Christians in America: Out of Touch and Out of Reach
By Michael Craven FIRST IN A SERIES
According to a report produced in 2013—“Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission"—researchers at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, offer a timely overview of the changing demographics of Christianity and Christians’ activities over the past forty years.
In summary, missiologist Todd M. Johnson and his team found that 20 percent of non-Christians in North America really do not “personally know” any Christians. Christianity Today points out, “that number includes atheists and agnostics, many of whom are former Christians themselves and more likely to have close Christian contacts. Without that group, 60 percent of the non-Christian population has no relationships with Christians” (Emphasis mine). This despite the fact that 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians.
CSGC research associate Gina Bellofatto notes that small but burgeoning movements have arisen to initiate purposeful interreligious dialogue and community service projects. However, according to Bellofatto, “They're still rare compared to the apparent apathy among Christians about befriending non-Christians, especially if it means reaching across neighborhoods and towns into more ethnic enclaves.”
Clearly, a century-plus of evangelistic campaigns aimed at “getting people saved” has failed to propagate the Christian faith in any meaningful way. Instead, too many churches in America are characterized more by a suburban social ethnicity built around shared values and religious consumerism than any sense of kingdom mission.
Jeff Christopherson, vice president for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Missions Board, echoed this sentiment in saying, “We hide in our own evangelical ghetto,” and “we go to churches that would only be welcoming to people that think like us.”
This makes sense when understood through the church’s contemporary theology of escapism—this idea that the primary goal of the gospel is to provide one entrance into heaven when one dies. While eternal life in the age to come is indeed a promise of the gospel, the reduction of the gospel of the kingdom to nothing more than this has left the church without any relevance to life in the here and now. By reducing the gospel to the acceptance of a few facts about Jesus, which then determines one’s eternal state, Christianity loses its most powerful claim: that of Christ’s kingdom come to bear upon this world. It is through the rule and reign of God pressed into the world by the people of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that sin and all its damage is confronted and relief is found.
This is the story of Western civilization—the world touched by the church in every area of life—where humanity has experienced unprecedented flourishing. Despite our checkered past, Christians have throughout history risen up against countless evils bringing real reform to a broken world defaced by sin.
The Christian church has confronted political tyranny that oppressed God’s creation with the principles of liberty rooted in the imago Dei. The historic church was the first institution on earth to declare slavery unjust, to develop concepts central to individual economic freedom, to provide health care to the sick and dying, to offer humane rules of warfare, to educate the masses, and to establish as virtues the concepts of mercy and compassion. The church didn’t do this because they thought it a good way to win converts. Rather, they understood that the world ruined by sin was being set right by Jesus, the king who declared his Lordship over all the earth, and that to follow Jesus meant sacrificial participation in his kingdom-renewing work.
Without the Christian/kingdom influence of the last two millennia, the world would have remained in its brutal state. To believe otherwise is to be both historically ignorant and to believe that human progress is the natural orientation of mankind.
© 2013 by S. Michael Craven