Ed Stetzer: “To thrive, I think there are at least five things we need to face the next 10 years.”
Many people are saying it’s been a tough decade for evangelicals. The media says that Christianity is in great decline. The media, and some Christian authors, predict doom and gloom.
While the research isn’t as doom-and-gloom as people are saying, I do think we are in challenging times. The last 10 years have brought us to that reality. There have been a few distractions along the way.
The emerging church promised a “third way” to evangelicals, but it flamed out and now looks more like the avant-garde wing of mainline Protestantism.
Some tried to withdraw from culture, but culture just kept coming.
Some slowly replaced regular gospel proclamation with moralistic therapeutic deism—being good makes you a better person, and that makes “the man upstairs” happy.
Still others were so driven by pragmatism that they eventually began to look like a collection of programs and strategies, devoid of the message of Jesus.
So, what’s next? What needs to happen for the new few years?
I don’t know that this answers everything, but a few things keep coming to mind as I look to the future. To thrive, I think there are at least five things we need to face the next 10 years:
1. A Clear Understanding of the Gospel
Too many have assumed it, but we need to teach it. The gospel is not you do, it’s Jesus did. People don’t need to be taught to turn over a new leaf—they need to receive and live out a new life. That new life is from Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin and in our place. Don’t build a message that would still be true if Jesus had not died on the cross for our sin and in our place.
2. A Stronger Focus on Discipleship
God shapes congregations through the shaping of individual members’ lives. But this doesn’t just happen by accident or as a byproduct—God grows us as we are in a position to receive that growth. This can only happen through intentional awareness and leadership on the part of both leaders and church members. In our Transformational Discipleship project, the largest statistical study of its kind, we found that discipleship was both lacking and simple—we just needed to remind people to live out who God has made us in Christ.
3. A Greater Passion for Mission
We need to stand up against the clergification of the modern-day church—the tendency to look at those who are professional ministers and say that they are the only ones who are called to the mission, while the people in the pews are merely consumers of religious goods and services. We need to see all of God’s people engaged in God’s mission, from their respective neighborhoods all the way to the nations. We stand at a key moment, and part of the answer is to engage more of God’s people in mission.
4. Evangelism in the Age of the “Nones”
We are now increasingly facing what I have called a post-seeker context. This does not mean that seekers no longer exist. The Spirit is always at work in the hearts of people. But churches that once focused their energies and efforts toward targeting seekers are finding it more difficult to appeal to a constituency with little to no religious memory. Churches will have to find new ways to lead their people to reach out to their neighbors—not just attractional evangelism, but incarnational evangelism, as well—being, doing and telling good news where we live and work.
5. New Thinking in Developing Best Practices
God often uses tools for his ends. Think of bus ministry in the 70s or radio ministry in the 50s. That’s still true today. As believers, we can and must be good stewards of our ministry and utilize tools wisely—like multisite churches and viral church planting—and find new ways to serve those who are hurting and in need.
The sky isn’t falling for evangelicals, but we do have reason to look in the mirror. As the church continues to navigate an increasingly post-Christian culture, we have to ask ourselves if we are willing to face some tough truths and change some behaviors to reach the world with the message of the gospel. I’ve read the end of the book and I know what you know—Jesus wins.
I just want to be a part of what Jesus is doing until he returns.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.