do not want to be led into a predetermined point of view. They want to have a voice, they want to shape the outcome, they want their presence to matter. This requires malleable environments, meaning that they are shapable by the people present. Many leaders are hesitant to allow this over legitimate concerns such as protection from false doctrine or preserving excellence. In order to give people a voice in our gatherings, however, we must be willing to give up the desire to control outcomes and instead trust the Holy Spirit to lead. We must then meet the culture where it is and allow ourselves to be shaped by others if we want to have a role in shaping them. That is exactly what God was teaching Peter, who had never eaten an “unclean” thing, when God gave him a vision that prepared him to enjoy a nice pork dinner at Cornelius’ house![6]

In our church plant on Long Island, on some Sundays rather than a sermon, we instead hold discussion forums where every person is invited to have a voice. We propose a topic and assertion, and allow people to discuss, disagree, suggest alternatives, and respond from the heart – without attempting to persuade or correct unchristian thinking. We also invite public prayer requests from everyone, and publicly pray for them every week. We always make sure to have a diverse mixture of language, race, and gender up front. We strive to represent the culture, music styles, and customs of the people present. We quickly respond to issues important to them in sermons, sometimes changing what we planned to teach based on a current news happening. All these things let Post-Christian people know that they are welcome, that they matter, and that we value them more than how they contribute to our attendance numbers.

Pursue Ethnic inclusivity: Ethnic homogeneity in churches has been the status quo for most of American history. Currently, 92.5% of all churches and 95% of all Evangelical churches are monoracial. The definition of “monoracial” is any church in which 80% or more of the congregation are of the same ethnicity.[7] Monoracial congregations come in all ethnicities, and are not just “white churches” or “black churches.” While it is indeed most comfortable and familiar to worship within the preferences of one’s culture, it is time to re-consider our complacency in this area in order to pursue the goal of producing churches that transform Post-Christian places.

In a time when almost every American institution is undergoing intentional efforts to be racially and ethnically diverse, monoethnic churches will simply no longer have the credibility in the eyes of Post-Christian people to be taken seriously. Furthermore, as we see in Revelation 7:9, the culmination of the kingdom will include a multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” worshiping God together as one. The end of this age will feature a multi-ethnic worship service! Therefore, the church should reveal the Kingdom of God by bringing about in the present what God will complete in the future.

Ethnic inclusivity means more than having diversity in the congregation, especially since this often means expecting the minority cultures present to adapt to the congregation’s majority culture. Instead, we must invite people of all cultures to contribute their respective uniqueness to the congregation at large, and consequently be willing to be shaped by each other. Therefore, the pursuit of ethnic inclusivity provides a wonderful opportunity to create malleable environments, since each person matters and is invited to play a role in shaping outcomes.

At our Long Island church plant, we are intentional to represent diversity up front, so people of all cultures will see someone like them in leadership. We read scripture in multiple languages, even if the person reading is the only one who speaks that language, because our attention and respect grants value to that person’s culture. We learn to sing in other languages and music styles, which can be both awkward and fun. We experience each other’s culture through sharing food, attending weddings, learning customs, etc.

The very ethnically diverse and inclusive environment has been the single most appealing element in our church plant to our Post-Christian friends. In this time of racial strife, it has been without a doubt the most significant demonstration of the gospel’s power in our midst.

Conclusion: As American churches increasingly recognize that we exist in a Post-Christian place, we will begin to see our cities as mission fields and ourselves as missionaries. We must then retool, finding ways to contextualize our practice and present the gospel message to meet the culture where it is. We must embrace a more holistic view of the gospel, welcome non-believers to belong before they believe, define success to include both the transformation of people and places, create environments shaped by all present, and pursue ethnic inclusivity. Are we willing to expose ourselves to the changes necessary so that our churches will transform Post-Christian America?

© 2018 Dr. John Amandola, Jr.

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/post-christian-cities-america-2017 Accessed: June 14, 2018.

[2] Many Dispensationalists have since progressed to accepting some degree of the Kingdom being present, but the effects of Classic Dispensationalism remain.

[3] Christianity Today, June 2018, Vol. 62, Num. 5, Page 15.

[4] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 227.

[5] For those concerned about the orthodoxy of “Open Communion,” please see my doctoral project: Open communion as a catalyst for developing missional congregations: A case study of Lighthouse Community Church in Melville, NY, by Amandola, John, Jr., Eastern University, 2015. See also this blog post.

[6] See Acts 10

[7] Mark DeYmaz, Building A Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 4.

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