What Should Ministry Look Like in Post-Christian America?
The US church is experiencing a winnowing process. Church attendance and biblical literacy are down, and fewer Americans identify as “Christian.” In many parts of the country—and across the digital landscape—Christians encounter increased skepticism and hostility. As it becomes less socially advantageous to wear the “Christian” label, fewer people are doing so.
What are pastors to make of this shift? We asked four church leaders what they think ministry should look like in post-Christian America. Their answers paint a picture of a church that praises God for its mission field and prepares to engage it with fervor.
A Pre-Christendom Church
What we call post-Christian culture strikingly resembles the pre-Christendom era—before Constantine, when the church was a fringe, marginal, prophetic body. Before it became mainstream, accessible, and synonymous with apple pie and Chevrolet. And a pre-Christendom era demands a pre-Christendom church.
Obligated to go out
A life in Christ is a life under obligation. Paul said, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks” (Rom. 1:14). He didn’t see himself as a volunteer. He was under orders. In church, when we use the term volunteers, we imply that Christian service is a matter of choice. But if you understand the apostolic nature of the church, you understand members are not volunteering; they’re sent out due to the moral imperative of God’s providence. We are under obligation to provide obedient service, to live an evangelistic life. We owe people the gospel because we recognize the danger they’re in, the love God has for them, and the provision God has made for them.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit
If you looked at the followers of Jesus prior to Pentecost and someone asked you to bet that the church would last nearly 2,000 years, would you take that bet? I wouldn’t. But in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit endowed this pivotal group of people with a supernatural ability to surpass the limits of their spirit, their exposure, and their education to fulfill their assignment. Is that not what the Holy Spirit does for us? He empowers us to overcome our fears. He triumphs over every divisive and disruptive attitude to the fulfillment of God’s purpose.
United in community
In Acts 3, we see Peter and John walk in unity together. You couldn’t find two more different people than Peter and John. Both could have claimed primacy in the sight of Jesus. Peter was the one who declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus responded, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:16, 18). But John was the one who laid on Jesus’ breast, who was at the cross, and to whom Jesus entrusted his earthly mother. Both were alpha males who could have claimed, “I am the chief.” But here they are, walking together.
Jesus paired them together because he knew the church would need both. The church would need somebody deep and reflective like John, and the church would need somebody impulsive and active like Peter. The church could not do without either of them. They needed each other. We need each other, too.
Called to suffer
We are called to suffer on behalf of the world and to certify the truth of our message. Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses.” That word for “witness” is also used for “martyr.” It means “one who is willing to confirm the truth by death.” Jesus’ earliest followers rejoiced at the fact that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. Not that they sought it out, but when suffering came their way, they were willing to embrace it.
In these tough political times, many churches are worried about losing their nonprofit status. That’s a matter of losing privilege. Is that something we would be willing to lose for the sake of Jesus Christ? How does that compare to the suffering experienced in the early church? That may be what we’re called to in this age. Yet our faith tells us, if that happens there is resurrection.
Claude Alexander is senior pastor of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
A Courageous Church
Our world is changing. Even in the Dallas area, where there’s a church building on every corner, I can feel the weight of it. Fewer people are claiming Christ. The church is losing its credibility and influence.
We’re on the margins of culture—and where we’re not already there, just give it some time.
Amid the pressures of secularization and marginalization, we convince ourselves that the sky is falling and sound the alarms of the apocalypse. Fear grips us and cripples us. It dictates our lives and our ministries.
So before we start strategizing about what the church might look like in the days ahead, we need to answer this question: “Am I motivated by fear or courage?”
Initially, fear is fine. It’s normal. But it’s what we do with fear that matters. We can allow it to dominate and destroy us—and that won’t lead us into faithfulness and fullness of life—or we can look to the strength and power of the Lord and allow our courage in him to transcend our fear. That’s where we will begin to live faithfully and boldly and effectively in this age of unbelief.
Courage only comes from confidence in God and what he has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. It’s looking to the Scriptures and seeing that we serve a God who is infinitely bigger and better than anything before us. It’s understanding that, even if people say we’re on the wrong side of history, we know history has already been decided—we know how this thing ends.
The Bible tells us again and again that we will go through trials and struggles and sufferings. Believers in the early church lived under the vicious rule of the Roman Empire, where persecution was unlike anything we’ve seen in the present-day West. In spite of their horrific circumstances, Christ told them, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20), Paul told them, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37), and Peter told them, God “has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade” (1 Pet. 1:3–4). Regardless of how hateful and hostile our world becomes, we have nothing to worry about. The gates of hell shall not prevail against Christ’s church. On the contrary, we should count it joy because it’s an opportunity to bear witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
So instead of starting with predictions and strategies for how the church might function in a world where Christians are being ridiculed and we’ve lost much of our social influence, let’s come back to this question: “Am I motivated by fear or courage?” If we’re full of courage, emboldened and empowered by the Lord, we’ve got the hardest part figured out.
