faith and family
The Threat Within
by Marcus J. Carlson
The focus of this issue of Connections is the challenges facing the church in North America today. It is a topic near and dear to my heart as a Christ follower, pastor and parent. I want the church to still exist and be thriving throughout the lives of my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and beyond. That said, the church is ultimately only one generation from extinction. The church in North America is in decline and failing to reach young people, young families, the lost and a whole generation. While the church of Jesus Christ will never die, the church as we know it in North America could. It is time to sound the alarm and take the challenges we face seriously, if for no other reason than for our children and grandchildren.
I recently returned from a trip to England with several pastors, ministry leaders and church consultants. The purpose of the trip was to learn from the successful churches and ministries in England. What we know from church experts, missiologists and consultants is that what happens in the church in England is about 15-20 years ahead of what will happen here in the church in North America. Having been through a massive decline in the church and the rapid secularization of culture, England has been where we now nd ourselves.
There was one church that simply amazed me for what it had been through and for the ministry it was doing in terms of reaching the lost and young people. Beyond that, it was the closest representation of the New Testament church in a contemporary context that I have ever seen. As the lead pastor told their story, he shared this:
We had to ask ourselves as a church, with the way that the world is changing, do we want to have the church around for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren?
It is a legitimate question. While the obvious answer is, “Yes,” our churches, ministries and visions do not line up with this priority. It is well documented that the church is not reaching the millennial generation (those born 1982 and after) or the generation after them. This factor, combined with the number of unchurched, dechurched and lost people in North America, reveals that we cannot ignore the need. The greatest challenge the church is facing is reaching the young generations and the lost.
That said, when we think about the state of the North American church in order to ensure it is here for all future generations, we must look at the greatest threat to the North American Church. Again, while the church of Jesus Christ can never die, our expression of it in North America most certainly can. If you were to ask most Christians what the biggest threat is to the church today, you would get an answer that would likely t into one of three categories: government, culture or Islam. I do not believe that any of these three things or anything that would t into these categories is the biggest threat to the church in North America today. Yes, radical Islam is a challenge for us all, as is any radical expression of any faith. Yes, the government and the culture present the church with a unique challenge, but also an opportunity. With all the challenges we face in the world today, the world is as ripe as it has ever been for revival.
The only thing that can destroy the church in North America is Christians. Only those of us on the inside can destroy the church, and for this reason and others we represent the greatest threat to the church in North America today. Being fully aware of how controversial a statement this might appear to be, let me elaborate. The greatest threat to the church today, especially in North America is nominal Christianity or nominal Christians.
What exactly is nominal Christianity? I am so glad you asked! There are two forms of nominal Christianity that exist in the church in North America today. They have spread to and are impacting our children, youth and families. The rst is a lack of commitment: the second a commitment to the wrong things.
Many people like Jesus, even want to follow Jesus, but few want to fully commit to following Jesus in every area of their lives. North American culture and churches are lled with Christians who lack commitment to Jesus, to their faith and to a faith community. Faith, Jesus and the church have become matters of consumption and comfort rather than the source and center of our lives.
Our world is lled with believers yet short on disciples. A disciple is one who learns, one who grows, who imitates. A disciple is an apprentice. Discipleship is hard work: emotionally and spiritually. It requires deep commitment. Commitment is not particularly popular in our fast-paced, connected, globalized world. In this way our faith lacks depth, and faith without depth is not sustainable.
Second to a lack of commitment is a commitment to the wrong things. Some common examples of the wrong things we are committed to in the North American church today include comfort, worship style, personal preferences, having our needs met, programs, music, individual leaders and many other things. If our commitment in the church (or anywhere really) is in anything other than Jesus, it is at best a shallow faith — if not idolatry or heresy.
These are strong words, but we face a great challenge in the church today. We are so committed to our own desires, needs, wants, comfort, preferences and style that we have completely lost sight of Jesus. In the midst of focusing on the little things, we have lost sight of Jesus and lost sight of the things that matter. We have failed to reach the lost and the young people in our churches and communities. We truly are the greatest threat to the North American church!
Nominal Christianity is not just a preference, it is a problem. While many stop there on their journey of faith, far too many stay there. We are not called to a nominal or shallow Christianity. We are not called to put anything inside the church or outside of the church as a higher priority than Jesus. For all our criticism of the lack of character, morality and faith in our culture, we must look in a mirror and ask ourselves, are we any different? Are we making a difference? Are we a people who are being transformed and transforming others?
You see, discipleship does not happen by sitting in a pew and consuming. It happens life-on-life in the everyday moments of our lives. More discipleship occurs outside of the church than could ever occur inside the church. We must move be- yond a nominal faith if we want the church to survive.
What exactly does all of this have to do with our families? It’s simple, really. If the church continues to decline and if the church continues to embrace nominal Christianity, the best we can expect for our children is a culture with no church and rare instances of nominal Christianity in pockets of North America.