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September 18, 2020Revitalization

Shifting the American Church: Learning to Operate from the Margins

How the church can adapt to a rapidly changing landscape.
Shifting the American Church: Learning to Operate from the Margins
Image: Samantha Borges/Unsplash

Like the time-traveling DeLorean, COVID-19 and all its effects has transported us years into the future. Ross Douthat, writing for the New York Times, opines, “…when the coronavirus era finally ends, there will be a Rip Van Winkle feelings—a sense of having been asleep and waking to normality, except that we will have time-traveled and the normality will resemble the year 2030.”[1]

In some cases, churches may be able to wait out the lingering effects of COVID-19 and return to somewhat of a normal semblance of ministry and mission. However, for many churches in the US, COVID-19 has ravished the prevalent model of the North American church—at least for now.

COVID-19 finally forced the church to take their car to the mechanic after having their “check engine” light on for years.

So, if the future is now, what have we learned from the “check engine” light?

In running diagnostics, I want to note changes COVID-19 exposed or expedited in the church and the shifts that churches need to start making with regards to ministry and mission in a new era?

Today I want to draw attention to the first of these changes and shifts, with more to follow in upcoming posts.

Change: The church has been kicked further towards the margins of culture.

This is tough for many Christians to accept. For so long, particularly here in America, the church enjoyed the prime seat in American culture. I think many already knew that those days have been long gone and that the church has been removed from her honorable position in culture.

But over the course of the last few years—which COVID-19 intensified—there is activity happening that continues to push the church even further into the margins of society.

Let me provide at least four reasons why I believe this to be the case.

First, we are a growing minority. Evangelicals make up only 25% of the religious landscape in America.

Second, there is activity among some cultural elites (especially secular progressives) that would love nothing more than to discard the church altogether. There are examples I could point to through the coronavirus pandemic.

Third, Evangelicals got “Trump-ed.” This isn’t a slam on the President. But it does seem that the union between Trump and Evangelicals may have come at a cost.

Fourth, we shoot ourselves in the foot through our division, airing dirty laundry, and arguing over masks, conspiracy theories, gathering in-person, racial inequality, and politics.

The church was already being pushed to the margins, but these four things have pushed us further.

Shift: Churches need to shift operation from the center of society to learning to operate ministry and mission from the margins of society.

So, how does the church operate in the far margins of American society? Let me offer three quick suggestions without delving into too much detail.

First, we need to make the shift from prioritizing quality programming to emphasizing quality presence.

Over the past 25-years or so, we have emphasized the Sunday morning seeker environment. Many churches have invested heavily in making their weekend gatherings attractive, sleek, and excellent in an effort not to be “your grandmother’s church” and thus to draw in the de-churched and unchurched.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with this model of church—unless it becomes an idol instead of a tool. I believe for many years and with many people this model of church was effective at reaching people disconnected or distant from the church. However, I think—at least for right now—this model needs to be benched. That doesn’t mean we stop doing things with excellence. It just means we don’t see it as our “bread and butter.”

What we have seen and experienced over the last couple of decades, which has become abundantly clear during COVID-19, is the shallowness of the American church with regards to discipleship. It’s like the church has been spiritually entertained, but not spiritual equipped.

COVID-19 has done something positive for the Church in bringing us to this place of greater reliance on the basics of Christianity. In Jeremiah 29, God tell the exiles to build houses, plant gardens, take wives and have sons and daughters, and seek the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:5–7).

In short, he tells them to get back to the basics of being the people of God. That is what is needed now.

Second, we must shift from focusing on macro cultural changes, but rather focus on witnessing micro transformations.

The culture wars are over. Sure, there are skirmishes here and there. But, for the most part, they ended. There’s no reclaiming America. There’s no returning to the glory days. We are living in what I would consider the “Cold Civil War” of American life. It’s not a civil war like in the 1860s where there are physical battles and growing death tolls. No, this civil war is much like the “Cold War” between the US and Russia. There were never any battles per se, but heightened tension.

While my hopes would be that Americans from diverse political and ideological backgrounds and positions would find common ground to unite around for the common good, I believe that America is and will continue to be a very different country than what many Traditionalists, Boomers, and Gen-X’ers—in addition to what many evangelicals—would want or envision.

As J.E. Lawrence popularized, “It is what it is.” Therefore, we shouldn’t expect major cultural changes in favor of a more traditionally moral culture.

In a world where there’s not much we can control, believers must focus on the micro transformations that they can “control.” As believers, in the power of the Spirit, we can monitor our own sanctification, and thus focus on Jesus transforming us little by little. We can also focus on the micro transformations in our communities and cities in which we can involve ourselves. And slowly and incrementally we can begin seeing transformation in segments and sectors of our communities and cities.

We might not can change the tides of culture overnight, but we become gospel rivers that over time erode the hardness of culture.

Third, we must shift from a posture of defeat to a posture of victory.

I sense that many Christians in America feel discouraged, depressed, and defeated. There’s just not a lot of so-called “good” news anymore. I understand. But we shouldn’t let the conditions of our world rob us from the status of our life. What’s our status? Victorious.

Yes, the conditions may be cloudy, but our status is clear. Jesus defeated death, hell, and the grave. Jesus also has promised to return, bringing an unshakeable kingdom where there will be no more tears, pain, suffering, or death. This is the victory we live in, live out, and live in light of.

May we see these dark times as opportunities for Jesus’ light to shine. In doing so, the core of darkness will see the little light shining in the distance on the margins of society and gradually, many will find themselves moving towards the light.

[1] Ross Douthat, “Waking Up in 2030,” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/27/opinion/sunday/us-coronavirus-2030.html.

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