Ed Stetzer: A Look in the Mirror

What is the most important innovation in the history of American cities? Many would point to skyscrapers or bridges, while others would say subways or elevated trains

Yet as someone who was raised just outside New York City, my answer is much simpler: clean water. 

Without clean water, American cities were constantly bombarded with outbreaks of diseases, most often cholera. The first great advancement for getting clean water in the city was the Croton Aqueduct in 1842. As a monument to the transformative power of this achievement, the only remaining original statue in Central Park is not of a political figure but the Angel of the Waters that adorns the Bethesda Fountain. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was serving as the interim pastor at the historic Calvary Church in New York City and often passed this angel statue. It reminded me not only of the social fragility the pandemic revealed, but also of our capacity for innovation and transformation to meet these challenges. 

As the dust finally begins to settle after COVID-19, and wise leaders set aside time in the coming months to reflect individually and collectively on the season that has passed and the season that is to come, let me offer three observations. While every community and organization is unique, I believe these observations may help set the table for what we—as Christ’s church—will face in the coming season. 

Divisions Accelerated 

The sheer scale of the COVID-19 pandemic was unlike anything in our lifetime. Regardless of one’s perception of its severity, its social and economic impact was unprecedented. 

It literally stopped the world in its tracks. 

One unexpected result of this disruption was that it accelerated our cultural and political polarization. This trend was already in motion well before 2020, but it deepened during the lockdown. Whether because of the increased siloing of our media habits or other factors, the pandemic poured gasoline on this fire in disturbing ways. 

This polarization also played out among Christians. At the pew level, pandemic guidelines proved a significant factor in people leaving churches, sometimes after decades-long tenures. For church leaders, the division has been so bewildering that it shocks us when we look to conference panels and book recommendations from merely a decade ago. A world in which Tim Keller writes the foreword to a book by Eric Metaxas feels like an alternate reality until we remember that this was the case in 2009 with Bonhoeffer.

Shifts Remain Unknown

While we know far more than we did even just a year ago about the impact of COVID-19 on society and churches, the truth is that we will still be unpacking its legacy decades from now. One common thread was that many churches were stepping up to serve their communities in the midst of uncertainty. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of churches adapted to online services, some for the first time. At their core, many churches and Christians rightly understood the pandemic as a unique opportunity to commit to God’s mission in new and exciting ways.

Yet as more data becomes available—such as with the Hartford Institute’s new multi-year study Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations—the true impact of the pandemic has been costly for most churches. Less than half (49%) of evangelical churches are at or above their 2019 numbers. 

While organizations are tracking religious attendance and participation, what remains unclear is how deeply the sense of polarization has found purchase in our church life. What I first described in 2021 as “The Great Sort” appears to be solidifying in church identification. Whether due to fears of being “woke” or fostering “Christian nationalism,” theological, confessional and missional concerns are taking a back seat to where a church stands regarding political messaging. While polling and research mechanisms struggle to measure the exact depth of this new church sorting, pastors and church leaders are left to deal with its impact.

In essence, churches are dealing with the new reality that they are far smaller than they used to be and are facing an unprecedented influence of political and cultural division in their midst.  

While most people have moved on from the pandemic, this new reality is just as complex. Pastors need to face the truth that the assumed “return” of members may not be coming and instead pivot to address the current reality. 

A New Reality Crystallized 

Pew’s recent religious landscape survey revealed what many of us had been forecasting for years: “Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades.” 

To be clear, the pandemic did not cause this decline, but may have accentuated it. The rise of religious nones, a social trend identified by many sociologists and missiologists over a decade ago, has simply continued to gain momentum with Pew projecting a decline of Christian identification to as low as 35% by 2070. 

While this report captured headlines, I have been writing about the slow decline of Christian identification for years. Paying attention to trends in the U.K., Australia, Canada and similar nations, Christian identification and church attendance have consistently declined just ahead of the United States. Despite many hoping that America might prove to be an exception, the pandemic appears to have reinforced this trajectory. 

However, at the same time as identification and attendance have decreased, inside the churches there has actually been a shifting toward evangelical faith and practice. As I first pointed out in 2015 in The Washington Post, the “American church is more evangelical than ever.” While this might seem counterintuitive, I believe this suggests that what we are witnessing is the collapse of cultural or nominal Christianity, accompanying a slower decline of Christian practice. 

As secularization gains steam, Christianity has slowly ceased to be the default even as church attendance and identity among committed Christians remain. This presents a new set of missiological challenges and opportunities. No longer playing with a home field advantage, the North American church needs to learn from our global brothers and sisters how to engage a culture unfamiliar with and even perhaps hostile to the gospel. 

What Does the Future Hold? 

In Epidemics and Society, Yale historian Frank Snowden argues that the scale and impact of epidemics invariably provoke moral reflection across society. Snowden observes that as a distinct category of disease, epidemics “seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are.”

COVID-19 has held up a mirror not only to society, but also to the church. It has revealed elements of our practice, idols we have allowed to gain footholds, and nominal habits that had long since lost their spiritual life. 

As many look to the future with a mixture of fear, anxiety or even anger, our calling is to see the hand of God in advancing his mission. Though we don’t know the future, we definitely know who holds the future. 

Wise leaders will use this season to rest; reflect on what we have learned about ourselves, communities and society; and make plans accordingly. Whether due to the cultural convulsions, the changes in church habits or the loss of status as the social default religion, the calling on the church remains to be faithful in and through our time. 

For churches that commit to this calling of outreach and discipleship, there remains a harvest of spiritual fruit. My hope is that we take these disruptions as a wake-up call to return to the joy of sharing the good news of the gospel in 2023 and beyond.

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Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzerhttps://edstetzer.com/

Ed Stetzer is the editor-in-chief of Outreach magazine, host of the Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast, and a professor and dean at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Mariners Church in Irvine, California.

He is also regional director for Lausanne North America, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by and writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. He is the founding editor of The Gospel Project, and his national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.