Today's interview is with James Emery White, senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. James is also an author, his latest book being Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated. Today, we talk with James about young people, post-Christian culture, and developing an "Acts 17 church."
1) It seems the dominant narrative is that evangelicals are losing their young people at a rate faster than in previous generations. Is this borne out by your research?
Yes. Millennials are arguably the first American generation to grow up in what I would deem a post-Christian culture. And what we are observing is that the traditional cycle of young people dropping out of church during high school or college, but then returning after marriage or children, isn't taking place. They are not returning.
2) You spend much time on the "nones," those who don't identify with any religious group. Does this reflect the collapse of a nominal civil religion?
That isn't helping, but I think the larger issue of a post-Christian culture that has been shaped by such processes as secularization, privatization, and pluralization, is more causative. Secularization has eroded the supportive presence of Christian faith from the marketplace of ideas, privatization has created the expectation that all things spiritual should be kept in the private sphere like a favorite color, and pluralization reinforces the idea that all faiths are equally viable and true. Combined, these three processes have made whatever civil religion we might have left so benign it has become inconsequential.
3) Christian bookstores seem to be filled with books offering the latest formula to help reach disinterested Millennials. Some arguably say we need to soften the more radical edges of the gospel's demands. Others say we need to dig in more on doctrine. What is your perspective?
My knee-jerk reaction is to shout, "Dig in!" But let me nuance that a bit. I write in the book about the need for the proper "truth-grace" mix. Some churches err on the side of lots of truth, but little grace. That's legalism. On the other side are those who have lots of grace, but little truth. That's licentiousness. Jesus never watered anything down in terms of personal morality, tackling the most difficult and divisive issues. Yet those who heard him wanted nothing more than to spend time with him. They may have felt convicted, but never condemned. A lack of grace is not winsome, a lack of truth is not compelling. The message we proclaim must be both. So we should have all sixty-six of the books of the Bible in one hand, and an irenic spirit in the other.
4) Are the "nones" a monolithic group with hardened thoughts on religious matters or are there ways churches can enter into conversations that could lead to gospel advance?
They are anything but monolithic—except in the fact that most are not atheists, and few are actually "seeking." But that doesn't mean they are closed to conversation. I lead a church that experiences over seventy percent of its growth from the unchurched, a large number of whom could be classified as "nones." So obviously, we are finding that there are ways to engage. If they have hardened thoughts, it is less with theology and more with characterization. They have very negative views of religion, and often, religious people. They are very turned off, for example, to their perception of religion's role in politics, what they would consider judgmental attitudes, and the appearance of financial greed among religious leaders. But if you can get past that, they are actually quite willing to hear an explanation of the Christian perspective on any and every issue. Particularly if you start out with their questions and concerns as a bridge to the Bible's perspective.
5) As pastors and church leaders survey the data on "nones," how would you counsel them to approach their ministries in this new era?
Well, the entire second half of the book delves into this question, but here's an overarching theme: I would suggest they move from an Acts 2 model to an Acts 17 model. By that I mean that in Acts 2, you had Peter addressing the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem. On a spiritual scale from one to ten, they were probably on an eight. They believed in God, the Old Testament Scriptures, heaven and hell, and a promised Messiah. That's a lot to begin with! And Peter fashioned his approach accordingly. Fast forward to Paul in Acts 17. On our imaginary scale, they were probably about a two. Paul didn't approach them as God-fearing Jews, but as the (at best) agnostics that they were. He had to start with creation and work his way forward. He understood that evangelism, for that group, would involve both process and event. Too many churches are taking an Acts 2 approach in an Acts 17 world.
Daniel Darling is vice-president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Activist Faith.
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