7 Reflections on the State of the Evangelical Church
I am writing to you to share some pastoral reflections on the broader evangelical world. These observations were highlighted during Discipleship.org’s participation at the recent Exponential Church Planting conference in Florida last week. My reflections also come from my home church and the numerous church leaders I have been training and coaching recently.
Here are my reflections.
- Evangelical Beliefs are Fracturing in North America.
For almost 200 years, there was a basic Protestant consensus in America when it came to some basic worldview questions. That consensus was shared by Southern Baptists, Churches of Christ, Assemblies of God, and the other churches. That consensus focused on six key items:
- The reliability and authority of Scripture
- The necessity of salvation through Jesus Christ
- The vital importance of evangelism of all people
- The vital role of the local church for Christian life
- The morality of the Bible, especially in sexuality and the 10 Commandments
- Serving others and helping those in need
That consensus is breaking down.
The first item is the most influential. A high view of Scripture leads us to embrace the other elements of evangelical Christianity: the necessity of salvation in Jesus Christ, an emphasis on evangelism, the vital role of the local church, etc.
Yet the reliability and authority of Scripture is being undermined in more and more churches by progressive Christianity.
This movement used to live primarily within mainline, liberal denominations. But it is now gaining a foothold in the evangelical church. Here is a concise definition of the heart of progressive Christianity: the willingness to compromise or reinterpret Scripture to fit in with the progressive ideals of our culture.
Progressives think they are building an on-ramp to Christianity for people immersed in the culture, but, in reality, they are building an exit-ramp for Christians to embrace the views of the culture.
The alternative to Progressive Christianity is biblical discipleship and is characterized by the willingness to uphold the Lordship/Kingship of Jesus as taught in Scripture – regardless of cultural pressures. This rootedness in Scripture’s authority shows why biblical discipleship involves standing against the impulse to force Scripture to fit cultural ideals.
One’s view of the reliability and authority of Scripture is key in navigating this cultural moment. Whereas progressive Christianity is more of a theological movement, there are political movements, both rightist and leftist, which would co-opt and conscript our historic faith to serve as lapdogs to give religious legitimacy to their platforms. Whether the temptation is coming from those on the right and on those on the left, the kingship of Jesus through Scripture is our higher authority and demands our ultimate allegiance.
More can be said about this point, but the key for us is that we are called by Jesus to uphold the primacy and reliability of Scripture.
Much is being lost from the historic Christian consensus in churches today because of the combination of strong progressive cultural pressure and a low view of Scripture.
The Gospel Coalition and RENEW.org have resources that show a better way on a daily basis. I recommend looking to those two sites for regular guidance. Additionally, here are four key resources (there are so many) to help you respond to progressive Christianity:
Two Key Books
- David Young’s, A Grand Illusion: How Progressive Christianity Undermines Biblical Faith.
- Alisa Childers’, Another Gospel: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity.
Two Key Podcasts
- Sean McDowell’s podcast – https://seanmcdowell.org/podcasts
- Alisa Childers’ podcast – https://www.alisachilders.com/podcast.html
- Evangelical Christians Do Not Know Scripture Like They Did in the Past.
A big part of the reason why the progressives are winning over more and more evangelical Christians to their beliefs and worldview is that fewer and fewer evangelical Christians are regularly reading their Bibles and actually know the teachings of Scripture. For the last several decades, the typical evangelical church has dropped much of its programming that focused on Scripture (such as Sunday school and Wednesday night services) and they are relying just on Sunday morning sermons to get their people into the Bible. And the sermons are often dependent upon inspiration, personal stories, and practical applications—without a steady diet of biblical teaching.
The sermons inspire people, but too often they do not teach people how to read and understand God’s Word. The net result is that people are spending less and less time in the Bible.
At the same time, individuals and families tend to be reading less and less Scripture at home.
Into this environment, the dominant voices of social media, the university, and entertainment are speaking progressive values. They are discipling the minds of more and more people into ideals built on other worldviews (such as the ideology of intersectional feminism, which you can see played out in many Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity trainings).
Although many of our Western ideals (e.g., the equal value of all people; all ethnicities being of the same family) arise from Christian influence, many newer secular and intersectional ideals do not fit in with the teaching of the Word of God, and many actually work to inflame tensions and divide people into tribalistic camps.
The church must point to a better way. We must provide a genuine countercultural alternative to what is happening in the world. We recommend a strategy to disciple everyone in Scripture and what it teaches. Here are six specific recommendations that come from my experiences as the lead pastor of my local church.
- Make sermons primarily expository, teaching through books of the Bible.
- Make Scripture the primary curriculum for small groups (not just books about Scripture). Get everyone to regularly apply Scripture to life.
- Develop supplemental discipleship groups (small, I’d recommend 3-5 people only) where Scripture engagement and memorization become the norm.
- Develop Scripture reading plans that encourage individuals and families to be in the Word daily (e.g., reading through the entire New Testament in 2022).
- Provide in-depth Bible study classes that require extra reading and Scripture memorization for those who are willing and able to join.
- Provide special 1.5 to 2-hour in-depth seminars grounded in Scripture at least six times a year.
We want to encourage everyone to personally learn the teachings of Jesus—and put them into practice.
- There is a Crisis in Family Discipleship.
It was about a year ago that I first met a senior pastor from a huge church in Austin, Texas. This leader and his church with 6,500 in pre-COVID attendance have a great reputation for adhering to Scripture, leading wisely, and planting churches. The senior pastor told me how, based on the cultural realities revealed during COVID, they pivoted to a focus on family discipleship. They made this the central question they would wrestle with: How could they disciple families to disciple their children so that the children could arrive into adulthood being faithful to Jesus in a culture that would persecute them because of their faithfulness to Jesus?
