Ed Stetzer says the next 20 years are going to be a challenge for churches.
Despite what many think, the church in America is not dying (and no serious researcher thinks that). However, there are some challenges and changes to be considered.
When we consider missiology, part of the discipline includes considering how churches relate to their culture. Since we live in changing times, it’s worth thinking through what current cultural changes mean for future church engagement of that culture.
Here are four trends that are already evident, but will become even more important in days to come.
1. The Word “Christian” Will Become Less Used and More Clear.
There are three broad categories that make up the approximately 75 percent of Americans who refer to themselves as Christians. I wrote about this earlier in The State of the Church In America: Hint: It’s Not Dying, but it is worth keeping in our minds moving forward. The fact is that not everyone who uses the word “Christian” is using it the same way.
Cultural Christians, about 25% of the U.S. population, are simply those who, when asked, say they are a Christian rather than say they are an atheist or Jewish. They are “Christian” for no other reason than they are from America and don’t consider themselves something else.
The second type is what I call a congregational Christian. They account for another close to 25% of the population. This person generally does not really have a deep commitment, but they will consider refer to themselves as Christians because the have some loose connection to a church—through a family member, maybe an infant baptism, or some holiday attendance.
Convictional Christians, also about 25% of the population, are those people who self-identify as Christian who orient their life around their faith in Christ. This includes a wide range of what Christian is—not just evangelicals, for example. It means someone says they are a Christian and it is meaningful to them.
So, what’s the trend?
Well, first, the trend is that less people are calling themselves Christians and those who are will take it more seriously. In other words, cultural and congregational Christians, or the “squishy middle,” is collapsing while convictional Christians are staying relatively steady.
In the future, the word Christian will mean more to those who would be considered convictional Christians. However, it will mean—and will be used—less to those who were nominal Christians in the first place. The word will be less used and more clear.
2. The Nominals Will Increasingly become Nones.
Basically, type one (cultural) and two (congregational) are what we would generally call nominal Christians. Nominal comes from the Latin, meaning “name” or “name only.” A growing number of people are name only Christians. They claim “Christianity” for survey reasons, but rarely attend church or give any consistent consideration to their faith identification.
They’re simply calling themselves Christians because that’s who they consider themselves to be, not because of any life change or ongoing commitment. Those types of Christians, about half of the population now, will become a minority in a few decades.