Matt Chandler is lead pastor of teaching at The Village Church in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas; president of the Acts 29 Network; and author of Take Heart: Christian Courage in the Age of Unbelief (The Good Book Company, 2018).
An Equipped, Sent Church
I have worked with college students on a secular university campus for 17 years. About 10 years ago, we first began to experience the post-Christian culture in campus ministry. We used to see over 100 students show up to first-week-of-school events and worship services every year. Now, even though we pour the same amount of energy into quality events and have increased our publicity, we don’t draw the same crowds. Fewer students seek Christian fellowship when they come to the university, and fewer ask questions about faith because it is no longer normal for students to have been raised going to church.
To minister in this new context, we must first acknowledge that the culture is different. Then we can adjust our expectations and our approach to discipleship.
Gen Xers proudly wore the label of “Jesus Freak” in the 90s—thanks, DC Talk—but students today have to be more strategic in order to share their faith. While our Christian students are not ashamed of Jesus, they are afraid of what their peers will think of them. When classmates discover students are Christian, they expect them to be closed minded, to hate gay people, and to have a low view of women. At one time, Christians had a repository of trust on campus. No more. To share the gospel with non-believers in this culture, students must first develop relationships and, little by little, earn back that trust.
In a post-Christian context, we cannot rely solely on Sunday mornings to reach the lost. We can no longer “build it” and expect them “to come.” Remind your church members that they can be more effective missionaries in their workplaces and neighborhoods than any pastor, because they have the relationships and therefore the voice. Equip believers to communicate the gospel message and share their faith rather than just encouraging them to invite people to church. That may include basic training and role playing on how to initiate conversations, how to take conversations deeper, how to disagree well, and how to develop friendships—especially with someone from a different class, race, or political stance.
To prepare Christians to withstand false philosophies, ridicule, and apathy, teach the foundations of the faith again and again from different angles. Ground God’s people in truth. This is the only way to develop Christians who can cultivate their relationship with God independently, through Bible study, prayer, and spiritual disciplines.
In this post-Christian context, the American church will look smaller. Corporate worship won’t be the default Sunday morning activity as it was in previous generations. But do not be discouraged. Acknowledge and encourage those in your church who are not shrinking back, but have counted the cost to be counter-cultural and still follow Jesus. While church attendance drops, those who remain committed will get closer and stronger, relying on the Word, the Spirit, and the community of believers to help us fulfill God’s kingdom purposes.
Danah Himes is an associate campus minister at Christian Campus House at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
An Acts 17 Church
James Emery White
We have moved from an Acts 2 to an Acts 17 cultural context.
In Acts 2 we find Peter speaking to the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem. Here, in essence, was his message: “You know about the creation, Adam and Eve, and the Fall; you know about Abraham and the chosen people of Israel; you know about Moses and the Law; you know of the prophets and the promised Messiah. So we don’t need to waste time on that. You need to know that Jesus was the Messiah, you rejected and killed him, and he rose from the dead and unleashed his church, which means you need to repent.”
It wasn’t even the length of a good blog post. The result? Three thousand people repented! Peter spoke to a group of people who were already monotheists, who already bought into the Old Testament Scriptures, and who already believed in a coming Messiah.
Now move forward to Acts 17, featuring Paul on Mars Hill speaking to the philosophers and spiritual seekers of Athens. Here was a spiritual marketplace where truth was relative, worldviews and gods littered the landscape, and the average person wouldn’t know the difference between Isaac and an iPad. Paul knew he wasn’t in Jerusalem, so he didn’t take an Acts 2 approach or give an Acts 2 message. He found a new way to connect with the people of this culture.
Paul surveyed the cultural landscape and found a touchstone: an altar to an unknown God. The culture was so pluralistic that the only thing they could agree on was that they couldn’t know anything for sure. “What if I could tell you that God’s name? Would that be of interest?” Paul began. He then went all the way back to creation and worked his way forward, laying a foundation for the understanding and acceptance of the gospel.
Different culture. Different approach.
This is precisely where Christians in the US find ourselves today. We are not speaking to the God-fearing Jews in Jerusalem. We are standing on Mars Hill, and we need an Acts 17 mindset with an Acts 17 strategy. Our primary cultural currency should be explanation. It’s not enough to move from a King James Version of the Bible to a contemporary retelling such as The Message. We have to begin by saying, “This is the Bible. It is a collection of 66 books, which are divided into two sections known as the Old Testament and the New Testament. It tells the story of God and us.”
And then we need to explain that story.
Unfortunately, many Christians suffer from the “curse of knowledge.” Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. It’s as if we have forgotten what it was like to be apart from Christ.
If we are going to minister in a post-Christian context, we need to remember.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; the author of Meet Generation Z (Baker, 2017); and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.