I met up that same senior pastor at Exponential last week, and he and his team have not lost their resolve or focus. He pointed out several books and trends that describe the strong and ungodly influences gaining ascendancy in our culture. I may not have his words exactly verbatim, but he told me something I found chilling: “Once a child is over 11 years of age and they have been in the public school system, it is becoming harder and harder to disciple that child to uphold the counter-cultural teachings of Jesus.” “We are struggling to effectively help those families,” he continued. “We think it is probably best to focus our energies on the families whose children are at a younger age.”
As soon as he said those words, my mind raced to the comments of a thirteen-year-old girl who has been attending our church recently. In a sermon, I mentioned that we have to resist cultural pressure from both the right and from the left. In describing the pressure from the left, I had simply mentioned the pressure from transgender ideology and from those who advocate a LGBTQ agenda in general. The young lady came up to me after the sermon and told me that I was homophobic for what I’d said. Her parents explained to me later that she had learned that at school. Another pastor told me last week of a father he is discipling. The father can no longer have civil conversations with his twelve-year-old son because his son so strongly disagrees with his father on LGBTQ issues.
The Barna Group makes this point: “In some ways, the church is not preparing young disciples for the world as it is. Cultural discernment is about teaching them not just what to think but also how to live. We must prepare them for the world as it truly is, not as we wish it to be.”
Our churches must be laser-focused on helping parents with family discipleship. Here are three key resources:
- Check out https://www.drivefaithhome.com/. They have a proven model to help busy families with family discipleship.
- Check out John Tyson’s book, The Intentional Father: A Practical Guide to Raise Son’s of Courage and Character. This is simply the best book on discipling sons that I have ever read. I am seeking a complementary book on discipling daughters.
- Develop a disciple-making strategy to guide your children from birth through 25. That is right: think of discipling them into adulthood and what it will take for your children to be faithful to Jesus at 25. The team at my church is doing some excellent work on this front. Check out our family minister Jay Austin’s book, Your Child’s Journey: A Guidebook for Intentional Parenting from Birth to Adulthood.
- Many Pastors/Leaders are Confused About the Best Direction.
As you can easily guess from what I have written, it is a difficult time to be a pastor/leader in a church. Old models and systems seem no longer sufficient for the times in which we live.
Many pastors were mistreated during the two years that COVID dominated our country. They were beat up by those on the right who did not think they were focused enough defending conservative political values and causes. They were beat up by those on the left who thought they did not do enough to support government vaccine and mask mandates and that they did speak out enough on racial issues.
They are now weary with the realization that some 20% of those who attended church pre-COVID are not returning, unless there is revival in the nation. They are fearful the percentage in their church might be even higher. They are not sure how to navigate the current cultural landmines.
We do not yet have established road maps for how to deal with the current challenges created by ever-present social media, anxiety, outrage, and tech monopolies.
In addition to serious thinking on methods for navigating this brave new world, we strongly advocate that we must also return to our essential roots and focus on the basics.
- We have to go back to Jesus,
- We have to go back to Scripture (as our core curriculum),
- We have to go back to the gospel, and
- We have to go back to Jesus-style disciple making.
- Many Pastors are Shifting Their Focus to Disciple Making.
COVID has devastated many churches and shown weakness in all our churches. In many churches, attendance is just getting back to 60% of what it was, with some having an attendance of just 50%. Many Christians have gotten out of the habit of going to church altogether.
Finally, some good news: Almost all church leaders that I talk to are now speaking of the crucial need to focus on disciple making. We’re seeing so much negative fruit of non-biblical thinking and beliefs in many who claim to be Christians—because Sunday mornings are simply not enough. Most realize that if people are not in discipling relationships outside Sunday morning, too many will be lost to the culture.
- Focusing on Disciple Making is Easier Said Than Done.
It was over 12 years ago that we first sought to re-focus my home church on disciple making. We switched our focus from Sunday mornings and attractional programming to a focus on discipling relationships. We then also developed what we call “T-Groups” (transformation groups of 3-5 people). We now have around 80% of our members in small groups and T-Groups.
We have not arrived, but we have made good progress.
All of our elders and leaders are on the same page with this focus. And that is a big deal. But we are an anomaly among churches. Most churches talk about discipleship and disciple making, but they don’t have a plan and they are floundering.
Again, we must keep doubling down on our focus and keep working on it with God’s help. But we can thank God for the progress we have made. My hope and prayer is that there will be countless churches to progress beyond my church and others that I know who are focused on creating a disciple making culture. Every day I am learning of churches who are surpassing us in various ways. Let me say it as clearly as I can: a focus on Jesus-style disciple making is the most biblical and important focus your church can possess as it faces the winds of our culture. May God bless you in your efforts.
At Discipleship.org we have multiple partners who can help you to shift your church to a disciple making focus. Check them out at https://discipleship.org/partners/.
- We Must Double-Down on Becoming People Who Fast and Pray for the Holy Spirit’s Power.
I am convinced that we have great power amid the challenges that we face. In the words of Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” We come from a long line of disciples of Jesus going back through twenty centuries who have faced greater challenges than what we face. They endured.
They were strong because they relied on God.
They found power through personal reliance on the Holy Spirit through prayer and fasting. There has never been a better time to become experienced in the spiritual practices of prayer and fasting. Jesus made us a promise in Luke 11: 9-10: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
It’s time to reclaim this focus.
There is no time that is better.