I’ve never lived in a predominantly Christian culture.
But lately, I’ve been travelling a lot through the Bible Belt, so I’m seeing what a Christian culture looks like for the first time in my life. Churches on every corner, Christian radio and TV on more than one station, and worship songs as background music in a restaurant where almost every table says grace before they eat.
But it also feels like I’m seeing something before it’s gone forever. Like when I was a college student catching a second-run movie at an art house theater where the film was scratchy and missing a few frames. You knew it was on its last legs.
If you want to see what a predominantly Christian culture looks like, take a trip through the Bible Belt. But do it soon. Like the autumn leaves, it won’t be there much longer.
We can mourn that. We can fight that. Or we can get ready for what’s next.
For those living in the Bible Belt and wondering what’s next, you don’t need to look any further than the non-Bible-Belt parts of the world, where we’ve been ministering within a predominantly secular culture for decades. (For me, born and raised in Canada, then living all my adult life in California, I’ve always practiced my faith and ministry as an outsider to the dominant culture.)
One of the first things we need to change are our assumptions. Especially as pastors and church leaders. Specifically, we need to stop assuming these eight things of people – whether they’re unchurched, new to the church, or even long-time attenders.
1. Biblical Literacy
Pastors can no longer start a Bible lesson with a phrase like “we all know the story of…”
They don’t all know about David and Goliath, Moses and the Red Sea, or Jesus in the manger.
And they can’t “turn with me in your Bible” any more. Many of them don’t own a Bible – at least not a print version.
We need to recognize the problem of biblical illiteracy, ask “now what?”, then seize the opportunities created by this change.
For instance, I’ve discovered the joy of teaching the Bible to people who have virtually no preconceptions about what the Bible says or means.
Instead of getting upset at people for not knowing about my favorite Bible story, I get to see their eyes light up as they are introduced to something they never knew before. There’s less unlearning to do, and more chances to start people with a fresh take on the timeless truths of scripture.
2. Frequent Attendance
Consistent, committed attenders used to go to church three times a week. Now, according to experts like Thom Rainer, it’s approximately three times a month. In some places, twice a month (not twice a Sunday) is considered the new normal.
This has profound implications for the way we do everything in church, from the strength of our relationships, to the amount of time and money people give, to what they expect of the pastoral staff.
For instance, when I prepare a sermon series, I have to assume that most of the people will miss several of the sermons, so each message needs to be more self-contained than in years past. And churches need a larger pool of volunteers than we used to need, because they’re more likely to serve on a rotation instead showing up every week.
3. Consistent Giving
Today’s church goers don’t necessarily give less, but they do give differently.
While previous generations gave out of a sense of duty, today’s and tomorrow’s givers do so based on a perceived sense of value.
The good news is, this sense of value isn’t necessarily about “what’s in it for me?” but “what good is this really doing?”
If we want people to give, we need to regularly show them the real-life results of that giving, through the lives of people they care about and causes that matter to them.
4. Political Alignment
In America, Bible Belt evangelicals are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans. Northern Mainline Protestants are predominantly liberal Democrats.
The next generation isn’t likely to follow either of those trends. Instead, they’re more likely to embrace ideas, friends and churches that can have civil conversations from a variety of political standpoints. They’ll even frustrate us by embracing contradictory viewpoints.
We have to stop assuming that everyone who believes in Jesus also shares our political views. Otherwise, we will increasingly end up with churches that are more united around political convictions than shared biblical truths. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, that’s a downward trade.
5. Awareness Of And Agreement About Biblical Sexual Ethics
As ministers, we can spend a lot of time teaching, debating and arguing the finer points of sexual ethics, from gay marriage to premarital sex to gender identity and more. But when someone comes to faith in Christ today, not only can we not assume they will want to follow a biblical moral code, many will have no idea there is one to follow.
They are more likely to see sexual ethics as a politically-based opinion than a morally correct truth. That doesn’t change the truth, but it does change the way we teach the truth and the assumptions we make about the people who are listening.
6. An Understanding Of The Reality Of Sin
Like sexual ethics, the idea of sin is increasingly passé for most people.
“God said it, I believe it, that settles it” won’t convince anyone any more. Instead, they need to know the “why” behind biblically-prescribed behaviors and prohibitions.
Increasingly, real life is giving us situations that were too far-fetched to be used as hypotheticals in our seminary ethics class debates. In such an environment, people will stop listening to our pronouncements against sin if they are detached from a caring conversation.
We need to walk with people through the real-world effects of their decisions, including being transparent about our own failings and their consequences.
7. A Recognition Of The Need For Salvation
If there’s no understanding of sin, there’s no desire for salvation.
Terms that I grew up with, like “lost souls”, “sinners” and “unsaved” have less meaning to most people with every passing year.
Instead of knowing they’re lost, people feel lonely and disconnected. An awareness of sin has given way to a sense of hopelessness. And self-discovery has replaced a desire to be saved.
People still need Jesus. But the terms they use to describe that need have changed.
It isn’t necessary for the church to adopt every new term that comes along. But we need to be aware of them so we can understand what people are trying to tell us. Only then will we be able to communicate compassionate truth in a way they’ll be able to hear.
8. An Acceptance Of Salvation Through Christ Alone
Even after being drawn to Jesus, people are more likely to try to add Jesus to their current lifestyle than to abandon sinful behaviors as a necessary element in embracing biblical discipleship.
The idea that there are multiple paths to truth is more palatable to post-Christian people than accepting Jesus’ claim of exclusivity.
This is another reason why detaching our Christian beliefs from our political language is so important. If we’re as passionate about our partisan politics as our relationship with Jesus, people will see them as equal – and equally optional.
Presenting the truth of the exclusivity of Christ as a means to salvation will be the toughest battle the church will face in the next generation or two. But it’s a battle worth fighting.
Jesus is not a way, he is the way. A lot of other things may change, but that cannot.