In my previous column, I wrote about an online Time magazine editorial asserting that orthodox Christians are now exiles in America. Let’s push that line of thinking a bit farther and consider trends that are over the horizon (some closer than that!) and how we can respond in our preaching. Here they are in no particular order:
The Sidelining of the Mainliners: The historically honored “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism” (i.e., Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, American Baptists, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ), formerly a vibrant part of America’s cultural and religious landscape, have been trending downward for decades. This slide is snowballing. It is noteworthy that this is happening among more liberal denominations as they’ve in many cases attempted to adapt to the culture to stop their spiritual hemorrhaging. The lesson? The church needs to remember its call is not to accommodate the culture but to lead it—sometimes against its own natural tendencies.
The Continuing Rise of the Nones (religiously unaffiliated adults): America has entered a post-Christian era. Church attendance and membership rates are declining, and these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country. The result is a drop in noses and nickels. A decrease in attendance negatively impacts church income.
The Worldwide Expansion of Neo-Pentecostalism: The influence of this movement on the so-called worship wars in the past three decades is obvious, including among North American traditionalists. This is not the historic 1906 Azuza Street Revival. Today’s neo-Pentecostalism is more sophisticated with many leaders becoming increasingly studied academically, and some former activities of this group appear to have calmed. This, accompanied by a growing across-the-board interest in the theology and work of the Holy Spirit in non-Pentecostal churches, seems to indicate this movement is a long way from finished.
Ongoing Internal Denominational Conflicts Regarding Women and Declared Homosexuals in Leadership: These two issues have polarized many of America’s Protestant denominations. A full-scale civil war is underway among many groups, and there will continue to be fallout. These issues show no signs of going away.
A Dearth of New Leaders: As Millennials increasingly enter adulthood, their levels of connection with established churches are much lower than their predecessors. Fewer than 60 percent of Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with almost 80 percent of former generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Hence, there is an upcoming scarcity of church leadership.
Denominational Consolidation: Some Episcopalians recently formed a cooperative agreement with some Lutherans and Presbyterians. Certain Lutherans and Episcopalians have reached a level of accommodation with Roman Catholics, from whom they parted five centuries ago. Future unions will not be driven by theology or history but financial necessity. The question is: Can marrying once-proud but now not-so-healthy sisters produce vibrant offspring?
The Increasing Influence of Radical Islam on American Society: Radical Islam is, so far, the unrestrained brute of our time. One barbaric intention drives rampant religious terrorism in the Middle East; and in other places, worldwide domination in the name of Allah. Recent news reports from Europe have shown the primary targets of this movement of hatred and violence are moderate followers of Islam. However, make no mistake that Middle Eastern Jews and Christians are also in the crosshairs of this movement. Radical Islam’s leaders seem to believe the politically correct Western World has lost its appetite for war and therefore is caught in an almost universal gripping paralysis. The question is: Will U.S. Christians acquiesce or stand when the time to push back comes?
How shall we respond in our preaching to these trends and events? I begin with a two-part question: Do you know what you believe, and are you willing to die for your beliefs? Effective preachers of the next decade will be like Scripture’s men of Issachar who “kept up-to-date in their understanding of the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron. 12:32).
The preacher’s call is not to accommodate the culture but to lead it, often especially against its own natural tendencies. Times such as these call for committed and intelligent leaders who will not be caught off guard. So, preacher, stay in touch with what happens, always remembering, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever” (Isa. 40:8).
Leslie Holmes is the John H. Leith Professor of Theology and Ministry at Erskine Theological Seminary and Dean of Erskine’s Institute of Reformed Worship. You can reach him at LHolmes@Erskine.edu.