|he Decline and Fall of Christian America”—Newsweek proclaimed this on the cover of its April 13, 2009, issue. In his Newsweek article Jon Meacham indicates that, according to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, the percentage of self-identified Christians
has fallen from 86 to 76 percent since 1990. The number of people describing themselves as agnostic or atheist has increased from 1 million to about 3.6 million in the past 19 years. He also adds that, according to a Newsweek poll, the proportion of Americans who think religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” has fallen to an all-time low of 48 percent.1
Pollster George Barna adds to these statistics as he notes that the two younger generations of busters (1965 to 1976) and bridgers (1977 to 1994) are increasingly unchurched. These generations outnumber the builders (before 1946) and boomers (1946 to 1964) combined, and two thirds of the younger generations shun all organized religion. Thom Rainer warns that of the bridgers, only 4 percent understand the gospel and have accepted Christ.2 And according to the Newsweek article, “the terrible economic times have not led to an increase in church attendance.”3
While Christianity is on the decline, however, a new spirituality seems to be on the rise. In the Newsweek poll, 30 percent of Americans now consider themselves spiritual rather than religious. Meacham, in the Newsweek article, states that the present spirituality seems to be “less about the death of God and more about the birth of many gods.”4
The decline of the Christian church has left a spiritual void that many groups are rushing in to fill. The Mormon Church has nearly tripled in membership from 1965 to 2001, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. A report from the Mosque Study Project states that “from 1994 to 2000 the number of mosques increased 25 percent and the total number of people associated per mosque increased 235 percent.” And according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, Buddhists have grown 109.5 percent and Hindus 237.4 percent from 1990 to 2001. The most surprising of all is the Wiccans growth from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001—a growth of 1,575 percent of self-proclaimed witches.5
What Do We Do?
How do we as a church respond to these statistics and this challenge? Obviously, Christianity is not thriving in North America—and the gospel is gaining little, if any, ground. Thom Rainer says, “America is clearly becoming less Christian, less evangelized, and less churched. Yet too many of those in our churches seem oblivious to this reality.”6
God’s passion is for the lost and His purpose for us is to join Him in this undertaking. God longs for us to feel the same love and ardor that He has for those around us. Brandon Heath sings of this need so poignantly in “Give Me Your Eyes.” In the song, Heath looks around and realizes that he hasn’t been seeing those who long for more in life, and he asks God to give him His eyes so that he can perceive the need he’s missed in others. Heath implores the Lord to give him love for humanity, asking for “arms for the brokenhearted, the ones that are far beyond my reach,” and a “heart for the ones forgotten.”7
As we pray for God’s eyes to see them, how then do we begin to reach others? How do we embark on the journey and join with God in the great work set before us? How will we feed this hungry people?
The “Table” Before Us
Ellen White says that “upon all who believe, God has placed the burden of raising up churches.”8 Church growth specialist Peter Wagner has declared that “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.”9 Church analyst Lyle Schaller says that “if you are interested in reaching new people, by far the most effective way to do this is through church planting.”10
There are many books, articles, Web sites, and even organizations dedicated to church planting. There is a renewed emphasis on the subject in many denominations. However, we cannot continue to plant churches that keep on looking, acting, and feeling the same as many of our present-day churches. The rising statistics in non-Christian groups and cults give increased urgency for us to analyze and understand why Christianity is declining under our current way of doing church.
Rather than finding a culture around us antagonistic to spiritual life, we find a culture hungry to experience God, to figure out who He is, if He is real, and if He is relevant and meaningful to daily life. There is a search for a spirituality that is authentic, that improves relationships, and that is a wholistic faith. Unfortunately, for far too many, Christianity is not an option that fills these needs.
The problem with Western Christianity is that we’ve divorced the knowledge of God from our experience of God. We’ve reduced God to an idea and live life as if He doesn’t exist for us personally. We go to church a couple hours a week, and then go home, living the rest of our lives apart from experiencing Him—which results in a powerless Christianity. Many Christians live with a knowledge of God but have no practical experience of Him in daily life. What the growing cults and non-Christian religions offer is a whole cultural-spiritual package that encompasses every facet of living. Unlike Western Christianity, religion and culture are not separated, but wholistically integrated into every part of life.
Living in Christ and experiencing His transforming love must become a daily reality for each of us. It must be our way of being. We must engage with the culture around us and show by our lives that genuine, authentic Christianity is indeed a whole package that can meet people’s social, spiritual, emotional, and physical (tangible) needs better than the prevailing culture around them. We may well be the only Bible many of this present generation will read and comprehend. To reach them we must become incarnational—as Jesus did—and invade their society.
When my husband and I were called to Papua New Guinea to do church planting, it meant learning the language and living among the primitive Iwam people located 270 miles from the nearest town. We, along with our three small boys, and later our new baby daughter, lived in a 400-square-foot home, learned how to paddle dugout canoes, and climbed the log ladders into Iwam huts, where we visited and ate with them. We spent eight years playing, working, weeping, laughing, loving, and worshipping among them as we established a church planting movement.
It is just as vital for us as North American Seventh-day Adventists to immerse ourselves in the culture of the people around us. Ellen White says, “If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen. The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot, be without fruit.”11
What does it look like to be an intentional, incarnational, and missional church planter in North America? For my husband and me, it means regularly and consistently carving out time to spend in solitude with God, sitting in His presence, learning to hear His voice, and listening and communicating with Him. It means praying daily for our neighbors by name as we take our morning walks, listening and responding when the Holy Spirit impresses us to take them homemade goodies or notes of encouragement. It means being with our farmer neighbor when his cow just lost a calf, weeping with him in his sorrow. It means stopping, chatting, and praying with our visually handicapped neighbor as she waits by the side of the road for the bus to take her to volunteer work at Goodwill. It means graciously accepting two freshly caught fish that our Latino neighbors gave us in gratitude for the cinnamon rolls we left on their doorstep. It means Sunday evenings spent sharing a meal with Tom and Mary,12 encouraging them in their struggles with a blended family, stepchildren, and exspouses. It means intentionally reaching out in friendship to the couple who habitually has drunken parties on the weekends. It means opening our home to many young people struggling to find and understand God, spending time with them and listening to them. It means our weekly small group gathering, where we eat, pray, worship, and share together.
Jesus has commanded us to proclaim His good news to the world. May we, His church, rise up and move forward in obedience. Our methods must continually change and flex with the times—yet the unchanging good news of His kingdom must continue to be preached to every cultural group until we are all gathered around God’s throne with redeemed ones from every nation and tribe and people and language!13
1Taken from Jon Meacham, “The End of Christian America,” Newsweek (Apr. 13, 2009), p. 34.
2Taken from Aubrey Malphurs, Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), p. 400.
3Meacham, p. 36.
5Statistics taken from Malphurs, pp. 38, 39.
6Thom S. Rainer, “Shattering Myths About the Unchurched,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 5, No. 1 (Spring 2001), p. 47, quoted in Malphurs, p. 39.
7“Give Me Your Eyes,” by Jason David Ingram and Brandon Heath, copyright 2008 by Peertunes Ltd. and Windsor Way Music. Used by permission.
8Ellen G. White, Medical Ministry (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1963), p. 315, quoted in Russell Burrill, Rekindling a Lost Passion (Fallbrook, Calif.: Hart Research Center, 1999), p. 81.
9C. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1990), p. 11, quoted in Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), p. 33.
10Malphurs, p. 40.
11Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1970), p. 459.
12Names have been changed.
Belinda Kent, a mother of four young adults, writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan. She and her husband, John, served eight years as church planting missionaries in Papua New Guinea. This article was published April 13, 2010.