Crisis in the American Church?

There has been a lot of buzz about David T. Olson’s new book, The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2008). Olson is the director of the American Research Project and director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church.

His book is loaded with charts, graphs and sidebars, and his research is based(as are his conclusions) on his study of a national database of some 200,000 churches.

And the upshot of his research – there is cause for concern.

For instance, despite some optimistic polls that otherwise suggest the American church is thriving, Olson writes,

“On any given Sunday,cthe vast majority of Americans are absent from church and if trends ccontinue, by 2050, the percentage of Americans attending church will be
half (of what it was in 1990).”

I know that in Metro Atlanta in the heart of the “Bible Belt” there are over 70 Mega-churches (defined by 2,000+) and one would think that almost “everyone goes to church”. And yet in our county, only 15.7% of the population actually go to church. We are not as “churched” as we are often led to believe.

According to Olsen, to avoid this dismal future, “the American church must engage with…three critical transitions …which have altered the relationship between American culture and the church.” Namely, Olsen defines these critical transitions as:
1. The transition from a Christian to a post-Christian society;

2. The transition from a modern to a post-modern society;

3. The transition from a mono-ethnic to a multi-ethnic society.

Of course, transitions 1. and 2. have long been foreseen and understood. It’s transition 3. – the new kid on the block – that’s getting increased attention from researchers, writers, theologians and practitioners, etc., alike.

According to Olson, it’s not only what’s needed; it’s the future.

He writes,

“In the mono-ethnic world, Christians, pastors and churches only had to understand their own culture. Ministering in a homogeneous cultures is easier, but mono-ethnic Christianity can gradually become culture-bound….In the multi-ethnic world, pastors, churches and Christians need to operate under the rules of the early church’s mission to the Gentiles.”

But this is the “money” quote:

“As the power center of (global) Christianity moves south and east, the multi-ethnic church is becoming the normal and natural picture of the new face of Christianity.”

The NEW FACE of CHRISTIANITY in AMERICA. If you are threatened by the idea of a church that is going to be less Anglo and more diverse, then this won’t perceived as good news. But if you believe and know that the heart of Christ and the gospel is a church for the nations, then it becomes exciting to see the church transformed from ethnic and cultural parochialism to seeing it transformed into a multi-ethnic mosaic.

What do you think, is this a crisis or a new and exciting opportunity?

Bill Reichart is a pastor at Big Creek Church in Forsyth County, GA. He blogs at his personal blog, Provocative Church and his ministry blog, Ministry Best Practices.

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2 thoughts on “Crisis in the American Church?

  1. The problem lies in the fact that modern fundamentalism is a failed method of communication in a post-Christian world. Modern fundamentatlism, which didn’t come about until the end of the 19th century, sets itself in opposition to modern society, rather than in support of Christ. It is no wonder, then, that people become so turned off. Instead of doing what we should do, we focus on telling people what they should not do. Instead of love and education, we give fire and brimstone. We are a negative religion instead of a positive one. We stand in opposition to science with ID. We stand in opposition to so many things. And it is this very angry face which is the picture of Christianity in our post-Christian world.

    We can only win them back with unconditional, non-judgemental love. If homosexuals want to come into the church, as one example, greet them with open arms. If God can forgive a murderer, as He did multiple times in the Bible, then how much more easily can He forgive a homosexual? If God set Deborah in charge of Israel, how can we not let a woman stand behind the pulpit in our churches? No man can know what any woman’s calling is. That is between her and God.

    What is the major challenge facing Christianity in America? Look to the mirror. It is you and me.

  2. Not having read the book, it sounds like Olson visited Canada ….. 10+ years ago. In regard to multiculturalism and the decay of the church, we are probably that much farther down the road. This is not to say we have discovered any new methodologies for enguaging the new culture. In reality we simply need to rediscover the method that is so old it might be just be new. Returning the church to its disciplemaking roots … one church at a time and having the courage and determination to contextualize that process. The challenge is to have the Spirit’s wisdom, personal courage and loving accountablity to move beyond our natural tendancy (of selfabsorbed programs) to ensure we subordiate churched activities to ‘the’ purpose … make discples. We can help.

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